11/21/2013 11:17 am ET | Updated Jan 25, 2014

Don't Give Up on MOOCs

Sebastian Thrun's mid-course correction of Udacity, as chronicled at length in last week's Fast Company profile by Max Chafkin, has stirred consternation among some of our most thoughtful education bloggers (e.g, hackeducation; hapgood; nogoodreason; allmoocs; Slate; among others), that the champion of the MOOC as a technology disrupter of higher education should "pivot" to a focus on corporate-sponsored job training. Audrey Watters and Rebecca Schuman argued, for example, that Thrun's "pivot" will "still probably have large attrition rates, but that attrition rate does not actually seem to bother its creator."

Like Thrun, I, too, am an entrepreneur and CEO in the MOOC arena, a wounded education disruptor with a missionary-zeal. And while I share the bloggers' disappointment to some extent, I continue to be a fan of Thrun's bold and inspiring vision for MOOCs and their role in benefiting society. His search (and mine) for the technology that could change the way we do education is right-on -- and for all the right reasons: to improve the teaching/learning process and offer it massively to thousands and even millions of learners at a time (because we can and should); to make high-quality, Stanford-style or MIT-style education more affordable and thus accessible to close opportunity gaps in schools, colleges, civil society, and careers; to offer effective courses to fast-track the development of the STEM and computing scholars and professionals urgently needed for the global innovation economy.

Lack of Engagement?

When his first attempt at courses suffered from through-the-roof dropout and failure rates, Thrun correctly identified the underlying cause as "lack of engagement" on the part of his course-takers. His fix, however, was to improve his videotaped lecture performances, and when that didn't slow the dropout rate, Thrun's response was to throw out the idea of a MOOC altogether -- bathwater and baby both.

Is Fixing the Instructional Video Enough?

As mid-course corrections go, I think that takes us in the wrong direction. For I don't think the MOOC concept itself is at fault, just his particular realization of it. That Thrun's quick fix didn't work to prevent dropouts doesn't mean that his analysis of the problem (as reflected in Chafkin's article) was wrong. Lack of engagement and keeping students motivated to complete tasks and courses are indeed the issue, and it has more to do with his specific implementations of the "online" and "open" aspects of the MOOC, and with how each course is presented, delivered, and supported online, rather than with the "massive" attribute. That is, more issues with his insufficient OOC than his ambitious M. That is because what always counts when people learn -- anything -- is the actual learning experience. Learning experiences sustained by students are usually supported by a complex range of elements -- technological, human, cognitive, contextual and social.

Transformation or Displacement?

Moreover, Thrun's first version of Udacity -- partly, I think, in the zeal to make the technology serve its major aim of disruption -- tried to displace the existing educational infrastructure root and branch too fast. That was probably the wrong objective for 2011-13. Unfortunately, no tech innovation in education has so far succeeded in totally disrupting it. The appearance of mass-printed books was profoundly transformative to education, but did not close down universities. Putting textbooks on iPads will not change the school system much. Instructional television, filmed lectures, Khan Academy tutorials augment classroom instruction, but have not eliminated classrooms. I saw many teachers who use Khan tutorials developing school-ish worksheets for it (!).

As the newest digital paths to learning and teaching nationally and globally, MOOCs should perhaps aim to better supplement the current model with blended learning possibilities to cultivate engagement in learning and course completion among all kinds of users (this is also good for the "drop-in" customers, these non-formal learners who take MOOC courses like reading books or attending lectures at a local YMCA).

Lack of Learning Theory?

Improving engagement is usually driven by a particular learning theory. The lack of one is what primarily undermined Thrun's initial realization of Udacity. We know a great deal today about cognition and about how learning works best with and without technology. When Udacity's courses didn't engage most course-takers, Thrun needed to address the question of what students require to make technology-based learning succeed, not simply perfect what he had already tried -- his taped instructional lecture. In my view as a learning scientist, what engages MOOC students is a healthy blend of constructionism and learning-by-doing at the core of each course, with instructionist, front-of-the-classroom/studio lectures or tutorials-on-demand, plus coaches and mentors for supplementing any project-based learner as he/she needs, Socratic style.

A Working Model for Now, With a Brighter Future

There's a living model for this, and we've been implementing it in schools around the country for some six years with game-changing success. It's Globaloria, a constructionism-driven project-based MOOC, in which students (younger and more diverse than Thrun's) learn-by-doing STEM and computing innovation (similar content to Thrun's). Globaloria's suite of courses is designed for K-12 students, and is teaching them how to design, prototype and code educational games, apps, and simulations using industry standard tools and practices. To date it reached eight states, some 10,800 students and teachers who had access to all courses and resources they need via a shared platform -- an economy of scale -- of tools, tutorials, digital textbooks and workbooks, an online help center with virtual coaching and live expert help on demand, training and mentoring for educators, data-driven learning management system (LMS) with dashboards for tracking progress for both students and teachers, and more... Most of these Globaloria students in the past six years are from technologically under-resourced communities, a population Thrun has assessed as "not a good fit" for technology-based education; but we and they have proven him wrong. We see children who have never touched a computer thrive, become engaged, and learn both essential computing and innovation skills and mandated subject matter through our blended-learning project-based MOOC model. Click here to see how:
(Credit: This video was produced by Advocate Creative for The Tech Museum of Innovation, for their 2013 Tech Awards, where Globaloria was a Laureate in the Education Category).

Good MOOCs offer Good Learning Management Systems

Another important lesson Globaloria has taught us about engaging learning experience is that good MOOCs offer good Learning Management Systems. Collecting large amounts of data for processing students' projects' progress and creating reports on-the-fly about how learners approach and complete tasks and tutorials is a particularly promising practice. Our LMS show both students and teachers data on their progress at a glance, so everyone can see how everyone is doing (students-to-teachers and peer-to-peer). In principle, MOOCs are driving the development toward these better LMSs. They are changing not only the way teachers approach teaching, but also the learning habits of learners, simply by making everyone's learning process more transparent and meaningful--and therefore a driving force for pacing progress and course completion.

Affordable, Not Free

We must affirm that such high-quality wrap-around services cost money, which is why I think it is important for Udacity to charge for its courses -- not just to increase student motivation (the reason Thrun gives for his new fee-based approach), but rather because developing high-quality courses and wrapping them with scalable Socratic coaching, live expert-on-demand mentoring, and LMS data services -- is expensive. It should be: It is valuable. Learning to scale these services is key for the future.

Expert resources and wraparound services as cloud hosting, maintenance and upgrading, course development, training, and mentoring are shared among thousands -- soon millions -- for economies of scale. This means we can run the same courses at the same time on the same platform for as many students as can log on.

In sum: a shared platform of resources for economies of scale, project-based learning-by-doing that engages learners totally, teamwork and collaboration in an in-classroom curriculum -- the same course at the same time for as many students as can log on. Why couldn't such a model's core elements translate into engaged learning at any level and breathe fresh life into Thrun's visionary MOOC concept, supplementing or complementing lectures and other passive instructional elements? Maybe Mr. Thrun should think about investing next in this project-based, blended-learning MOOC model that is ready to scale up right now into that new construct of education he so brilliantly envisaged for Udacity. I believe.