MOOCs Get ‘F’ in Delivering on Promise

It was two years ago that Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun drew 160,000 students from around the globe to his free online course on artificial intelligence, starting a conversation about the coming wave of free online education. But despite claims that free online courses would revolutionize education, the New York Times is reporting that initial results for large-scale courses are rather disappointing.

A study from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education of a million users of massive open online courses found that, on average, only about half of those who registered for a course ever viewed a lecture, and only about 4 percent completed it.

MOOC LogoOne of the bigger arguments for MOOCs has been the promise of what a free online education could mean for disadvantaged people worldwide. However, a University of Pennsylvania study found that 80 percent of those taking the university’s MOOCs already possessed a degree.

San Jose State University garnered attention with one of the most visible flops in the MOOC world. In January, California Governor Jerry Brown, San Jose State, and Udacity, a Silicon Valley company co-founded by Stanford artificial-intelligence professor Sebastian Thrun, announced a partnership that would offer three low-cost, online introductory courses for college credit. As part of the program, online mentors would work with students to complete the classes.

All of the pilot classes — which had about 100 students each — failed. According to the New York Times, the mentors didn’t help the process. Last spring, the online students, including many from a charter high school in Oakland, fared worse than students in campus classes. The paper also reported that less than a quarter of the students in the algebra class — and only 12 percent of the high school students — received a passing grade. The program was halted in July, and there is no word if it will continue.

MOOC Money or Education?

Despite the attention Thrun’s artificial-intelligence course received, he’s now become a lightning rod for criticism of the MOOC world. A profile in Fast Company magazine described him as moving away from college classes in favor of vocational training, in partnership with corporations that would pay a fee. The educational community saw the move as a major defeat for MOOCs and confirmation that Udacity, a venture capital-backed company, was more about the money than educating disadvantaged students.

The magazine article also reported Thrun as saying the Udacity MOOCs were “a lousy product” and “not a good fit” for disadvantaged students. But Thrun contended that he had never concluded that. “I care about education for everyone, not just the elite,” he said in an interview. “We want to bring high-quality education to everyone, and set up everyone for success. My commitment is unchanged.”

Thrun is now working with San Jose State to revamp the software, to give students more time to work through courses. “To all those people who declared our experiment a failure, you have to understand how innovation works,” he wrote on his blog. “Few ideas work on the first try. Iteration is key to innovation. We are seeing significant improvement in learning outcomes and student engagement.”

Siemens told the New York Times that MOOCs are merely “moving from the hype to the implementation stage. Now that we have the technology to teach 100,000 students online, the next challenge will be scaling creativity, and finding a way that even in a class of 100,000, adaptive learning can give each student a personal experience.”

Modified MOOCs

Despite its earlier high-profiled MOOC flop, San Jose State is getting positive results using videos from edX, a nonprofit MOOC venture, to supplement classroom time. edX is also producing videos to use in high school Advanced Placement classes.

Meanwhile, Coursera, the nation’s largest MOOC company, is experimenting with using a facilitator in small discussion classes at some U.S. consulate offices. It marks another move to supplement online learning with an in-class experience.

7 Responses to “MOOCs Get ‘F’ in Delivering on Promise”

  1. MOOC is a wonderful model and I have taken many of their courses. My friends and I love the courses offered on their sites. We would like to support them and congratulate them for the good work. Conversely, haters must learn to get life.

  2. I’m sorry but there is NO comparison between attending classes and “online” learning. Books are great to write in, and taking notes and hearing a lecture is FAR superior to “online” learning.

    Maybe that’s why companies are all looking down on people with “online” degrees… it’s for a reason.

    They are great if you can’t get away, but to base your whole education on “online” classes? Well, that’s not much of an education. I guess if it’s free then it’s all good. You get what you pay for.

    • Dan Young

      I am a disabled veteran and have attended several Universities in my life. I am hearing impaired and rated 100% disabled by the V.A.. I have an engineering background, and property management experience, although I am in my sixties. I earned a business degree in 2012 after two years of online education from the University of Everest. I can’t say that the school’s administrative and financial departments are very caring or even good at their jobs, bur I did very well earning an honor roll placement in the class. I could see that those dedicated actually tried, but those that took the class for the free money to educate them was very abused. I also saw that dozens of team assignments were evaded by the majority, and I headed up the teams all but two times in two years of study. These onlie courses were a life saver for me, as I can’t hear the instructors or the class mates behind me during question and answers, or discussions. I feel that you are biased with your more advanced education, but I also feel that I learned a great deal by having the availability of the online courses. You may find that the under achievers are abusing the system and rightly so, but some of us are doing what we have to to succeed, and it works. My biggest problem is getting a job at sixty, and who’s fault is that? Maybe your article could cover something that can be useful instead of trashing what is a career saver for some of us disabled people. That probably wouldn’t sell your article would it? Thanks for nothing and why don’t you try to put yourself up against some disabled individuals and see if you are as in the running as some of us? Good luck on your attitude toward those who are really putting in the effort.

  3. I too have taken several courses and have found them very useful. Now it is true that someone else may not have the same level of success. Nevertheless, I think whether we loved them or not online courses are here to stay.
    Online schools have been around for years and I think some have been successful at providing a service to individuals who cannot attend a brick-and-mortar school. I recently took an online course and I was impressed by the credentials of some of the students in the class. One student in particular was an Army Warrant Officer who worked in IT Security and had a laundry list of certifications. I had the opportunity to read her term paper and the quality of work reflected her credentials. Besides working with professionals, I also found the course material to be quite useful and relevant for today’s business needs.
    Now, I think MOOCs are the response of this online phenomenon and both venture capitalists and traditional schools want desperately to be part of. Udacity is one venture that is trying to capitalize by providing free courses and once the demand is there change the business model to provide profits. Also edX has heavyweight backers such as Harvard and MIT and I will take a guess that their experiment of free courses is to size-up the demand and then move the successful courses to the portfolio of revenue-driven classes. Thus, I cannot imagine the venture capitalists contributing without some kind of return. Also, these mega schools and their endowments would suffer if they were to provide free online accredited courses.
    I think as advances in technology continues, these MOOCs and online schools will continue to come up with innovative ideas and tools and ultimately some of these online courses will part of a traditional-school curricula.

  4. MOOCs needs innovation and acceptance for it to me main stream. It is just a question of time. Most parents with money still want to buy a big university name for kids. It is the disadvantaged kids or the ones seeking knowledge who are currently benefitting. Just give it a few more years…

  5. I have not experienced MOOC, but have taken quite a few online classes and really think of them as more difficult in general than a typical classroom. At least for all of mine the homework is far more intense, the grading is far more critical and the education is still very good, lectures are pretty much the same or better than in classroom. As with most things you get out of it what you put into it. If you can’t attend the live chats, then at least you can attend a rerun of the live chat and if you forget something or miss it in a lecture you can go back and listen again to pick up what you have missed. Having been a teacher myself, I would find it more difficult to teach an online class; however, I do believe it fills a gap for those that work as myself while trying to go to school as well. I currently work 40 hours a week and school 60 hours a week via an online university. Maybe the free education is not as good as the paid education that I am taking, but I have to say that the online courses that I have taken have been very good.

  6. I have taken several Coursera courses, all in mathematical / quantitative subjects and found them to be extremely beneficial for my purposes. (Those emanating from Stanford were especially well-done.) The high dropout rate, at least for these courses, may be due to the difficulty of the subject matter. Remember, no one is checking the students’ prerequisites.

    Also, I read the original EDGE article and it’s negative findings were in reference to something called “Social Learning”. The researchers measured, among other variables, the number of individual posts and threads over time and found that they decreased rapidly. So what?

    Coursera has allowed me to view lectures by distinguished professors to which I otherwise would not have had access. For those of us who truly are continuous learners, and are willing to put in some hard work, MOOC courses offered by Coursera and others are a Godsend.