Whatever happened to the promise of Massive Open Online Classes (also known as MOOCs)? Not so long ago, MOOCs seemed on the verge of offering education to pretty much everyone with a Web connection. Accredited online schools strove to prove that people could learn valuable information on their own time, at their own pace.
MOOCs offer distance-learning curricula without the tuition, face-to-face interaction with instructors, grades, or certifications. Although they’re missing the trappings of a traditional education, the materials and recorded lectures (at least in theory) give students the chance to radically extend their knowledge base, whether in liberal arts or STEM topics.
First introduced in 2008, MOOCs received a significant boost in 2012, when computer-science professors at Stanford University launched Coursera; that was soon followed by Udacity (also from Stanford) and edX, the non-profit amalgam of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
While that initial buzz has faded, MOOCs still attract students interested in gaining knowledge on a flexible timetable. “I want to take it because it’s relatively cheap, can be done on my own schedule, and claims to have extremely high level experts, so it seems like a good education,” said Daniel Zweier, an editor at Backpackers.com who is enrolling in a Web-development course on Udacity.
But participation and completion rates for MOOCs are in the low single digits. For example, two years ago, the University of Pennsylvania reported that only four percent of students who began a MOOC actually completed it. Why the low numbers?
Some critics blame the lack of a support system; with thousands of people sampling classes, there’s simply no way to offer the sort of personalized feedback available in a classroom.
Perhaps in response to those criticisms, some schools have begun engaging their MOOC students more, usually through channels such as Facebook. “One MOOC I can point to that seems to be achieving this very well is Introduction to Computer Science (CS50) on EdX,” said Mark Anderson, an educational developer and learning technologist in the United Kingdom. “This Harvard program has developed a phenomenal organic peer support system in its associated Facebook group. If a learner has a problem with one of the concepts or assessed tasks, he or she can post a question to the group and will quickly get high-quality responses from more advanced peers.”
Valerie Bock, who manages a social-learning consultancy that specializes in e-lessons, went through a similar experience to Anderson’s at MIT’s Intro to Computer Science course.
“It was well-staffed with people who paid close attention to the discussion sections,” she said, “and who scurried to publish additional learning aids when it was clear that a good number of people were struggling. But there was also a lot of peer help.”
Because MOOCS originate from universities, students may approach them like a traditional classroom experience. Changing that mindset “is not easy to accomplish as long as we cling to the traditional paradigm of knowledge transmission from ‘one expert to many learners,’” Anderson said. “It’s amazing how much participants can learn from each other if an environment more akin to a ‘community of practice’ is nurtured.”
In theory, that means encouraging communication and community between MOOC students, giving everybody an increased stake in learning the information at land.
Bock found another benefit of helping other students, especially in coding classes. “Given the open-source culture, there’s a clear sense that being known as helpful could possibly be career enhancing.” In other words, helpful MOOC students are both learning and networking; this is important, as it’s clear most institutions don’t have the resources to reach out to everyone perusing the materials.
The promise of MOOCs is still alive; but to gain useful knowledge, students must understand that they’re participating in a new learning model.