Beyond the Hype: Have MOOCs Missed The Mark?

moocWe’ve all heard the hype- MOOCs are “the single most important experiment in higher education” and are going to “revolutionize higher education”. We now know the story is more complicated than that. MOOCs are plagued with low completion rates and little evidence that they help the neediest, underserved populations they were supposed to most benefit.

Let’s call a spade a spade and admit what MOOCs are good for (continuing education for those who already have degrees and are interested in the material for various reasons) and what they are not good for (credit-bearing education that is part of a degree program). Indeed, even Udacity’s co-founder and CEO Sebastian Thrun concedes “We don’t educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product.” There may be different MOOC business models that develop over time, but this is where things stand today in the higher education market.

Missing The Mark

How have MOOCs missed the mark? How have they gone from educational panacea to a curiosity? One important factor is that MOOCs have dismally low completion rates. For example, in a College Algebra MOOC conducted as part of a high profile partnership between Udacity and San Jose State University, 25 percent of students passed with a C or better (thus getting SJSU credit), compared with 64.7 percent on-campus pass rate.

When looking at MOOCs more broadly, one study gathered publicly reported data from 29 MOOCs and found an average completion rate of 6.8 percent (with range of 0.8 percent to 19.2 percent in the different courses). Another study by the University of Pennsylvania looked at 16 of their MOOCs and found course completion rates averaging 4 percent (with a range of 2 percent-14 percent). In general, higher completion rates were found in courses that only utilized automatically graded assessments without requiring peer assessment, had a lower workload, and fewer homework assignments.

Another challenge to the idealistic notion that MOOCs draw students without other access to education lies in the statistics on who is actually enrolling in the classes. A study by Christensen et al. examined 32 MOOCs offered by the University of Pennsylvania and reported that “83.0 percent of students have a post-secondary degree (2 or 4 years), 79.4 percent of students have a Bachelor’s degree or higher and 44.2 percent report education beyond a Bachelor’s degree.” (Christensen et al., 2013: 4). A public speaking MOOC provided similar numbers, as “70 percent of the participants already held college degrees, with around 50 percent having advanced or professional degrees.”


The Good Stuff

While we’ve seen that MOOCs are not the educational panacea that they were hyped to be, they do provide some benefit in the educational arena- primarily in the realm of continuing education, and as educational outreach that has potential to reach wider audiences than are possible with traditional courses. When looking at the reasons students give for taking MOOCs, the most common reasons cited in the study of 32 University of Pennsylvania MOOCs include: “curiosity, just for fun” (50%), and “gain specific skills to do my job better” (43.9%). Interestingly, in a more recent Udacity/San Jose State University pilot where students could have gotten college credit for the course, the primary motivations for taking the course were not to get credit, but instead were “love of learning” (33%) and “I am interested in advancing my career through these courses” (26%). This shows the benefits of MOOCs as continuing education tools. And this is also echoed in this recent post from a member of the Pearson Student Advisory Board.

A first-hand account of a public speaking MOOC provides this relevant commentary:

“The story of my MOOC wasn’t one of currently enrolled U.S.students turning to the online course to augment or replace college classes, but mid-career professionals from around the world looking to sharpen their intellectual and oratorical skills. … Were this a campus course, I would wring my hands about dropout rates and low participation. But viewed as an educational broadcast, the course was a success. People came to the material as they needed and wanted.”

Additionally, MOOCs allow universities to widen their public outreach and disseminate knowledge to those they wouldn’t normally reach.

“MOOCs are just the latest incarnation of bringing watered-down versions of culture, knowledge, and learning to a mass audience. What we see as the courses’ flaws may well be their strengths, and they have the potential to carry those strengths to a broader audience than ever before. Problems arise only when we think of MOOCs as university courses rather than as learning for the masses.” (Source)

All in all, MOOCs have not been the disruption to the higher educational market that they were initially hyped to be. While they may hold promise for continuing education and educational outreach, the initial MOOC model appears to have limited potential for credit-bearing courses as part of degree programs. As new models emerge (such as the Georgia Tech and Udacity program), they appear to be converging more and more with traditional online courses. That is, they reduce the Massive and Open components to become less MOOCs, and more OCs: Online Courses.

Despite popular culture’s conflation of MOOCs and traditional online courses- they are different. The reduced importance of MOOCs on the current higher education landscape does not correlate with weakness in traditional online courses. And indeed, traditional online education is growing, flourishing, and becoming increasingly essential in institutional strategic plans (see the 2012 Babson Research Survey of Online Learning).

Let’s call a spade a spade and admit that, in their current shape, MOOCs are good for some things and not others. And let’s not forget the potential and importance of traditional online courses just because MOOCs didn’t live up to their hype.


Authored by: Dr. Gail Krovitz, Director of Academic Solutions Development, Pearson

1 Comment

  1. Muvaffak GOZAYDIN

    February 4, 2014 at 10:45 am

    Sorry. Do not mix up MOOCs and EDX .
    EDX is a revolution and will replace the traditional HE soon. But they are too much concern about existing schools and teachers .Therefore still they do not award degrees.

    When they award degrees 5 million students will follow EDX in 5 years and 10 million in 10 years. Then 4,000 college will be closed, 2 million teachers will be jobless.
    It is a real disrupting. They do not want that. Therefore they go slowly .
    Knowledge quality of edx is the best in the World.200-300 proven experience .
    Online technology also, they have the best in the World .
    The cost is small, therefore they will charge a small fee too .
    Last Word. THEY ARE NON PROFIT .

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