By Peter Sacks
The ongoing hype over MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) parallels the cold fusion debacle of 1989. The technology sounded like a panacea, a cheap and endless source of energy. Then it flopped. Another great notion down the drain.
Similarly, educational entrepreneurs once believed that massive online courses would revolutionize higher education. MOOC providers, partnering with some of the nation's best universities, such as Stanford, Harvard and MIT, would offer free or cheap online lectures and courses taught by the nation's most talented college professors. Subsequently, virtually anybody with a computer and an internet connection could receive a first-rate education.
A widely discussed University of Pennsylvania study of MOOCs, however, dampened those hopes. Analyzing some 1 million users of 16 courses Penn offered via the MOOC provider Coursera, researchers found that an average of just 4 percent of MOOC users actually completed the courses. The completion rate ranged from 2 percent to 14 percent, depending on the type of course, the intended audience, and so on. "Emerging data.... show that massive open online courses (MOOCs) have relatively few active users, that user "engagement" falls off dramatically--especially after the first 1-2 weeks of a course--and that few users persist to the course end," the study said.
This is not good news for the great MOOC hope. Indeed, the innovation offered by MOOCs is meaningless if their providers cannot concretely how they will address the biggest problems higher education faces today, including ever-growing institutional costs, administrative inefficiency, rising student debt, and limited access for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
The last problem is of particular concern. The gaps between wealthy, elite universities and lower-tiered institutions has led to even greater stratification. One consequence of this trend is a growing concentration of knowledge and innovation among the "cognitive elite" trained at top-tiered institutions. Meanwhile, low-ranked institutions have been designated as the gates of opportunity for lower-income and first generation students, without benefiting from sufficient resources to actually do that job well. The result has been a growing concentration of poor quality and mediocrity at the bottom.
Unfortunately, much of the hype over MOOCs as a seductive, come-hither innovation was fueled by the media's fascination with, and overemphasis on, elite universities and star professors. But most of the online learning world has nothing to do with MOOCs. With or without MOOCs, online learning has become an essential part of higher education instruction over the past 15 years, either as complete courses or supplements to existing face-to-face courses.
In contrast to the Penn study's grim findings, hundreds of "micro" level online offerings at all types of institutions have actually enhanced students' engagement and persistence. For example, the National Survey of Student Engagement -- the annual go-to source for trends in student engagement and institutional effectiveness in higher education -- has identified several key "learning strategies" that lead to more engaged students. These include the seemingly simple and obvious, such as taking notes when reading, summarizing and organizing new information, and creating a study friendly environment. In other words, students who are taught to use these methods become active learners, who also teach themselves to learn. As opposed to passive learning, in which students expect professors to hand feed them information only to be regurgitated later, active learning leads to better-prepared students and more satisfying educational experiences.
Contrary to popular belief, online learning appears to enhance active learning even more than in most traditional settings. Scores of yeoman-like online courses, geared toward matriculating students at colleges and universities of all shapes and sizes, have proven to be surprisingly effective.
For first-year students whose entire workload is online, fully 80 percent said they had ongoing opportunities to summarize what they've learned while taking the course. Just 63 percent of first-years taking no online classes were encouraged to summarize their learning milestones along the way.
What's more, compared to taking traditional courses, online learning promotes greater engagement in learning by college seniors. Compared to 62 percent of seniors taking all traditional courses who summarized their notes after class, fully 73 percent of seniors enrolled only in online classes did so. Another key outcome in college work is the ability to identify the most important aspects of a given reading assignment. Some 92 percent of seniors taking all courses online had learned this skill -- almost 10 percentage points higher than students having no online courses.
So it's not the technology of online learning via MOOCs that's the problem. The technology appears to be sound -- and in some aspects even superior. The issue is how MOOCs have been deployed in higher education. Without being rationally integrated into the existing higher education system, MOOCs will continue to founder.
As matters stand, MOOCs come in all shapes, sizes and types geared to a huge variety of users. In the Penn study, for instance, researchers classified MOOCs in terms of their apparent target audience. The largest number of MOOCs was "enrichment" courses that anyone might take for the pure pleasure of learning. These had titles such as "Growing Old Around the Globe," "Listening to World Music," and "Greek and Roman Mythology." MOOC's aimed at learners in specific occupations were the next largest category, with offerings such as "Introduction to Operations Management" and "Fundamentals of Pharmacology." At the bottom of the list in terms of the number of courses were those geared toward college students, such as Principles of Microeconomics and Calculus.
In other words, the MOOC landscape is a hodgepodge. MOOC providers have built it, and "they" are showing up, intrigued by the novelty and the unusual opportunity to learn from prominent professors at top schools. But, students aren't hanging around long enough to get any lasting benefit from the courses. And the reason they aren't hanging around is that the lion's share of MOOC students doesn't have enough skin in the game. For example, according to the Penn study, the most common demographic group enrolled in MOOCs were well-educated "wealthy" males from the United States, whose participation in a given course declined rapidly after just a few weeks.
Making MOOCs Work
For MOOCs to work, a couple of things need to happen. First, MOOC providers must figure out how they can package their products for credential-granting institutions. In turn, a given institution must determine how, where -- and if -- MOOCs fit into an institution's general competitive advantage. That will depend on the nature of the institution. A top-tiered research institution employing renowned faculty of its own would probably have no place for MOOCs. In fact, such institutions are the very ones exporting their products to institutions on lower tiers of the higher education hierarchy.
On the other hand, a public community college system, confronted with limited capacity and resources to meet student demand for key courses, might determine that a few strategically placed MOOCs would make economic sense if the price is right. In the future, educational offerings at colleges and universities are going to look like a wheel, with MOOCs being only one spoke. The instructional wheel will look very different from institution to institution.
The notion that MOOC providers must "package" their products for specific types of institutions was surely not the initial inspiration for MOOCs. Their founders envisioned MOOCs as a high-quality, low-cost alternative to formal degree programs, available globally to any learner with a computer and Internet connection.
But for MOOCs to be more than entertainment for mostly affluent, well-educated hobbyists, they will also require a more direct and trustworthy connection to the employment market. For that to happen, the job market would need to change in ways analogous to how military strategy has been revolutionized in recent years, shedding the vestiges of slow and massive deployments, replaced by smaller, faster and highly targeted ones.
Instead of burdensome and time-consuming recruitment of individuals with degrees and credentials obtained through institutions, some employers might find that, in some instances, they can quickly hire MOOC-trained individuals as short-term experts for specific high-level tasks and projects. This would require a dependable credentialing system that employers have designed individually or perhaps collectively.
The matching system between employers and workers needs to allow for less costly production of new, highly skilled workers. This suggests a hiring system less focused on degrees and credentials and more focused on individual knowledge, talents and creativity. In other words, MOOCs might have an important role in a true meritocracy, in which motivated individuals can learn to become experts for particular tasks and be recognized for their excellence in the employment market.
The market will eventually sort out these things out. Despite mediocre results so far, it's highly likely that MOOCs will succeed on some level and will claim an important piece of territory in higher education. But MOOCs will never be the be-and-end all of higher education, or a panacea that will solve its many problems, despite the waxing and waning media hype. Realizing this is the first step to making MOOCs work.
Peter Sacks is an author, economist, essayist and social critic. His most recent book is Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education.