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MOOC Fever Breaks


After a year of steady advances, the MOOC train hit some obstacles this summer. The problems started in California, where San Jose State’s pioneering for-credit MOOC partnership with Udacity was put on hold after more than half of the students who took the first set of courses failed their final exams. Among traditional universities, San Jose State had been on the cutting-edge of MOOC experimentation. Such a high-profile failure could certainly temper the enthusiasm of other schools looking to get involved.

And this isn’t the only setback. A recent article Chronicle of Higher Education looks at how legislative efforts to increase the penetration of for-credit MOOCs have stalled across the country as universities build up in-house online courses of their own. It also questions whether MOOCs will be the disruptive force that many claim, or whether they will simply be co-opted by the current university system, which still retains control over the granting of credits and is generally hostile to low-cost MOOCs.

The most thoughtful critique of MOOC-mania we’ve seen comes from Reihan Salam, who argues that they will have considerably more difficulty delivering cheaper education to students than most backers think. The problem, essentially, is that the students on the margins who have the most to gain from cheap, accessible education are not the sort of driven self-starters who perform the best in the relatively unstructured MOOC environment:

True MOOCs that make almost no use of faculty labor will be very cheap to deliver, but one can easily imagine that they will be plagued by an attrition rate at least as high as what we see in today’s for-profit colleges. Blended online courses that stream lectures while also making use of face-to-face teaching assistants might have a success rate closer to land grant public institutions, where interaction with senior faculty is limited but there is a human support system for students. It should go without saying that the latter are going to be much more expensive than the former.

One way of thinking about higher education, and education more broadly, is that once you get past the students who are the most prepared and most eager to learn, you have to apply increasing amounts of both help and hassle. That is, you need to offer personal attention and tutoring as well as discipline and structure, all of which are labor-intensive in the extreme. The irony, of course, is that the students who need help and hassle the least, like the super-well-prepared and super-eager undergraduates at schools like Stanford, tend to get the most personal attention and structure. The students who need help and hassle the most, like ill-prepared community college students who are not entirely sure that an associate’s degree is worth much in the way of time and effort, tend to get the least personal attention and structure. To some extent this is simply a numbers game: trained professionals are scarce and expensive, and the number of students who haven’t been well-served by their families and by their K-12 schools is depressingly large.

Salam’s points are well taken and the piece deserves a full read. We would note, however, that while MOOCs may indeed have trouble catering to students who are more difficult to educate, this problem isn’t unique to online courses. As Salam points out, a number of marginal students are already studying at for-profit schools or community colleges with relatively little structure or handholding, and dropout rates are correspondingly high. If MOOCs can deliver a similar level of education at a fraction of the cost, this still amounts to a significant improvement—even if completion rates remain low.

Update: Just to be clear, we’re still quite bullish on the transformative potential of the MOOC. This is uncharted territory for education, and there are bound to be missteps and teething pains along the way.

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  • foobarista

    One other element in the “smart kid getting lots of attention”: simple human emotions. Who would you rather interact with: an academic all-star who is eager to learn and whose face lights up with gratitude as they learn something new, or a struggling urban kid who alternates between giving you attitude and grudgingly doing what you and they know needs to be done? The latter needs help far more than the former, but is far less pleasant to be around.

    I saw this in my own rather urban high school growing up: guidance counselors loved the smart, pleasant kids from good families, and went out of their way to help them. The kids “on the bubble” were left to sink or swim.

  • Hubbub

    “If MOOCs can deliver a similar level of education at a fraction of the cost…”

    Don’t hold your breath on this happening. We will probably get less or the same amount of service for the same or greater amount of money. Don’t count on ‘on-line’ anything costing less by the time the dust settles.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    It seems to me that a certain amount of regimentation is going to be necessary. In school you have to go to classes, so a daily requirement of say 2-15 min periods of study might be required, as part of the grade. This would force frequent review of the material. Requirements for homework, quizzes, and tests should also all be part of the grade, and heavy review work before the final, should be part of the curriculum. Charge people a small fee for the class, but boot them out of the class if they fail to perform the requirements. By demanding frequent participation, and forcing booties to pony up again and start over, students could adjust to online learning.

    I think a study of those who failed, will show that they burned through the material in big gulps, instead of the frequent tiny sips that force the mind to recall previous material which implants that material into long term memory. It is the act of recalling something from short term memory, which sets it into long term memory.

  • ljgude

    Seen through an Australian lens MOOCs are just distance education which we have been doing here since the 20s with the School of the Air which delivered a hybrid of what we now call home schooling and teacher contact via shortwave radio to individual children and their parents. The parent playing the role of the teaching assistant in your example from land grant colleges above. More recently I did some research on distance education in Australia in the 90s where the difficult problem of delivering education to remote Aboriginal communities was greatly enhanced by hiring a community member for the teaching assistant role while the teacher remained in their regular urban setting and only visited the community once during the semester. The key here was bridging the cultural gap by having the teaching assistant deal with the realities of remote community life while making sure everyone had the right class information and things ran smoothly. The actual live teacher student interaction was through a high quality conference phone in the remote classroom once or more a week. Printed workbooks and exams were assessed by light pen which automated a lot of the teachers workload. It worked. The results were as good as on campus courses and the cost per credit hour were also the same. My point – some of the teething problems with MOOCS were solved 20 years ago in Australia and a lot of the possibilities for using computers to change education are being done right now in the third world. Check out Alex Lindsay and the Rwanda project. That entire country is skipping over the industrial age and going direct to digital education. Whammo!

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