It’s not surprising that Stanford University, known around the world for incubating tech-oriented solutions to contemporary problems, aggressively pursued massively open online courses (MOOCs) at the height of the tech’s popularity three years ago. But now Stanford’s MOOC czars say that existing online education systems, while promising and sometimes useful, aren’t all they’re been cracked up to be—at least not yet. In a new Inside Higher Education essay, the directors of Stanford’s Lytics Lab for educational data science summarize the lessons they claimed to have learned from Stanford’s early efforts to offer online education to millions of people around the globe:
First, MOOCs are not college courses. They are a new instructional genre — somewhere between a digital textbook and a successful college course. […]Second, MOOCs are no panacea for educational inequality. Ample research now makes clear that the preponderance of MOOC users worldwide are college-educated men in highly industrialized countries. MOOCs have not provided a remedy for deep-rooted disparities in access to knowledge. […]Third, simply transferring lectures online will not provide effective learning on a massive scale… Successful online resources have been developed and rigorously evaluated, but they require careful learning design and engineering to engage students in meaningful activity.
Despite these setbacks, the authors believe the MOOC experiment has been a productive stepping stone on the way to more effective education models supplemented by online learning:
MOOCs have raised awareness about how online learning technology might be used to support the science of learning. Every keystroke people make when they interact with an online instructional offering leaves a data trace that can be gleaned to support learning research. Research with MOOC data has enabled us to see where people get discouraged in difficult lessons and how they can be encouraged to persevere.As educators design more complex online tasks that scaffold and reveal learners’ thought processes, and analyze the data generated by learner interactions, we will probably improve the effectiveness of online learning and advance science generally.
We remain bullish on online education initiatives in general. The existing student-university-government triangle that comprises the American higher education system is dysfunctional, unaffordable, and sure to face dramatic changes in the coming years (either gradually, if reforms are phased in, or swiftly, if it ends up buckling under the weight of the collapsing student loan bubble). And MOOCs, like any other major innovation, are bound to have hiccups as they mature.In addition, MOOCs will be part of a bigger solution to America’s higher ed troubles, not the entire solution themselves. The internet will occupy an important place in the educational landscape of the next generation, but getting there (and no one quite knows what “there” actually looks like yet) will require more than Silicon Valley innovation alone. It will also require old-fashioned political reform—that is, changes in policies and regulations that will put more market pressure on the higher education industry, push out underperforming institutions, and create room for new ideas about how to make education accessible in the twenty-first century.