MOOCs – hype, help, or hindrance

For better or worse MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) tend to produce strong opinions in people. From those who see MOOCs as the future of education, to those who see them as spelling doom for universities, there has been no shortage of digital ink spilled on the topic. And while MOOCs have never disappeared entirely from conversations about the future of education, it seemed like the focus on this particular buzzword has slowed in recent months.

However, a recent announcement by Sebastian Thrun, CEO and Co-founder of Udacity, that his company had “a lousy product” has rekindled the inferno of debates surrounding MOOCs. Udacity was launched in 2011 with a goal of bringing MOOCs into the mainstream. Thrun was quick to make bombastic claims about the Udacity brand of MOOCs with statements like, “we have found the magic combination for online learning.” With venture capital investments in the tens of millions and projections to enrol 500 million active students, Udacity was posed to do for MOOCs what iTunes did for online music.

So how did a “magic combination” become a “lousy product?” Like the decline of any large project, there is no simple answer. Some point to San Jose State University’s high-profile decision to “pause” their partnership with Udacity. After being disappointed by their students’ results in co-developed Udacity courses, San Jose State made a fairly public split with the company. Others point to the low completion rates for MOOCs, with studies suggesting completion rates as low as 6.8%. Others still point to the homogenous make up of MOOC students, with enrolment in certain MOOCs being as high as 89% male.

Whatever the reason, it’s clear from Udacity’s new direction that something isn’t working for the company. This leads me to ask the question, is the failure of Udacity a problem with the company, or a problem with MOOCs themselves?

Yesterday Dave Cormier, the inventor of the term MOOC, gave a talk at the 2013 Canada’s History Forum about MOOCs and the future of education. Given the rather dour MOOC news in the previous week I was surprised by how positive Cormier was about the future of MOOCs.

When I raised the point on twitter that MOOCs tend to have a rather low completion rate, Cormier answered as follows:

Now I want to make something clear, I am not opposed to MOOCs. Last year I started, but did not complete, Udacity’s CS101 course. For the most part I really enjoyed the course. In particular I thought having the ability to pause, rewind, and fast-forward lectures was a paradigm shift for how I experienced education, allowing me to control the pace of my own learning. Despite enjoying the format of the course and finding the content stimulating, life got in the way and I eventually dropped out of my MOOC.

And while I agree with Cormier in theory, the low completion rates of MOOCs and Udacity’s decline strike me as ill portents for the future of this form of education. It’s great that MOOCs allow students to engage at their own pace and in their own ways, but doesn’t a 6.8% completion rate suggest that something may be wrong with MOOCs?

Having tried my own hand at creating and running an online course (though not in a massive fashion), I know just how difficult it is to create a compelling online education experience. I can only imagine that the massive nature of MOOCs magnifies this difficulty. Creating something that 10,000+ students can all find both educational and stimulating sounds like a nearly impossible task.

The massiveness of MOOCs is both its greatest strength and weakness. The promise of making higher education affordable and accessible to the world has the potential to revolutionize how education works in our society. At the same time, the low completion rates of MOOCs suggest that students aren’t finding this educational experiences as satisfying as the could be.

While it remains to be seen if MOOCs will ever have their ‘iTunes moment,’ (or if even they should), it can’t be denied that anyone who is interested in the future of education has to put serious thought into how MOOCs could the face of education as we know it. As historians we must ask ourselves how we can create compelling and informative online educational experiences. Because regardless of the success or failures of individual companies like Udacity, it appears online education is the direction that higher education is moving toward.


-Ryan Hunt


3 thoughts on “MOOCs – hype, help, or hindrance

  1. The “massiveness of MOOCs” and the resulting diversity of participants is certainly a strength and one reason why MOOCs are (or at least have the potential to be) so different from traditional courses that serious re-thinking is called for when it comes to measures such as completion rates. Passing a series of multiple choice quizzes in an xMOOC may be an interesting challenge and motivating but it’s hardly a measure of expertise. You enjoyed CS101 and, as far as you went, found the content stimulating – sounds as if you learned something. The fact that you didn’t learn it all or other participants learned different things is beside the point. People can benefit from MOOCs in many different ways, regardless of what is considered to be completion.
    Gordon Lockhart


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