MOOCs Maturing, But Have a Long Way to Go, Research Says


Stanford researchers have found that MOOC completion rates are low, class difficulty is increased and MOOCs are mostly chosen by men in the developed world and not people in countries with limited education access. Despite hopes to transform education through massive open online courses, the courses are not quite there yet, the researchers concluded.

In an op-ed in Inside Higher Education, Stanford researchers Candace Thille, John Mitchell and Mitchell Stevens shared what they’ve learned about MOOCs in the last three years. They highlight how the absence of face-to-face interaction in online courses constitutes a drawback in digital learning and that MOOCs should best be regarded a complementary education opportunity to traditional classroom education rather than a standalone option.

The researchers point out that MOOCs, despite the hype, did not manage to address education inequality; MOOCs are not a cure-all, the researchers say, arguing that video lectures are often not the best learning approach for students lacking a solid academic background:

“[T] 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. Recorded video instruction based on classes at highly selective colleges cannot easily serve broader audiences of less prepared learners.”

While MOOCs are relatively easy to access, the schools providing them still lack the know-how and services to actually support student learning. The view is expressed by John Mitchell during his interview with the Stanford News Service.

Students lacking a fundamental academic background tend to find MOOCs complex and hard to complete, which explains the low percentage of students actually finishing the courses they enroll in. As Mitchell explains, this is frustrating for professors who:

“[S]ee people struggling, and there really isn’t any mechanism to help them.”

There are exceptions, however, with for-credit MOOCs achieving a five-fold increase in their completion rates. Case in point is the One Health One Medicine online course at St George’s University in Grenada in the Caribbean. The completion rate for this MOOC, which was 11% in 2013, catapulted to 58% in 2014. The reason why the MOOC had such an unprecedentedly high completion rate was that the course was available for credit, Sungula Nkabinde reports for the University World News.

According to Professor Glen Jacobs, improving completion rates by five-fold is possible through real-time student feedback, interactive learning, live student-professor sessions on a weekly basis and student-to-student work assessments among other practices.

One shouldn’t condemn or prematurely assess MOOCs, vice provost for teaching and learning and associate professor of education Mitchell Stevens says according to Phys.Org:

“I’m not disappointed at all with MOOCs,” he said.“We’re still in the horse-and-buggy stage. The boundaries are blurring between online and face-to-face.” “We’re looking at a future of lifelong education online,” he noted. “Much of that will come at little or no cost to learners. How can that be a bad thing?”

In their conclusions, the Stanford researchers say that even though MOOCs didn’t live up to the hype, they’ve made successful steps in solving education’s main difficulties such as cost and access to education.