About a year ago many thought massive open online courses or MOOCs were the most important, revolutionary trend in higher education. This was due to the MOOC’s rapid expansion and the belief that it would help address cost and access for undeserved students. The thought was that students would be able to take free classes through various MOOC platforms that they otherwise wouldn’t have an opportunity to access.
Eric Westervelt of NPR writes that in 2013 faculty at several universities turned against the expansion of online learning. Now, the nation’s largest MOOC providers are speaking out.
San Jose State University recently partnered with Udacity and began offering several low cost types of MOOC classes. Governor Jerry Brown plugged this program and it received enthusiastic publicity.
“We’ve got to invest in learning, in teaching, in education,” he said. “And we do that not by just the way we did it 100 years ago. We keep changing.”
The experiment has been judged by some as a failure. The completion rates and grades were worse than on campus classes. The higher achieving students were not the “underserved” students San Jose had wanted to reach. Unfortunately, it was not a cheaper option either.
Peter Hadreas, the chairman of San Jose State’s philosophy department said: “The people that do well in these kind of courses are people who are already studious. Or … who are taking courses for their own enrichment after they’ve graduated. A year and a half ago … people thought this was going to solve the problems of higher education because people would be educated for less money. That’s not the way it’s worked out.”
For now, San Jose State has chosen to scale back on its relationship with Udacity. It is instead choosing to take control of the courses Udacity offers and is reconsidering MOOCs.
Other schools have chosen to scale back also. Recent studies have shown that MOOC’s have very few active users. Only half who register ever view the classes. Completion rates only average around 4%.
Sebastian Thrun, Udacity’s co-founder and a prime mover in MOOCs, recently told Fast Company magazine, “We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don’t educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product.”
Thrun says he doesn’t regret that position. “I think that’s just honest, and I think we should have an honest discourse about what we do,” he says. “Online education that leaves almost everybody behind except for highly motivated students, to me, can’t be a viable path to education. We look back at our early work and realize it wasn’t quite as good as it should have been. We had so many moments for improvement.”
The fact that the former Stanford professor who helped kick off the MOOC wave was rethinking the viability of MOOCs also shook the higher education world. Many students like Tracy Wheeler found it lacked a human connection. She recently took five MOOCs from two different providers. She only completed three.
“I’m a very social person. There was nothing to grasp on to,” she says. “There were no people; there was no professor. In a sense you’re just learning in this void. … I would come away from my computer just kind of despondent and feeling really reduced somehow.”
She also felt that the forums, a key part to the class, were isolating and lacked any real discussion.
Wheelers opinion is just one of many MOOC users. Some praise the online courses, but providers are choosing to respond to the criticisms from students like Wheeler.
They are now introducing MOOC 2.0. Udacity and other leading MOOC providers are realizing that a more extensive human centered support structure is the answer to helping students retain information and finish their classes.
“We [added] human mentors,” says Thrun. “We have people almost 24-7 that help you when you get stuck. We also added a lot of projects that require human feedback and human grading. And that human element, surprise, surprise, makes a huge difference in the student experience and the learning outcomes,”
Plans for 2014 are to put more emphasis on job training classes and include an introduction to big data analysis and mobile app development.
MOOC pioneer Coursera is also changing. The Like Udacity, MOOC pioneer Coursera is also changing. The company is developing “learning hubs” at U.S. consulates around the world. These will include a weekly check in with instructors to encourage discussions
Critics feel that the changes are not acknowledging the flaws of online education. However Thrun disagrees:
You closely evaluate failures, think forward, adjust — and use the word “iterate.” A lot. It’s certainly iteration, and the truth is, look, this is Silicon Valley. We try things out, we look at the data, and we learn from it.”