Although Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are fast becoming a popular option for students worldwide, the medium faces several challenges along the way to realizing its full potential. According to completion statistics, more than 90 percent of students who enroll in a MOOC drop out, as many feel isolated, disengaged or just lose interest.
MOOCs, heralded as the next great technological disruption in education, went mainstream last year with the broad popularity of Khan Academy, Coursera, edX and Udemy. Putting lecture videos and interactive coursework on the web makes it possible for top-notch universities to make education available to more students. MOOCs have already shown they can attract massive number of students. According to Geoffrey A. Fowler of The Wall Street Journal, Coursera, the largest provider of online courses, has drawn 5 million students, and nonprofit provider edX has attracted more than 1.3 million. And while the majority of students are still based in the U.S., learners come from all over the globe: Among edX's students, 9% came from Africa and 12% from India.
Big-name schools such as Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology have also signed on to the idea of putting courses online free to anyone who wants to access them. More schools are now expanding their student base and potentially reducing the cost of an education while building online courses that cost money but offer actual college credit.
Reports show that MOOCs still have room for improvement. Early studies highlight a number of problems with the learning experience in online courses that educators and institutions are scrambling to solve: staring at a screen makes some students feel isolated and disengaged, which can lead to poor performance or dropping out altogether. With more than 90% of people who sign up for a MOOC not completing the work, providers are trying to turn online ed theory into measurable results.
"In large part, the experience is very good, but we see that there are problems, and there are a number of things that can be done that have promise," says Anant Agarwal, president of edX. "We are not even close to the kinds of conclusions we want."
As educators sift through the research to see what works best and what needs to be shored up or scrapped, one of the most important lessons they have learned is that people need people. Interaction matters; online learning can be isolating, and perhaps the largest challenge MOOCs face is that students lose interest when they don't feel engaged.
"The most important thing that helps students succeed in an online course is interpersonal interaction and support," says Shanna Smith Jaggars, the assistant director of Columbia University's Community College Research Center.
Jaggars has compared online-only and face-to-face learning in studies of community college students and faculty in Virginia and Washington State. Among her findings: In Virginia, 32% of students failed or withdrew from for-credit online courses, compared with 19% for equivalent in-person courses.
Some instructors record audio comments on assignments while others record a fresh update video about what's going on in the course each week to help the students feel connected. Others use motivational messages. Some turn to more manpower, which adds to MOOCs expenses; in trial courses with San Jose State University that offer student's college credit, MOOC provider Udacity hired mentors who stayed on top of students.
"They are sort of your online mother," says Ellen Junn, the provost of San Jose State.