If you happened to have read a story on the future of online education in the last year or so it might have gone something like this: MOOC, MOOC, MOOC, Coursera, MOOC, MOOC, technology revolution, MOOC, MOOC. Online courses are being touted as the solution to any and all problems plaguing education today, yet in the rush to embrace the next big thing many are forgetting that these types of courses are still highly experimental and will remain nothing but a diversion unless the whole approach is subjected to more critical assessment with the view of mending its shortcomings.
It is easy to be dazzled by registration numbers that go into hundreds of thousands, yet according Quartz.com, an average MOOC draws between 30,000 and 50,000 registrants. Still nothing to sneeze at, yet only about 10% of those who sign up complete the course with many never logging into the course at all.
Furthermore, even students who do all the coursework and finish the class rarely sign up for another one.
So why are all these students falling asleep, virtually, in their digital classes? Mainly because the people putting education online are still thinking in terms of classrooms. And despite incorporating "decades of research on how students learn best", the world has changed a lot in just the last few years. Here's just one example of how: Before smartphones, we went online roughly five times a day, in long chunks, according to Joe Kraus, a partner at Google Ventures. Today, with smartphones, it's 27 times, in much shorter bursts. Twentieth century instructional methods just don't work as well for busy, distracted 21st-century learners.
Another issue that confronts online courses is how similar they are to their real-world counterparts. Students, especially adult students who carry additional responsibility besides learning, often complain that they can not make time to enroll in classes to further their education. Although online classes allow for certain degree of flexibility, they still use a fairly linear learning format that requires listening to lectures and watching a number of hours of video – something that requires time which many simply do not have.
Already questions about poor completion percentages are being asked by people who have a stake in creating courses that people want to take and finish. Research into new ways to structure MOOCs is ongoing both at MIT and Carnegie Mellon University.
Online education has come a long way in a short time. Now it's time to continue that evolution. If we can continue to improve quality and do a better job of fitting education into the way people actually learn now, we'll be a lot closer to sustaining the original vision of effectively bringing high-quality education to scale. Meanwhile, it's about time we accept that the future of online learning looks a lot like the University of Phoenix.