Image via flickr
If last year was The Year of the MOOC, this one is the year of disenchantment with massively open online courses. Haven't you heard? Online courses are a bust. New studies say so. The media says so. But are online education really a flop, or have we just reached the downward crash in the hype cycle that inevitably follows bloated expectations?
Well, let's look at what the latest research suggests. A study from Princeton University on arXiv looked at hundreds of thousands of student discussion forums from 73 Coursera classes, to a discouraging result. It found, like plenty of MOOC studies before it, that participation in the classes dropped significantly over time, and worse, courses with engaged teachers actually had an even steeper dropout rate. It also found that the social learning element of the course wasn't working because one-third of the chatter in discussion forums was useless "small talk" too tough to navigate through to the valuable stuff.
That study came on the heels of another probe into Coursera from one of its partner schools, the University of Pennsylvania. Penn researchers looked at one million students from 16 classes over a year and found that only half of students who signed up for courses actually took them, engagement dropped off dramatically in the first few weeks, and a paltry 4 percent completed the course they'd registered for.
Via the Penn study
That Penn study fell on already skeptical ears, primed to be dubious of online classes after the highly embarrassing Udacity fail earlier this year. If you haven't been following the saga, Udacity was an uber-hyped Silicon Valley MOOC founded by big-deal Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun, also known as the guy behind Google’s self-driving car.
The company ran a pilot program with San Jose State University that wound up being a flop. Completion rates were low, only a quarter of students passed the online courses, and students taking in-person classes were 52 percent more likely to pass than their web counterparts. When the program added online mentors as a band-aid for the mess, students did even worse. In the end, they canned the whole thing.
Thrun and other MOOC champions had lauded online courses’ relatively low cost as a way to break down socioeconomic barriers and democratize education. But in another embarrassing recent finding, a Penn study found that most users were actually young, well-educated "economic elite" men who already held an advanced degree, while students in developing countries were underrepresented.
Ouch. And yet none of this means online courses don't still hold a lot of promise. If you don’t believe me, just look at the major educational institutions and big businesses still throwing millions into the proliferation of MOOC platforms. They're just not working yet, which is par for the course when it comes to new buzzy technology.
To use Gartner’s version of your typical innovation hype cycle, MOOCs have squarely transitioned from the Inflated Expectations to the Disillusionment phase, which Gartner describes as such: "Interest wanes as experiments and implementations fail to deliver. Producers of the technology shake out or fail. Investments continue only if the surviving providers improve their products to the satisfaction of early adopters."
Check and check. Heck, even Thrun himself has jumped on the bust bandwagon. A year ago he was kicking off MOOC madness, boasting that the web would put traditional universities out of business and save education. This fall he called his own startup a "lousy product."
Perhaps we’re in the home stretch of what you can think of as the MOOC beta test. The next version will include revisions, improvements. To follow the Gartner hype cycle, we’ll move into the “enlightenment” phase. Maybe this means trying out a hybrid model that supplements traditional classes with online learning rather than replacing them, as some have suggested. Or recognizing that MOOCs and online classes aren’t the same thing—maybe the “massive” part of Massive Open Online Courses is the problem. Or maybe the for-profit part. Whatever the next iteration looks like, there will surely be one. It's not time to plan the MOOC's funeral, just give it a makeover.