In November of 2012 the New York Times declared 2013 “the Year of the MOOC.” Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, had been touted as the first serious bit of competition to universities in the past thousand years. Sebastian Thrun, the founder of Udacity, a MOOC provider, predicted that, thanks to the scalability of companies such as his, the world would be left with only ten institutions of higher learning.
The numbers spoke for themselves. edX, launched only six months before the Times article ran, had more than 370,000 students enrolled for its first round of courses that fall. Coursera, a similar startup, enrolled 1.7 million students.
As 2013 drew to a close, however, MOOCs seemed to hit a brick wall. The bulk of media coverage changed to “Year of the Backlash” and “The Online Education Revolution Drifts Off Course.” Sebastian Thrun, having foretold doomsday for universities just one year prior, said in an interview with Fast Company, “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’s sentiment resonated with the feelings of students and teachers alike: Computers and chat rooms cannot effectively replace classrooms and campuses. Underlying such concerns are embarrassingly low rates of MOOC completion, less than 5% on average. While many blame a lack of human interaction on low completion rates, some worry that the real deficiency of MOOCs is more fundamental than just the dropout problem.
Of course, MOOCs are not the first new technology aiming to change the way education will be delivered. In the 1920s, educators wondered if the radio would radically change education. The “College of the Air,” they called it, held the promise of democratizing learning and opening it to all.
For the same reason that radio never quite fulfilled its promise to shake the foundations of conventional schooling, total lack of human interaction have already begun to deflate promises made by MOOC providers.
There is still a great deal of hope that new technology can overcome the fatal limitation of human interaction. Providers such as edX and Coursera are working to address the difficulty of giving millions of students personalized attention by incorporating real-time human mentors and personalized grading into the courses. Financially too, MOOC platforms continue to be successful. Coursera garnered tens of millions more dollars in investments and enrollments and continues to grow. At the time of this writing, edX and Coursera have 1.6 and 6.1 million users, respectively.
In an article for Inside Higher Education, Dan Greenstein argued that while MOOCs may have the potential to bring positive change to higher education, it remains to be seen if they will be able deliver all the benefits advertised by their most exuberant promoters.
It is far too early to declare MOOCs the “end of conventional education”, but it is also too early to dismiss them as another failed attempt to change the educational landscape.
Featured photo: Sebastian Thrun, the founder of MOOC provider Udacity.