MOOCs: We've seen this movie before and it didn't have a happy ending

By Jason Stoffer , written on July 24, 2013

From The News Desk

The recent $43 million round of financing for Coursera fuels the growing hype, much of which has been sparked by VCs and industry pundits, around the “death” of traditional education. In theory, massively open online course (MOOC) platforms like Coursera should radically reduce educational costs, give students universal access to the best teachers, and enable better student outcomes. Results to date, however, have not yet lived up to the promise. Completion rates remain low, and there are significant obstacles in the way of MOOCs fully integrating into K-12 and post-secondary education.

Distance education has a 100-year history and has yet to live up to the hype. In fact, the “MOOC movie” has been played before – with the great promise of education delivered through radio and TV. From 1910-1920, the federal government granted 202 radio broadcasting licenses to educational institutions for course credits, yet only one remained by 1940.Then, in 1948, the University of Iowa offered the first correspondence course by TV. Dozens of schools followed, but with limited success.

So how can we make the sequel -- the emerging MOOC -- more successful than its predecessors? The deck is stacked in the MOOCs’ favor; the Internet, with its global reach and ability to foster community, is a superior platform to TV or radio to deliver and engage students in course content. And there is great value in easy access to content from some of the world’s best practitioners and professors.

Where MOOCs have seen early success is with highly self-motivated students. Open courses offer a brilliant young software engineer or mathematician in a poor village in the developing world the ability to be measured side by side with Stanford students. So that young prodigy on a MOOC is now discoverable by big employers like IBM or Google. These employers are beginning to buy into the promise -- with Udacity featuring more than 400 global employers interested in employing their students.

That use case is narrow, though. Only a small slice of students are self-motivated enough to sit alone at home and complete a course in a self-directed way. Completion rates for MOOCS often range from 3 to 5 percent. These low passage rates cannot be compared apples to apples with traditional schools, given the cost of signing up for MOOC class is zero. Even when students pay tuition, MOOCs have lagged in retention and, just recently, San Jose State ended a pilot with Udacity due to extremely low pass rates.

For MOOCs to be more broadly applicable, three things need to happen:

First, best of breed MOOC content should be integrated into existing K-12 and college courses. Recent research from the US Department of Education shows that blended learning leads to stronger results than 100 percent in-person or online environments. To do this requires “flipping the classroom” -- with students watching MOOC lectures at home and engaging in more experiential and team-based work in class. However, training teachers to integrate some standardized content and flip the classroom is a huge institutional challenge.

Second, for those students taking MOOCs on a standalone basis. MOOCs need to focus on ways to better replicate the campus environment. Fostering more engagement may take the form of physical meetups, where students connect and study together. These are happening today, but only sporadically. In my hometown of Seattle, there are only two Coursera meet-ups in the next two weeks.  Another approach to deeper engagement is through building more robust collaboration tools into the platform. These might take the form of streaming video, better group and team driven activities within courses or creating immersive online game-like simulations.

Finally, MOOCs can’t lose sight of the fact that many people on the platform are there to learn skills of value to real world employers. Employers may have been content to hire raw college graduates in the past, but today they want workers prepared for the modern workforce. One course that does this is Steve Blank’s Lean LaunchPad, which teaches potential employees about the customer development process and launching a product. But courses like this teach hard skills in a lecture format where learning is typically self-driven. These courses don’t teach employees how to work in teams, communicate upwards and downwards, take initiative and drive decisions with incomplete data.

These workforce skills can be taught using courses that include experiential learning replicating real life employment situations. Novo Ed, a new platform spun out from Stanford, is designed specifically for team projects and collaboration (disclosure: Maveron is a seed investor in NovoEd). In courses such as “Design Thinking Action Lab,” students are grouped together with others with similar skill levels and motivation and work together in projects. We’ll see more team-based courses like this across platforms and we’ll likely see game-like simulations introduced as well that replicate real world situations.

We need to collectively stop thinking about education technology and its latest incarnation, MOOCs, as the holy-grail in solving our nation’s education woes. Instead, we should accept MOOCs for what they are – a vehicle to get great content into learners’ hands but one that is nowhere close to maturing into its full potential.

Today’s MOOCs are at the beginning of a long and exciting journey to change education but one that will need to involve better online courses, more blended learning and destroying the “not invented here” complex that prevents professors and universities from using best of breed content created elsewhere.

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