The Promise and Challenges of MOOCs

There’s something to be said for small classes. For many of us, our most memorable and meaningful educational experiences came in small seminars that provided extensive opportunities to interact with the instructor.


But not every class is like that. For every student in a small senior seminar, there are many more in classes with hundreds, even thousands of students. At first, the notion of being in a class with thousands of other students can seem unworkable, but the truth is that once a class is sufficiently large, doubling it, tripling it, or putting the whole world in it won’t dramatically affect the student’s experience. 200 is a smaller number than 2000, but a class with 2000 people will operate in much the same way as a class one tenth its size. The bigger class will need more teaching assistants, more infrastructure, and maybe a jumbotron so that everyone can see the professor, but the individual student’s course experience will be pretty much the same.

Colleges and universities offer these mega-courses for a few reasons:

1) They can give a large number of people an experience with a star instructor.
2) Many classes can be reasonably taught this way, as long as there is enough educational infrastructure to support real learning.
3)They are very efficient from an economic standpoint. Arguably, the money saved by offering courses this way supports many senior seminars.

Now, the cynics among us might question the relative importance of those factors above, but for now let’s take it as given that for many students, a significant part of their higher education experience involves these large classes. Given that, why not take it even further? How about:

1) allowing potentially anyone to enroll in a course?
2) passing on the savings to students, maybe even making the courses free?
3) using technology to make a massive, open, online course a better experience than the traditional huge lecture class?

This is the thinking behind the MOOC. It’s big, it’s open, it’s typically free, and it addresses two serious problems of modern education: cost and accessibility. In doing so, MOOCs present a tremendous challenge to traditional higher education. After all, why would people pay exorbitant prices for classes that might have mediocre instructors when they could be taught by an amazing professor for free? Could this be the end of higher education as we know it?

This was the fear (or the hope), but in case you haven’t noticed, MOOCs have been around for a few years, and while they’ve made progress, they haven’t been the disruptive force that some predicted. MIT put many courses online for free, but there has been no appreciable drop in the demand for an MIT education. In a sense, this is nothing new. From the days of correspondence courses and courses by radio, new communication technologies have experienced many of the same challenges, such as a lack of direct interaction between instructor and student, and the difficulty in getting formal academic credit. Then there’s the students themselves. Education is never easy, but it’s especially difficult when the students are not financially invested in the outcome, may lack prerequisite skills, have very busy schedules, or simply were never that interested in the first place.

MOOCs have hit these same issues. MOOC dropout rates are high, about 90 percent by some estimates.3Normally, an educational experience with a 90 percent dropout rate would be considered a dismal failure. But is that fair to the MOOCs? Part of the challenge of evaluating the progress of MOOCs is the fact that different MOOC students have different goals. Some want to complete the course, and others simply want to learn something. So is it a failure if someone registers for a course, checks out a few lectures, and then leaves? In traditional education, the answer would be "yes". With MOOCs, it’s more complicated. With open enrollments, no price tag, and basically no deadlines, MOOC completion rates are always going to be lower, probably much lower. Even so, MOOCs can play an important role in empowering students and making education more affordable and more accessible.

To fulfill this promise, MOOCs have to do more than present great lectures. No matter how good those lectures are, they need to be supported by something interactive, something that responds to the actions of the students, lets them know how they are doing, and offers some kind of helpful advice. In the classical model, the instructor does all of that. In some contexts, technology can play that role, at least to some extent. However, depending on technology to provide advice works better in some subjects than others. The model works better in subjects that have clear correct answers and very precise learning objectives. However, while the computer can tell me where I have made a mistake with trigonometry, it would have a harder time evaluating my marketing plan, or my poem. Even with those subjects, though, MOOCs can have an answer: community-based evaluation and could work in the MOOC world as it does with Wikipedia, another emerging medium that was relentlessly mocked but nevertheless changed the way that people learn. A community within a MOOC could provide the interactions and even the teaching that people need. People could trust MOOC "tutors" the same way they trust certain Amazon or Netflix reviewers. If that happens, then MOOCs really could change the way education works for a very large number of people, and we will all be better off for it.