Ed-Tech Policy Opinion

Are MOOCs Missing the Mark?

By Anthony Cody — October 19, 2013 3 min read
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Some people have been very enthused about the potential for MOOCs - Massive Open Online Courses. This summer, Bill Gates praised them for bringing us the “golden era” of learning. A few weeks ago, Bill Gates told community college leaders that they should embrace the trend. The Chronicle for Higher Education reported:

As MOOC lectures evolve, the average classroom professor will have a hard time competing, and the traditional lecture will seem antiquated, Mr. Gates suggested. "The quality of those lectures, as they go through the competitive process, will be extremely good," he said. "No individual performance is likely to come up to that level."

The Gates Foundation has invested millions in supporting the development of a variety of MOOCs, but early results are less than encouraging. The experience may teach us some important lessons about how people learn - if we are willing to pay attention.

To be fair, Gates has acknowledged that there are issues, problems to be worked out. A report today reveals what some of those issues are. This report on the Communications of the ACM blog shows some rather worrisome results, based on last year’s efforts.

Karen Head, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, received Gates funding to offer a MOOC version of a freshman composition class.

Head reports:

We had 21,934 students enrolled, 14,771 of whom were active in the course. Our 26 lecture videos were viewed 95,631 times. Students submitted work for evaluation 2,942 times and completed 19,571 peer assessments (the means by which their writing was evaluated). However, only 238 students received a completion certificate--meaning that they completed all assignments and received satisfactory scores.

She offers some guesses about why so few completed the course:

For one thing, students who did not complete all three major assignments could not pass the course. Many struggled with technology, especially in the final assignment, in which they were asked to create a video presentation based on a personal philosophy or belief. Some students, for privacy and cultural reasons, chose not to complete that assignment, even when we changed the guidelines to require only an audio presentation with visual elements. There were other students who joined the course after the second week; we cautioned them that they would not be able to pass it because there was no mechanism for doing peer review after an assignment's due date had passed.

She also states, that while it was exciting to experiment with this approach,

...I don't think any of us (writing and communication instructors) would rush to teach another MOOC soon. For now, the technology is lacking for courses in subject areas like writing, which have such strong qualitative evaluation requirements. Too often we found our pedagogical choices hindered by the course-delivery platform we were required to use, when we felt that the platform should serve the pedagogical requirements. Too many decisions about platform functionality seem to be arbitrary, or made by people who may be excellent programmers but, I suspect, have never been teachers.

Gee whiz, I wonder who else that last line could describe?

According to the experiment just completed by Professor Head, the proportion of students who fit this model of learning is 238 out of 21,934 enrolled. Just over one percent. A graduate student who researched completion rates for 29 different MOOCs found the average rate was seven percent.

I have my own hypothesis about the limitations we are discovering in the MOOCs. But first I have an observation about the model of learning to which Bill Gates seems to be drawn. We have heard from Gates for years about the great resource we would have if we could capture outstanding teachers lecturing on video. And he has invested millions in supporting the Khan Academy, an attempt to do just that. He often describes this as allowing for “personalization,” in that the learner can watch the videos at his own pace, and the use of the video could free up instructors to work with students one on one. But it does not seem to be working this way.

I think there may be a certain type of learner that this works for - someone who is highly motivated and purposeful, who is seeking out specific knowledge. And someone who does not require much human interaction - because in spite of the rhetoric about personalization, lectures are inherently impersonal, and videos of lectures are doubly so.

So if the MOOC is ushering in a golden age, democratizing access to knowledge, it seems to have hit a bit of a bump. I think the bump in the road is the learner.

California’s San Jose State University has been experimenting with MOOCs through a partnership with Udacity. The University recently ended this project after finding lackluster results. One incident highlights one of the problems:

After watching the ethics MOOC, taught by Harvard professor Michael Sandel, the San Jose philosophy faculty wrote an open letter in protest. Hadreas says it would be insulting to force diverse state university students to watch the Ivy League professor lecture to his affluent class. "He would incorporate into his talks how privileged they were," Hadreas says. "They were for the most part more white than our student body. So we got on the one hand this strange upstairs-downstairs situation, where the lower-class people could look at how the upper-class people were educated."

Of course, some might assume that a Harvard professor is among the best in the world. And he may be - for his own students. But that Harvard professor is, even in delivering a lecture, directly relating to the students in his presence. Students watching this lecture on video are beyond his awareness - he is not speaking to them. Though they can hear him, they are not with him. This is the opposite of personalization.

Great teachers know their students and make every effort to communicate on a personal level with them as individuals. They communicate not just information, but also concern, compassion and encouragement. They find ways to build students’ confidence in their own abilities. They can intuit confusion in the room, and stop to explain or provide more context. They can draw students into active discussions, building on prior experiences and understanding. None of this is possible when those students watch a recorded lesson.

For more than a century, public libraries have offered places where thousands of books are freely available to all. Libraries have democratized access to information. In a sense, the advent of the internet, and the videotaped lectures made available through MOOCs, are a new sort of library. This provides a resource available to many people. But making information available is not the same as teaching. Libraries are wonderful, but they have not replaced schools. And MOOCs are unlikely to replace in-person classes, for similar reasons.

What do you think? Will the MOOCs bring us a golden age of learning? Or have they missed the mark?

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The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.