MOOCs: The Breakthrough in Education?

In 2012, MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, gained widespread attention and seemed the inevitable future of education. Indeed, 2012 was dubbed the year of the MOOC by The New York Times. That year saw the launch of several for-profit and not-for-profit ventures, including Udacity, Coursera, and EdX, all of which offered courses online.

These ventures promised to revolutionize education, offering high-quality, university-level courses for free (or at low cost) over the Internet, accessible to individuals anywhere in the world. MOOCs seemed to offer a much-needed corrective to the traditional model of education, which, by contrast, was bounded by the physical constraints of location and facilities. Why should the registration for a course be limited by something so prosaic as the size of a lecture hall when the resources of the Internet would let anyone, anywhere, participate?

Looking back, the discussion of these incipient ventures, the success of early course offerings, the creation of Udacity and Coursera and the like, seems almost giddy. Articles brimmed with excitement about these revolutionary new ways of educating people, schemes that offered to bring a university education to the global masses – for free! The excitement of those involved was infectious. The view from late 2012 suggested that the MOOC rang the death knell of the university system as it then existed.

Understanding the buzz around MOOCs, and why this breakthrough promised to change the face of contemporary education, requires a bit more context around the charged educational atmosphere. MOOCs emerged at a moment where there was growing recognition that the education system, particularly in the United States, was fundamentally flawed. Historically, a liberal arts education was only accessible to the elite. In the course of the Twentieth Century, education for a broader segment of (US) society became reality. But by the early Twenty-First Century, the cost of that promise has emerged. Recent reports show that Americans owe some $91 billion in student debt; other reports place the figure over $1 trillion. Unlike other debt, student debt cannot be shed in bankruptcy. The recent generation of graduates is strapped with student loans and, especially in the wake of the economic crisis, cannot find steady employment. The conventional wisdom that a college degree always pays for itself seems increasingly false.

In this fraught atmosphere, where the barriers to entry and the cost of a degree were rising, the MOOC offered a perfect solution: high-quality education at a low cost. MOOCs were the holy grail of the educational market, the answer to the prayers of administrators and educators.

But now that MOOCs have been more robustly incorporated into the educational ecosystem, the weaknesses and limitations of the medium have emerged. MOOCs are no longer being heralded as changing the future of education or as making the university obsolete. Quite the opposite. In a well-publicized partnership between Udacity and San Jose State University, which compared the progress of students in remedial math courses taken online with those taken in the classroom environment, the students taking classes online fared substantially worse. The partnership was put on pause after a single semester. Indeed, Udacity, as a company, has increasingly focused on offering on-the-job training through corporate partnerships.

In the education world, a coalition of provosts of Big-10 universities and the University of Chicago suggested that, with respect to MOOCs, the potential to offer courses to large numbers of individuals “is not, in and of itself, a means for extending educational opportunity to millions of potential ‘students.’”

All of this suggests that the last year-and-a-half has clarified both the potential of MOOCs and their limits. We now have a better sense for some of the potential applications of these kinds of educational opportunities, and those for which they are less well suited.

Were MOOCs a breakthrough? Indubitably. They successfully used the digital, online medium to offer course content at a high caliber to large numbers of people. Have they rendered traditional university learning environments obsolete? Of course not.

Now, when people describe the future of MOOCs, they speak of MOOCs in the broader context of e-learning – where MOOCs are one among several strategies that incorporate the possibilities of online learning to enhance the educational environment. MOOCs are no longer framed as a replacement, but as an addition to classroom environments and other kinds of blended learning.

What can this tell us about the trajectory of a breakthrough? The story of the MOOC may suggest a tempered approach to embracing new solutions; to make sure we don’t throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water. And perhaps this, in fact, is emblematic of the cycle of innovation, a telling aspect of breakthroughs: they rarely reveal their final or eventual potential at first blush.

Or, put otherwise by Sebastian Thrun, writing about the partnership between his company Udacity and San Jose State University: “To all those people who declared our experiment a failure, you have to understand how innovation works. Few ideas work on the first try. Iteration is key to innovation.”

Photo: Working Outside by CollegeDegrees360

the author

Liz Kelley