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The Growing Pains of the MOOC

Posted by on Tuesday, February 11, 2014 in News.

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by Bernadette Doykos, Graduate Teaching Fellow

[book id=” /]Over the last twenty five years, enrollment in institutions of higher education has expanded across all demographics; however, critical disparities in access persist. As a result, scholars and practitioners alike have been in search of the mechanism to enhance equity in education. Massive open online courses (MOOC) are oft-cited as a potential tool to expand opportunity, especially for aspiring students who encounter various obstacles on the path to college. However, following a recent study out of the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, the promise of MOOCs received a critical blow.

Since their inception, many had cited MOOCs as the potential new wave solution to the continuing inequality in higher education access through their provision of open access course experiences. The Penn study employed a framework, which identified four primary components of course behavior: apply, enroll, engage, and learn/persist/complete. However, the findings demonstrated that the reality of the experience of MOOC users was often starkly different than the proposed framework. There were major gaps between the proportion of people who signed up for a MOOC, viewed a single class (50%), and completed the course (4%). Given that MOOCs were touted as a potential equalizer, in that they dismantled issues of space and time with the flexible online delivery, the study also concluded that of the people who signed up for MOOCs, nearly 80% held a postsecondary of some type. As I type this, there is an email in my inbox shaming me about the Coursera course on Big Data in Education for which I am signed up, but have only “attended” half a lecture.

These troubling findings come on the heels of one of MOOCs greatest champions, Sebastian Thrun. Called “the Godfather of Online Education,” Thrun sparked controversy in his recent Fast Company profile, in which he renounced MOOCs and announced the shift in the focus of his for profit venture, Udacity, to corporate training efforts. Previously, Udacity partnered with San Jose State University to pilot an online alternative for a remedial math course through which students had access to mentors; however, the initial results show that the students who took the online version of the course performed significantly worse than the control group, who received a more traditional, in-class delivery.

In defense of the failed effort, Thrun and others have cited the “innovation cycle” and point to products such as cell phones as a parallel example. However, what Thrun and MOOC supporters who echo the importance of the process fail to address is how the SJSU experiment worked with some of the most vulnerable students. While the future of MOOCs is unclear and there is undeniably promise in the model, one thing has become evident: MOOCs alone will not revolutionize access to advanced education for the traditionally disadvantaged. As instructors, there is a lot of potential within the platform; however, we must also acknowledge that there’s a lot of responsibility that accompanies the innovation, and that our failure has higher stakes than a dropped call.

Link Round Up:

Penn Study

Thrun article in Fast Company

After Setbacks, Online Courses are Rethought (New York Times)

Are MOOCs really a failure?

The Audacity: Thrun Learns a Lesson and Students Pay




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