This Inside Higher Ed article, titled “Why MOOCs Didn’t Work, in 3 Data Points,” summarizes the pitfalls of MOOCs as determined by a massive multi-year study led by MIT. It covers some problems, which I’ve summarized in this post, but I’m also listing some potential solutions.
To start, a MOOC is a massively open online course. As the name implies, MOOCs are essentially online classes offered by an institution that can be taken by anyone with an Internet connection. Classes range from basic mathematics to the art of 3D printing to business law; there’s almost certainly a class for every subject imaginable. All of the materials are available online, so users simply need to create an account on the proper platform (edX, Coursera, MIT OpenCourseWare, etc.), enroll in a class (or multiple classes), and start learning. Most classes follow the traditional “watch a lecture video –> complete an online worksheet –> take an online quiz” format. While most MOOCs are real classes that were “converted” to an online format by educational institutions, they hold no actual course credit. However, most platforms offer a paid “certificate” upon completion that verifies successful completion of a course. The certificate can be posted on LinkedIn, discussed in job interviews, and so forth.
Problem: One of the biggest downfalls of MOOCs is the incredibly low completion rate. Only 3.13% of MOOC participants finished a course in 2017-2018. This already low figure is troubling because it’s part of a downward trend; only 6% of participants finished in 2014-2015. Only 46% of participants who were seeking a certificate finished a course in 2017-2018. These figures have been declining over MIT’s 6-year study of MOOCs offered by MIT and Harvard.
One reason why completion statistics are so low is because MOOCs carry no credit in the real world. Currently, few (if any) universities allow using a MOOC to satisfy degree requirements. This provides little incentive for students to finish a class if they know it doesn’t count for anything, other than earning potential bragging rights, having the satisfaction of learning, or adding a casual interview topic. It’s easy to neglect a MOOC when trying to juggle it with other classes, work, family life, etc., but the fact that it holds virtually no weight makes it easier to forget.
Solution: One potential fix is to offer MOOCs that directly interface with a university degree. For example, if VT’s ME department decides to venture into MOOCs, they could produce an online version of Thermodynamics, which can count towards the degree if taken by VT students who earn a certificate of completion. Of course, the material would need to be of the same quality as the in-class Thermodynamics, but this is a possible alternative for students if they desire or require schedule flexibility (for instance, if someone is behind and needs to take it over the summer, but he or she already committed to an internship and cannot be on campus to take the summer in-class version). If this solution were to be implemented, completion rates wouldn’t skyrocket since the users described in this scenario only represent a tiny subset of all the MOOC users across the globe. However, successfully implementing 1 course could open the door for future educators.
Problem: Another reason why MOOCs are criticized is because they are shifting towards complementing a current education, rather than jumpstarting one. Geographical data reveals that users in the studied Harvard/MIT MOOCs overwhelmingly live in first-world countries (69%), yet 1.43% came from students in countries classified as “low human development.” Educators cite being bottlenecked by the available technology in those countries to explain why such a low percentage of students reside in lesser-developed countries. In fact, one quote from the article states that “Dramatic expansion of educational opportunities to underserved populations will require political movements that change the focus, funding, and purpose of higher education; they will not be achieved through new technologies alone.” In other words, radical educational changes (like popularizing MOOCs in underdeveloped countries) will require a massive infrastructural upheaval, because these reforms often need resources like money, Internet connections, and new buildings.
Solution: Simply put, there’s no easy solution to smooth the geographic distribution of MOOC users. Bringing MOOCs to more underserved countries requires bringing the Internet to those countries, which is a hard task since they just might not have the capabilities for it at this moment. MOOCs can consider packaging their classes into smaller “pieces” to reduce bandwidth usage (for those who have Internet access, but not much access). For countries who can’t access MOOCs, perhaps this is a chance to start an educational movement across the globe.
Personally, I find MOOCs interesting and useful for personal gain. I’m guilty of enrolling, but not finishing, a class. I think they should still continue to be offered as long as it doesn’t become an expense to universities or 3rd party platforms. Open-sourcing education is an incredibly valuable tool that can make a real difference to someone. Even though 1.43% of users in the MIT study live in an underdeveloped country, 1.43% is still about 55,000 users. This is an incredibly large number, and it would be a shame to see such a unique educational service disappear for monetary reasons.