After a long period of unbridled optimism and world-changing claims about the transformative potential of MOOCs, journalists are now proclaiming that MOOCs are dead, or at the very least broken. This is extremely dangerous. Instead of companies taking their ambitious proclamations and working hard to make them true, they say that MOOCs have failed, before they’ve even had a chance.
As Thrun was being praised by Friedman, and pretty much everyone else, for having attracted a stunning number of students—1.6 million to date—he was obsessing over a data point that was rarely mentioned in the breathless accounts about the power of new forms of free online education: the shockingly low number of students who actually finish the classes, which is fewer than 10%. Not all of those people received a passing grade, either, meaning that for every 100 pupils who enrolled in a free course, something like five actually learned the topic. If this was an education revolution, it was a disturbingly uneven one.
“We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don’t educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product,” Thrun tells me. “It was a painful moment.”
Hold on. Reading that Thrun called each course that he worked on refining for months with his intelligent peers and sophisticated technology a “lousy product” is atypical, if not alarming. As much as educational products should be ever-evolving and improving, this is a surprisingly defeatist thing to say.
Of course it’s going to be hard to motivate people to stick with a college-level online course! Sign-ups are as easy as a click. Students aren’t schlepping to a physical classroom full of sweatpant-clad young adults typing or scrawling notes. There is no deep feeling of dread before an upcoming exam at a prescribed time, no professor-overlord watching the room full of nervous students scribbling in blue books. (It’s a matter of perspective whether is this good or bad.)
Online educators are trying to figure out how to motivate their students to keep going and keep trying. This is necessary if we want online learning to live up its potential. But on the way there, we shouldn’t shut down all the resources with completion numbers in the hundreds or low thousands. Since when are those numbers a mark of failure?
This isn’t 1-2-3 or A-B-C; the material in Udacity’s (and, for that matter, Coursera’s and EdX’s) course catalog is between high school and university-level. Not everyone who signs up for a course has the foundation, experience, time, resources, or motivation to finish it. How is it that we have lost sight of the inspiring fact that these hundreds or thousands of students are learning valuable skills for free online? How is it that we think everything on the internet must scale up to millions of users, even though private colleges offer classes when only 20 people (out of thousands) sign up and attend?
Online Education is not Facebook or Twitter. Someone can’t use the product immediately with a few clicks and basic language skills. Online courses take more concentration and effort because they are teaching academic skills and concepts. We do not delete YouTube videos that don’t get enough views, or shut down blogs with few or no readers, so why are we trying to shut down classes if completion numbers have not met expectations? We need to change our expectations. Learning is a whole different game.
Online education providers are treating academic courses like the one-off articles on BuzzFeed. If something does not attract “enough” consumers, it is deemed a useless failure. This model leads us dangerously into the territory of dumbing down courses to cater to the trendiest vocational skill sets, rather than the deep intellectual tools that develop creativity and problem-solving skills in the long run.
The university supports a model that more closely resembles a subscription; students buy in to an entire experience and environment, and— to oversimplify the educational delivery system— the 300-person Intro to Economics class makes up for the Critical Theory seminars with only 15 students each. When we look at a whole package or menu of products, the popular mass-market mega hits balance out the long-tail of others. Ryan Holiday covers the difference between the subscription model and the one-off model here.
With the new Master’s degree offered by Udacity, Georgia Tech, and AT&T, it looks like they are saying that the solution is selling (this time, for real dollars from students) packages of courses that resemble traditional Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, and have approval from the same system. But this is not the only way, and attempting to model new education in the frameworks of old education is backwards.
A student taking college algebra in person was 52% more likely to pass than one taking a Udacity class, making the $150 price tag—roughly one-third the normal in-state tuition—seem like something less than a bargain.
Really? Because it looks like me like this is a great alternative. The online course was priced at 33% of the in-person course, but has a pass rate that is 66% of the original. Maybe if the author from Fast Company had framed it this way, it wouldn’t seem like “less than a bargain”.
It looks to me like the biggest problem is that these articles all started off citing these huge, impressive sign-up numbers. It may grab the reader’s attention, and enhance the media’s original thesis that MOOCs are changing education faster than the speed of light, but it’s misleading for the readers. Of course 200,000 people are going to think, upon visiting a MOOC site, “Cool, I would love to learn how to build a website! Sign me up!” But did you really think that 200,000 people would have all of the necessary environmental factors that would allow them to work for hours and hours for weeks on end to complete these courses? When young adults go to college, they become new residents of a makeshift town or city—a cluster of buildings containing spaces where they sleep, eat, learn, work, and play. College students’ entire lives revolve around courses these courses. Why is it surprising that, left to their own devices, people have a hard time keeping up with online courses?
In conclusion, I say let MOOCs flourish! I want to continue to see tons of courses, websites, modules, and instructional videos. With such a huge volume of free materials, the highest quality ones will gain the most traction, people will recommend them to their friends and bosses and co-workers and peers, and they will transform access to knowledge and skills. Until then, let both MOOC-learners and MOOC-providers keep growing and learning. Low-percentage is not the same as low-impact.