Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Failed Experiment at San Jose State Shows the Down Side of MOOCs

One of the hottest new topics in higher education these days is the MOOC--that is, a Massive Open Online Course.  Tens of thousands of people have signed up in EACH of the hundreds of MOOCs being offered for free by such top-tier universities as Stanford, Harvard, Duke, and the like.  It is such a trendy thing among American colleges that the recent debacle at the University of Virginia, where the Board first fired, and then was forced to reinstate popular President Teresa Sullivan, was largely due to the Board Chair's perception that Sullivan wasn't moving aggressively enough into the online arena.  (For more information, see my blog post Doing The Right Thing at the University of Virginia.)

As I stated in that blog post, while I understand the exciting potential of MOOCS (and am participating in three different MOOCs myself this summer), its place in undergraduate education is far from clear.  Having ten thousand or more people like me--people who have already completed their college education and are doing MOOCs for self-enrichment, professional development, or just pursuing a personal interest--are entirely different creatures from students trying to graduate from an accredited college program and start their professional careers.

A recent news event gives some proof to the cautions I mentioned in that earlier blog post.  On July 18, 2013, officials at San Jose State University suspended a highly-vaunted experiment with MOOC provider Udacity to lower the cost of a college education by placing their students in MOOC course, which were less expensive than the SJSU standard classes ($150 per online course compared to $620 for the traditional ones).  The problem?  Their local newspaper, the San Jose Mercury News, reported that the SJSU students were failing the MOOC classes at alarming rates--from a 56% failure rate at the best, down to a 76% failure rate at the worst.  I couldn't find any exactly comparable rates for their traditional classes on campus, but in 2011, SJSU had a first-year retention rate among freshman students of 82.9%, so it clearly can't be anywhere close to those failure rates.

But am I surprised by those rates?  No.  In my opinion, SJSU picked the wrong population with which to begin to experiment with MOOCs.  The five courses in the experiment were all considered to be remedial classes--basic math, elementary statistics, college algebra, introductory computer programming, and psychology.  Remedial classes, by definition, are supposed to supply students with information and abilities that they are already expected to have, but are deficient in.  In most cases, this means that they have already been exposed to the material, but failed to comprehend it.  But if you have students who have demonstrated a problem in a particular curricular area, why would you enroll them in a type of course in which they get LESS support when obviously they need MORE support?  Plus, these students did not get to choose to participate in the MOOC; they were simply assigned to it.  Successful online learning requires a special kind of learner.  To my mind, people taking remedial classes are the least likely to benefit from MOOCs, at least as I have experienced them.

Do you know who has been doing an exemplary job in online education, not just since Time Magazine dubbed 2012 as "The Year of the MOOC," but for decades?  It's not Stanford, whose first MOOCs enrolled over 100,000 students apiece and whose faculty started the MOOC companies of Udacity and Coursera.  It's not MIT, with along with Harvard, Berkeley, Georgetown, and a few other universities of that ilk, launched edX.  No, the higher education institutions that have been doing this well for years and years and years are....community colleges.  Community colleges, with their commitment to universal access and serving all populations of learners, have been doing online learning for years, and doing it well.  But if you talk to community colleges, they will tell you that online learning is not cheaper than their traditional classes on campus.  Sure, maybe you can reach more students with one lecturer projected to a broad population, which might be cheaper.  But community colleges have made their online courses successful because they invest significantly in student services that support the distant learners in keeping up with and completing their courses.  

So while I understand the motivation behind the SJSU effort, I think it was a foolish decision.  For MOOCs to have high completion rates, colleges need to spend a lot more time, attention, and money in student support, which has been completely neglected in all of our love fest with MOOCs.  After all, spending $620 for a class that you complete and get credit for is a better deal than spending $150 for a class that only gets you an F on your college transcript.

And I can tell you from my MOOC experience that they are not that easy to follow.  Of the three that I am taking, in only one of them am I completely clear about what I am supposed to do, when I am supposed to do it, and what I am supposed to do with my assignments once I complete them (and that one is only a mini-MOOC with fewer students and a greater amount of personal interaction with the MOOC leaders).  A second one I'm pretty sure I'm keeping up, but not 100%.  And with the third one, I was lost a lot of the time.  The thing was, I didn't really care.  I was getting some good information, I felt I was contributing to my fellow MOOC learners, but I'm not fully invested in any of these classes (although pretty invested in the first one).  They all offer certificates of completion, but I don't care about earning those; they have no particular value to me.  So I do the best I can with the time I have available, and feel what I've learned (and hopefully what I have contributed) is enough for me without necessarily completing the course.

But if I were depending on these for a foundation part of my college education?  I would be way more stressed out about even figuring out whether or not I am doing what I am supposed to be doing (except for the first MOOC).  And I am someone who has completed both undergraduate and graduate school and successfully completed a couple of community college online classes!  Can you imagine what it is like for a less experienced learner trying to navigate this online environment with thousands of other confused students?

So I don't mean to trash MOOCs.  I've really enjoyed and have learned a lot from the ones I've been doing this summer.  But I do believe educators and the public need to think through more carefully the application of this new educational possibility to accredited programs.

After all, just listening to a talking head from Harvard, accompanied by all the technological bells and whistles they can design, is one thing.  Getting an education--that is another.

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