Are MOOCs finally neither open or massive ?

MOOC_-_Massive_Open_Online_Course_logo.svgMOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses are the beginning of a revolution in learning and knowledge acquisition even if we still need to separate the wheat from the chaff.

So we’re in a early experimentation phase that will help to refine and improve. The good news is that experimentations accelerating so we’ll have more and more matter to learn from their success and failures. There’s one I want to mention more specifically : the one conducted by the San Jose State University – SJSU. In february they announced they’ll be starting a MOOC with Udacity. This initiative was noticeable because these courses were credit-bearing, a very serious matter for students compared to free ones that don’t come with the same stake.

After one semester of MOOC : 76% of failure

Of course everybody was impatient to know how it was going to work and the results of this innovative initiative. And the results are not looking godd, as written  is this well-detailed post, since the project was got suspended a couple of months only after it started. The reason ? A failure rate ranging from 56 to 76%. Even worse, outside of the university only 7,5% of students were completing the course. Enough to decide a pause and learn from the experimentation to improve or reposition the project.

The point is not to kill a promising idea because it failed once but to refine our understanding of such systems and how they work with various audiences, for complex needs.

From my own perspective, here are some of the questions the SJSU case raises.

• Do MOOCs work for “first-time learners”

We can imagine that a seasoned managers looking for specific courses or MBA students have enough hindsight on managing their own learning and the constraints that come with that they would be more likely to complete the courses. On the contrary, younger people that are still “learning to learn”‘ may not have the required maturity to manage the 100% online nature of a course.

Are MOOCs only for those who have learned to learn ?

For example, and even if the time (early 2000s) was very different from now, I remember of a foreign professor giving lectures at my business school who proposed us a similar approach. It was very exciting for us, all the more since we were in a “e-something” major and were looking for any new digital approach to anything. Ok, the bandwidth was much slower than now, videos were smaller, and the concept was still in its infancy. But after the excitement of the first courses, passion decreased and everyone gave up with the online courses to such an extent that only collaboration helped us to pass the exam (understand : 5 of us spent a lot of time to turn the content into something more classical for others). We liked the approach but very few of us were able to make the most of it or make themselves able to learn in this new fashion.

In short and for any reason we were not capable to follow the process to its end.

• Do 100% online cursus work ?

It’s about the need for mixing physical and digital learning. Many are convinced that both are needed to favor interactions between students and between students and professors. I’ll even add that if all these interactions are possible online today, we need a spark, a starting point, some fuel we’ll find offline to interact online. But that’s not the most important point.

The most important point is that offline courses also have specific benefits. A good professor doe not always teach things, he also teaches how to learn. That’s what “first-time learners” lack : method.

• The price of MOOCs ?

Would we have had the same discussion for a free and not credit-bearing approach. Maybe not or not this way. We all know that if a MOOC is free, learners become the product and the client is elsewhere. On the other side, once people pay (even less that for an offline course) and that the ultimate goal is the diploma, quality indicators become essential.

Maybe a 80% failure rate is ok for a MOOC. I don’t know. Maybe it’s part of the model. But in this case, MOOCs should only be used for some very specific needs.

We should not throw MOOCs with the buzzword water, even if the concept still need to be improved and has been oversold at the beginning. But we must learn from the first experimentations to improve the materials, refine the offer and, most of all, maybe change the promise.

Don’t give up but rewrite the promise

But one thing is sure. If it appears that MOOCs work much more with mature populations having learned to learn and to manage their own knowledge supply chain, it will question two founding principles :

• MOOCs are not totally Open if they’re not suitable for a large part of the potential audience, except if one to cheat on the promise. Most of all if courses are paying.

• If MOOCs have to be refined based on learners’ maturity and ability to learn, they’re not massive either since many educational approached will be needed for a single course and purpose (not only many different contents). If the massive nature was the lever allowing to cut learning costs down, a thinner granularity would challenge the entire business model.

Wait and…learn

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