What’s a MOOC — and where are they going next?

Jan 27, 2014 /


“MOOC,” or Massive Online Open Course, refers to a large online class open to an unlimited number of people. Dave Cormier from the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown, Canada and Bryan Alexander from the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education in Georgetown, Texas, are credited with coining the phrase in 2008. The first known MOOC was “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge,” taught by Stephen Downes and George Siemens in partnership with the University of Manitoba in Canada.

Still, the first major player in the MOOC world came from slightly outside of traditional higher ed and took a rather different approach from those original courses. Udacity was launched in January 2012 by Sebastian Thrun, famous for building Google’s driverless car, with David Stavens and Mike Sokolsky. The for-profit company was inspired by an experiment at Stanford in which Thrun offered the “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” course he taught with Peter Norvig online, for free. 160,000 students in 190 countries enrolled and convinced Thrun that he was onto something. Two other major MOOC providers quickly followed: Coursera, launched by Stanford’s Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng; and the nonprofit edX, founded by MIT and Harvard and led by Anant Agarwal.

MOOCs are distinct from other online education platforms in that they have a timeline, a traditional multi-week syllabus, structured discussion and assessment. They have been praised for democratizing education by: being free (or very cheap); providing Ivy League-caliber classes to anyone without a crazy admissions process; creating a vast new pool of data on how students learn; making quality education accessible at a distance and en masse. Said Koller in her 2012 talk at TEDGlobal, such courses “would enable a wave of innovation, because amazing talent can be found anywhere. Maybe the next Albert Einstein or the next Steve Jobs is living somewhere in a remote village in Africa. And if we could offer that person an education, they would be able to come up with the next big idea and make the world a better place for all of us.

Of course, along with the excitement came the concern. Common criticisms of MOOCs included the incredibly high student-to-teacher ratio (in contrast with the traditional gold standard of very low student-to-teacher ratios), difficulties and inconsistencies in non-automated assessment (especially for the humanities) and the lack of a “real college experience.” Said Peter J. Burgard, who teaches German at Harvard, in an interview with the New Yorker, “to me, college education in general is sitting in a classroom with students, and preferably with few enough students that you can have real interaction, and really digging into and exploring a knotty topic — a difficult image, a fascinating text, whatever. That’s what’s exciting. There’s a chemistry to it that simply cannot be replicated online.”

And while the courses are available to learners at all levels, a later survey revealed that 64 percent of MOOC takers already have a bachelor’s or master’s degree, suggesting that this might be less a radical new form of college replacement and more a new tool for the already well educated.

But mostly, the MOOC train brought about a lot of hype around its potential. (See: “College is dead. Long live college!“; “The End of the University as We Know It” and “Online Higher-Education Startup Coursera Is Taking Over the World.”) Many predicted that it would radically decentralize quality education and revolutionize higher education. In November 2012, The New York Times declared “The Year of the MOOC.” Sign-ups surged: currently Coursera has 6.25 million students around the world, edX has 1.8 million, while Udacity has 1.6 million.

In early 2013, the California government piloted a partnership with Udacity that allowed students at San José State University to get course credit for five “augmented” classes, each costing $150, lower than standard tuition at the time. The pilot produced rates of student failure between 56 and 76 percent — much higher than in-person classes. The next program will be scaled back and will cost standard tuition prices.

The shadow cast by those results was then made worse by a Fast Company article in which Thrun apparently recanted his optimism about the potential of MOOCs. For one thing, the low number of students who actually finish a chosen course and the high failure rates bother him too. Yet Thrun later took issue with the article, defending MOOCs as a work-in-progress and insisting he never said MOOCs wouldn’t work. Relatedly, recent working papers from MIT and Harvard provide a backlash to the backlash.

Nonetheless, it seems Thrun is not alone in constantly questioning how these online courses might work in practice, and much of the more recent rhetoric has shifted away from the idea that MOOCs will revolutionize the traditional higher education model, instead focusing on how they might augment it. In a recent Huffington Post blog piece, Anant Agarwal called for an “unbundling” of higher education, arguing that MOOCs now offer an opportunity for traditional academic institutions to gently shift away from some of their old, stagnant tenets. Says Agarwal, “Success will lie in experimenting with these new concepts.”