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The Mystery of MOOCs: Where Did These Online Courses Go?

The Mystery of MOOCs: Where Did These Online Courses Go?

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By Dr. Shelley Pumphrey
Faculty Member, School of Business, American Public University

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) were supposed to revolutionize online learning and threaten traditional learning institutions. Supporters touted them as the next big thing in education, and they were supposed to put online schools out of business. However, where are they now?

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The Advantages Offered by MOOCs

As technology advanced, so did creative ideas on applying this technology. One such creative approach was the development of MOOCs.

MOOCs promised various benefits for students, such as a free learning experience in a variety of subjects. Also, they provided students with an opportunity to try different courses without a monetary investment, which was especially useful for students who were not certain if college was for them or what major to pursue.

In addition, MOOCs gave returning students an opportunity to get used to a regular study routine when they had been out of school for some time. Students could easily engage with experts in a particular field.

Furthermore, MOOCs offered easy enrollment and attendance on a student’s own time without the pressure of deadlines. Students did not have to follow a linear program but could jump between course topics, spending as much time as needed on weaker areas and breezing through those sections they mastered.

When MOOCs were first introduced, The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education and The Southern Regional Education Board reported that about 70% of those entering college were not prepared for the demands of academia. As a result, these students were required to attend remedial courses, adding to their college bill and prolonging the time they needed to graduate. In an effort to support these students, some MOOCs offered courses such as remedial math, algebra, effective writing and other courses geared toward preparing high school students for the rigors of college.

The question is: Did those MOOCs deliver on their promises?

Majority of MOOC Students Were Not Degree-Motivated

According to a Harvard Business Review article, those enrolling in a MOOC cited career benefits as the reason for taking a course. Moreover, the critics were right: most people who started a MOOC did not finish it.

For example, just four percent of Coursera students who began a course (measured by attending at least one lecture) went on to complete the course. Possibly more surprising was the fact that students were not motivated to earn a degree. Only 28% of all people who completed a MOOC enrolled to pursue an academic goal.

Nevertheless, of those completing a course, 88% report an educational benefit of some kind. About 72% of students reported career benefits from taking MOOCs.

Who Typically Enrolls in Massive Open Online Courses?

In theory, MOOCs would target and benefit potential students from developing countries as these potential students were believed by the courses’ designers to be seeking an education. Instead, those students who enrolled took a MOOC to advance in their current jobs.

According to Human Learning editor Chris Fellingham, “Moocs’ biggest user group has always been graduates, rather than those unserved by traditional degree courses.” A 2014 survey from the University of Pennsylvania notes that the target audience that the MOOCs were designed to support — those without access to higher education — were underrepresented in the student population.

This finding was confirmed by MIT and Harvard 2017-2018 studies that showed the majority of MOOC students lived in highly developed countries. The typical MOOC student was:

  • Young
  • Well-educated
  • Employed
  • Usually from developed countries
  • More likely male than female

The Disappearance of MOOCs

Harvard and MIT also found three significant trends over the past six years:

  • Most MOOC students did not return after their first year.
  • MOOC participation has been in the world’s most affluent countries.
  • Low completion rates have not improved over time.

Critics point to the low retention and completion rates as evidence the MOOC will slowly die. However, MOOC instructor Ignacio Despujol has attempted to put current statistics into perspective.

For example, Despujol says that one edX course attracted 200,000 students, with only seven and a half percent passing the course. This is discouraging until one considers only about 34% (68,000 students) of those enrolled accessed the course materials and 15,000 students passed the course. According to Inside Higher Ed writer Cathy Sandeen, the need to motivate students to complete a degree is the same in a MOOC environment as it is in traditional schools. 

The Future of MOOCs 

MOOCs still offer an innovative learning environment. Add social media, smart applications and other technology, and the opportunities expand for a teacher’s audience while students are offered an alternative to a linear learning model. Factor in artificial intelligence, tailoring the content, and delivery methods based on individual student needs, and the next level of education is still to be realized.

The MOOC experience to date should not deter innovation in education, but it should provide experience to build on. Contrary to expectations, the original MOOC business model was not disruptive to traditional learning as predicted, possibly because the culture of education has not evolved as fast as technology. Possibly, it just was not the right model at the time.

As we move into an era of artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality (VR), we might see the expansion of the MOOC 2.0 experience where we can test and build new models. The MOOC of tomorrow might become an incubator to empower educators to introduce and test student acceptance of AI, VR, and other opportunities. Possibly MOOC 2.0 will enhance and support the future student by reimagining learning and technology.

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About the Author

Dr. Shelley Pumphrey is an academic and business leader with over 20 years of teaching experience in technology and business courses at a variety of colleges and universities. She is a former Manager of Communications at Baltimore Gas & Electric and served for over 30 years in the energy industry. Dr. Pumphrey earned her Ph.D. in information security and has published in the areas of alternative fuels and information security.

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