Education, Innovation, Puzzling Future

Online education is a technology with potentially revolutionary implications—but without a precise plan for realizing that potential. CREDIT PHOTOGRAPH BY MELANIE STETSON FREEMAN / THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR VIA GETTY

Online education is a technology with potentially revolutionary implications—but without a precise plan for realizing that potential. CREDIT PHOTOGRAPH BY MELANIE STETSON FREEMAN / THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR VIA GETTY

If the first post of today was rather too depressing, here is an interesting puzzle to take your mind off that subject. In honor of all of this year’s interns, many of whom are probably thinking about MOOCs for various reasons, we thank the New Yorker’s Elements writer Maria Konnikova for this intriguing distraction:

On July 23rd, 1969, Geoffrey Crowther addressed the inaugural meeting of the Open University, a British institution that had just been created to provide an alternative to traditional higher education. Courses would be conducted by mail and live radio. The basic mission, Crowther declared, was a simple one: to be open to people from all walks of life. “The first, and most urgent task before us is to cater for the many thousands of people, fully capable of a higher education, who, for one reason or another, do not get it, or do not get as much of it as they can turn to advantage, or as they discover, sometimes too late, that they need,” he told his audience. “Men and women drop out through failures in the system,” he continued, “through disadvantages of their environment, through mistakes of their own judgment, through sheer bad luck. These are our primary material.” He then invoked the message emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty: Open University wanted the tired, the poor, the huddled masses. To them, most of all, it opened its doors.

The mission Crowther described is the same one that has driven the proliferation of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, during the past few years. (Open University has often served as a sort of inspirational model for such ventures, which Nathan Heller wrote about last year in the magazine.) The premise of the MOOC movement is as commendable as it is democratic: quality education should not be a luxury good. MOOCs are flexible and they can be free; if people want an education, MOOCs can give it to them.

MOOCs started with a bang of optimism. In 2011, Sebastian Thrun, a star professor at Stanford, made his introductory course on artificial intelligence available via an online broadcast. Within three months, he garnered over a hundred and sixty thousand viewers. Soon after, he started Udacity, one of the largestMOOC platforms. Other platforms that have sprung up in recent years include edX, which was developed through a collaboration between Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Coursera, which was co-founded by two of Thrun’s colleagues at Stanford; and Khan Academy, the brainchild of the former hedge-fund analyst Salman Khan. Overseas, there are ventures like iversity and FutureLearn. And the number of available classes has been growing at an impressive pace. This month, there are four hundred and ninety-five MOOCs listed as in-progress on the MOOCaggregator Class Central, five times as many as there were a year ago.

And yet, despite the steady spread of the MOOC movement and the growing acceptance among university administrators that quality online education doesn’t have to be an oxymoron, enthusiasm for MOOChas waned in the past year. Last winter, Thrun himself expressed some doubts. “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,” he told Fast Company in an interview. “We have a lousy product.” (He later told the Times that his enthusiasm had not actually declined as much as he might have indicated.)

On one hand, MOOCs have achieved some worthy goals: they make top educational resources available, for free or for very low prices, to people who wouldn’t have access to them otherwise, including older populations, people with unpredictable schedules, and international audiences. And the quality of the education they offer can be quite high: the Open University, for instance, which began to offer online courses in the nineties, has consistently ranked among the top universities in the U.K. in measures of student satisfaction.

On the other hand, there are the numbers that gave Thrun pause. MOOC enrollment has soared, but completion rates are abysmal. According to a 2013 study, an average of only five per cent of the students in seventeen Coursera classes offered through the University of Pennsylvania actually finished their classes. Other estimated completion rates hover below thirteen per cent. And not all of the students who completed their courses necessarily passed.

The problem with MOOCs begins with the fact that, as their name says, they’re massive and open, which means that it can be easy to get lost in them. There are tens or even hundreds of thousands of students in some classes. Often, the students receive no personal acknowledgment or contact to hold them to account. And they can generally drop out the second they’re unhappy, frustrated, or overwhelmed. Thedatasuggest, in fact, that the students who succeed in the MOOC environment are those who don’t particularly need MOOCs in the first place: they are the self-motivated, self-directed, and independent individuals who would push to succeed anywhere.

Last year, a team from the University of Pennsylvania, led by Gayle Christensen, found that the majority of the people enrolled in thirty-two of the courses offered through Penn’s Coursera platform were young, already well educated, from developed countries, and, for the most part, employed—precisely the traditional students that Crowther held in contrast to the Open University’s target demographic. And most of the students weren’t taking classes in order to gain an essential education that they wouldn’t receive otherwise; predominantly, they said they had enrolled to satisfy curiosity or advance in a current job—both of which are worthy pursuits, to be sure, but they are not the main needs that MOOCs were created to meet.

Earlier this year, an M.I.T. post-doctoral researcher named Jennifer DeBoer analyzed student data from an M.I.T. class offered through the edX platform to see if there were any factors that predicted success in the class. When she and her colleagues looked at over seven thousand responses to an exit survey, they found that the students who did the best were the ones who came in with prior education, had the highest intellectual starting points, and collaborated outside of class. In other words, those who succeeded in the MOOC were those who had already succeeded academically.

2013 analysis of an ambitious project launched by San Jose State University in collaboration with Udacity showed similar patterns…

Read the whole post here.

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