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4 Lessons We Can Learn from the "Failure" of MOOCs

Andrew Miller

Instructional Coach at Shanghai American School
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Recently NPR did a story that had the general title The Online Education Revolution Drifts Off Course. And yet the article was focused solely on MOOCs (massive open online courses). Let's be clear that MOOCs are just one part of the so-called online learning revolution. (Don't forget blended learning, the flipped classroom, etc). The story was a strong critique on MOOCs and their effectiveness. For instance, the article cites one case at San Jose State University in California:

But by all accounts, the San Jose experiment was a bust. Completion rates and grades were worse than for those who took traditional campus-style classes. And the students who did best weren't the underserved students San Jose most wanted to reach.

Even Udacity's co-founder called their MOOCs a "lousy product." Obviously MOOCs are not as successful as was previously hoped. In fact, much of this was not a surprise to me. MOOCs can run into the same pitfall that swallows other iterations of online education. Let's use this iteration as an opportunity to improve practice for online learning.

1. Retain the Human Element

Education is about relationships. We know this, and the creators of MOOCs have started to adjust based on this. Course mentors are being added, as well as more 24/7 support specialists. We can no longer continue with the "factory farm" model of online education and push students through it without the close relationship and coaching of a teacher. Online and blended-learning teachers need to continue building relationships with students to truly personalize learning. You can't personalize learning with a 100:1 student:teacher ratio!

2. Foster Focused Collaboration

While MOOCs have had a lot of tools for open collaboration, engagement in these spaces may be hit or miss. Participation in discussion boards can in fact be a good metric to gauge a MOOC's success. In order to increase participation, give students authentic issues and problems to address. In addition, create affinity or project groups, or have students self-select for these groups. This will create not only a focused cohort of colleagues, but also a focus on topics and problems.

3. Provide Ongoing Feedback

If students receive needed and timely formative assessment feedback, learning can be more personalized, and they will be getting the attention they need. There can of course be self, peer, expert and teacher assessments, along with assessment by other agents, but it must be ongoing. We need to build more of this into MOOCs and online education in general.

4. Blended Is Best

I would make an argument that one of the best ways to work on all the above recommendations is to take on some sort of blended model. There are many of these models and implementation methods. When a course is blended, ongoing feedback and assessment can happen more readily, relationships can be strengthened, and collaboration can happen in varying spaces that meet student needs. Even Coursera is seeing this as important and is building "learning hubs" that include weekly in-person instruction. Anant Agarwal makes the case in a recent TED talk that MOOCs, despite the issues we've discussed, can still be used to supplement instruction. In fact, Anant pairs online instruction with face-to-face, creating a blended environment.

We know these strategies and recommendations work! Another important thing to consider, however, is how we are measuring the "failure" and "success" of MOOCs. Perhaps MOOCs are disrupting the traditional mold of education and are still being measured using the quality indicators of Education 1.0. In fact, the Atlantic recently published an article that explains how "tricky" it is to measure the success of a MOOC. In addition, Anant Agarwal believes that MOOCs can still be a useful component of blended learning. And so, regardless of this rough patch, we can still learn from some of the bumps and, in learning, we can improve digital education for all.

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Shwetha Radhakrishna's picture

MOOCs gained a lot of popularity and gave a lot of promise initially, upon it's creation. However, the major factor which led to the downfall was the student drop-out rates.

Some of the good points mentioned in the article sure helps to overcome these drawbacks of MOOCs. This idea cannot just be thrown away. It needs to be improvised. Blended learning is a great idea. One of the courses in my University is called a "Hybrid class", wherein the students watch the weekly lectures and then meet in class and clarify the doubts with the instructor. This was a major hit, and in fact in once class, the students in the Hybrid class performed better than the in class students.

I strongly believe MOOCs have a lot of potential and have a lot to offer in the coming years.

Aravind J's picture

I think Andrew has made a good observation about the lessons which can be learned from the failure of MOOC's. I particularly liked the first and last point which he makes about retaining the human element and blended is the best. I feel the most important drawback of MOOC's is the loss of human element. Most students get motivated by a sense of belonging. There is a student teacher relationship which takes place in a classroom . Implementing the same in MOOC can be a very challenging task. Also I feel blended learning where in ther is a face to face interaction atleast once a week or once a month would help. But again it is yet to be seen whether the face to face interaction is practical especially when the students of MOOC are from all over the world. I do not agree with Rohit on the point that failure of MOOC is lack of completion rate. Many a times I use MOOC's like Coursera to learn a subtopic for eg trees in data structures. I would bnot have the tim eto complete the course but I would have definitely gained knowledge in that subtopic. Just because i did not complete the course I don't think u can count it as a failure of MOOC's. I feel lack of completion rate is not a good measure of the failure of MOOC's.

Satyanand Kale's picture

I agree with what Induja has to say on the motivation factor as the reason for the failures of MOOC. I want to extend this further to give more statistical data on the reasons for the dropout rate in MOOCs.
Eventhough according to the Babson Survey Research Group, Enrollment in MOOCs has increased by 29% from 20010 to 2011, the drop out rate has also increased a lot. 90% of the users who registered for the MOOCs failed to complete the course. Out of this 90%, 20% people dropped out of MOOC because of lack of motivation. Although the maximum users(75%) still felt that the main reason for them to dropout is because it did not impose any cost for dropping out [1].


Sumanth Kulkarni's picture

Drop-out rates in MOOCs although important, seldom tell us the true story behind a person's aim of enrolling in the course. As Aravind said, few people only sign up to learn a particular sub-topic rather than an entire text-book with complicated stuff.

Like Coursera, I feel that other communities should have in-video quizzes, basing on which we can truly determine as to how many people watched the video and how many completed the quiz successfully. Just checking how many students enrolled to a particular course and how many dropped out does not justify how much knowledge one would have gained by watching a couple of videos.

Vijay Manavalan's picture

The term "Failure of MOOCs" is subjective based on the goals we aim for a MOOC to achieve. MOOCs became popular for the main reason that it is open and massive. When a student needs to learn a topic he can just view that part of the video through a MOOC, however it is not possible through an traditional in class course. MOOC can be accessed anywhere if you have a laptop and internet while in a traditional class room course you must be present in a class. In this perspective MOOCs are successful, by helping thousands of students in gaining knowledge as and when needed. However, in terms of course completion or pass rate it is going to fall for the reason that there no rigid set of rules implemented in a MOOC and also since it is offered for no cost people discontinue a MOOC course easily. For the latter perspective the four lessons described by the author is definitely useful. In the former view I believe MOOCs are still a success.

Zongkun Yang's picture

The usage of the concept of MOOC is blasting these years, but like the article mentions, the MOOC websites have not gain so much achievements as they meant to. There are many friends around me use Coursera, but very few of them have completed even one course. The high drop-out ratio but meanwhile have a large amount of users, means there is a large potential that MOOC website can be more successful. Just like the methods mentioned in this article, websites need to attract users' passion and increase collaborative learning functionalities and so on. To conquer this problem, Coursera has it's own weapon, it give certifications to users when they have successfully completed and passed courses. This method is creative and helpful because it increases the passion of student on learning something on this website and persist to finish them to get the certification. However, no one knows if the student sitting front of the computer screen is the right person, or if its the same person finish every assignment online. So that the value of the certification would slip down and becomes not that meaningful.

Apart from all methods mentioned in this article for the improvement on MOOC websites, I have another one inspired by the Software named PACT, which pay you if you persist in gyming every week and achieve your goal. But if you cannot, you would get cash punished. Although the reward and punishment are never high, just sone change, but this mechanism can press people to do what they need to do. We can introduce the same business logic on MOOC websites, at the beginning when a user start to learn a course or participate in a group study project, the user can have a option to get reward on completion, in this way, if the user cannot complete it, he would get punished by cash. To some degree, this is a double-win mechanism because the website would have more profit, and users get pressed.

What mentioned above is my understanding of this article and suggestions. Thanks.

Rajath Agasthya's picture


While the success or failure of MOOCs is debatable, I believe technology is not the fundamental problem for the failure of MOOCs. In fact, if technology is smartly integrated into classrooms, we can leverage the benefits of technology as well face-to-face learning. The article Effects of Technology on classrooms and students ( gives a great insight into some of the benefits. One of the benefits is that technology can students will be in an active role rather than just being recipients of information by actively thinking about information and instructors assume a role of facilitator supporting students. This is just one of the many uses of technology in classroom. I am also cautious in saying that there must a fine balance between technology and face-to-face-interaction.

Karthik Jayaraman's picture

Good point Rajath. In-spite of the limitation, one good thing you get in MOOCs is the technological implication. For instance, the data that MOOCs get hold can be used for constructive purposes like learner based coursework, periodical feedback on student performance, suggest courses to build profile etc. One other impact of the technology on the MOOC is that the student communities and study groups. Students can choose to be a part of the group, build stronger community with a shared mission / vision. Since course is not imposed on the students unlike traditional classes, it provides an option for the student to think out of the box. Another example of the use of technology is the course can be rated or suggested based on its application to the current job industry which will allow students to pick courses that could have an immediate impact on his/her career.

As the author states, measuring the success or failure rate of MOOC is a debatable topic. As per EdX, the student body of MOOCs is mostly constituted by Masters students(31%), Bachelor's student(34%) and PhD(7%). Hence this has to do with drop-out rate as most of the students take the course to learn a concept or two and they do not often complete the course as they are not obliged to do so. There are various factors that could be done to motivate students to complete the course, but, in my perspective it is not that important as the success of the MOOCs cannot be gauged with the completion rate.

Basharat Ali's picture

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Riya Saxena's picture

Thanks for your post. The future of online learning isn't about accessibility: it's about taking what we already know works offline and combining it with what you can only do online to create the most engaging experience. We're all still searching for the right formula, but the ingredients will be the same as they've always been: Learning through exploration, thoughtfully designed for the right behaviors, with great teachers providing support.

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