A MOOC reality check

Two weeks ago I asked some questions in this blog about the hype surrounding MOOCs (massive open online courses), and wondered whether these courses really were the game changer that some of their supporters claim they are. Now one of the major private providers of MOOCs, Udacity, has had to pause the development of its university partnership with San Jose State University. The pause has been described by the two organisations as ‘taking a breather’, and representatives of both the company and the university have stressed that the partnership is not being wound down.

However, what appears to have triggered the ‘breather’ are the somewhat low pass rates in the jointly run courses, some of them as low as 12 per cent, and apparently all under or well under 50 per cent.

In fact, the Udacity/San Jose partnership did not just run MOOCs as generally understood, but also credit-bearing courses using the MOOC technology. These were introduced to offer cheaper options to the university’s students.

The two partners are playing their cards somewhat close to their chests and are offering somewhat opaque reasons for the pause in activities. Indeed the vagueness of the explanations suggests that they are not quite sure themselves how to evaluate the experience to date, including the low pass rates. But there may already be a clue in there somewhere, because if any of these courses were being offered to save costs and therefore lower prices, this may suggest that some doubtful assumptions were being employed. There is no doubt that online learning offers huge opportunities, with the possibility of exciting pedagogy and interesting flexibility of provision. However, doing this well is not cheap, and does not offer the kind of major savings that some stakeholders appear to expect; which is another reason why the absence of a business model for MOOCs may be a serious issue.

Udacity and San Jose State University may well get this show back on the road. But I suspect there will be other ‘breathers’ across this whole scene; and that in turn may prompt a more realistic and mature debate about the true potential of online learning.

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8 Comments on “A MOOC reality check”

  1. V.H Says:

    In fairness now what the Calif powers-that-be are expecting from MOOCs no one could do. While the State existing providers see the motivation is their removal or at least the drastic reduction of their draw on the budget in Sacramento and so have their backs up big time. Ergo, it’s really necessary to keep in mind the internal politics of the US when viewing these MOOCs.

    You would only be human to have a good bit of the I-told-you-so’s for you did say there was true difficulties with MOOCs as constituted today and you that couldn’t see a reasonable and sustainable route with the existing providers.

    But just to get things straight about that maths course, 12% of 3,500 is 420 while 29% of 100 is 29. and since the cost per is the same for both the only question is what the devil did they expect from a self selecting group with little notion of what would be involved. In fact it would seem the powers-that-be are simply being greedy for the statistics of enrollment are just pie in the sky and should realistically be slashed by two thirds making the real numbers about 40% for the larger group.
    What I believe, and this is just spaghetti on a cold wall-tile, is the expected numbers taking the ‘for credit’ option wasn’t as high as projected thereby tossing their business plan into disarray.
    All in all, these on-line courses are not even in the first trimester. And in an industry where nineteenth century institutions are seen as arriviste and 90s universities little more than trade schools you have to give credit to San Jose and the Ca State University system for giving it the try.

  2. Al Says:

    An example of a sub prime market for academic credit???


  3. “Every university-enrolled student taking the course had already failed the traditional version once, she said.” It seems that there are quite a few variables effecting outcomes. We indeed need to avoid hype from both sides. Let’s give this time, collect good data and then use appropriately.

  4. iainmacl Says:

    Despite your commenters’ enthusiasm for the hype, I suspect you are right, Ferdinand. What is interesting about many MOOCs (honourable exceptions exist) is that they represent first forays into online learning for academics from institutions that have never really bothered with such in the past. Distance learning, online programmes, etc, were all seen to be beneath them and too much hassle. MOOCs became spectacularly over-hyped despite providing no new technology and a huge amount of old-fashioned pedagogy. Remember the founder of one of those companies couldn’t get much student attendance or attention in his own lecture classes before he decided to just provide canned recordings and let people get on with it, or not. What’s happening now is that these organisations are beginning to realise that the Learning Design community might have been onto something after all with their interest in learner support, in pedagogic activities that promote intellectual engagement and in which articulate, individually-responsive feedback is provided. Further, other studies have shown that people who succeed best in online learning are often those who have completed a reasonable level of prior learning and who, in other words, have appropriate study skills, confidence and determination. Indeed, you might argue that many would be the sort of person who could take a textbook out of a library and work through it.😉

    The hype spun these MOOCs as a means of low-cost education to tap into the already bruised American public’s experience of exorbitant tuition fees, the right-leaning media’s distaste for public institutions and their over-romanticised notion of ‘private enterprise’. Link these together and it’s hardly a surprise that Venture Capitalists were ready to open up their wallets. However, now they are beginning to get a bit on edge and wondering when this return is going to start happening as the private MOOC providers scramble for any model at all that brings in an income.

    Funnily enough these new business models involve fees and licences. How much further can you get from the promises of free and ‘open’? What you’re getting now is a cheaper online course that provides lower levels of learner support. Want more support? Buy an add-on with total costs approaching the running costs of a traditional online programme.

    By the way, just to respond to one of the comments. These courses were not free. If you look closely at the license deals and ‘partnership’ contracts with MOOC companies, institutions using MOOCs for their students need to pay fees per student and with additional ‘development’ charges thrown in. MOOCs are only ‘free’ in some cases (small print) if you as a learner promise never to try and use the MOOC to get official academic credit in any institution.

    It’s interesting to speculate as to whether the higher education ‘bubble’ that is going to burst is actually not that of traditional HE or online learning but rather than of the MOOC companies themselves. It’s also a pity that much of the press is so captivated with MOOCs as ‘disruptive’ that they don’t see that the real disruption is likely to come from a very different direction, such as those states in the US that are now openly exploring the abolition of tuition fees and their replacement with, wait for it, taxation!

    Enjoying the ride though. It’s fun.😉

    • anna notaro Says:

      It’s not just the press that is captivated with the MOOCs as ‘disruptive’, but many within academia itself, the contemporary rethoric of innovation is very powerful and alluring and the (financial) pressure is on. There is nothing wrong with ‘disruption’ per se of course, any change entails a certain degree of it in life as well as in HE!

  5. anna notaro Says:

    It’s not just the press that is captivated with the MOOCs as ‘disruptive’, but many within academia itself, the contemporary rethoric of innovation is very powerful and alluring and the (financial) pressure is on. There is nothing wrong with ‘disruption’ per se of course, any change entails a certain degree of it in life as well as in HE!


  6. […] there, no matter how hard we’re all banging our ruby slippers together. If this is a bubble, as Ferdinand von Prondzynski suspects, it may drag significant higher education and corporate brands into difficulty when it pops. If it […]


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