Whatever happened to MOOCs?

10-15 years ago, Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) were a higher education fad. Universities could dispense with physical (lecture halls, heating, cooling, cleaning, security) and administrative (room scheduling) costs and just teach students online. During this period, I was associate dean for research and the Dean of our medical school brought up the suggestion that we could replace our first year medical school curriculum with MOOCs. Never mind that one of those Os in MOOC stands for “open,” meaning tuition-free, open to everyone, which would do violence to our tuition-based business model. We were going to just give this away–seriously?

I read everything I could at the time–it was hot, so there were plenty of articles and studies–to prepare for a Dean’s staff discussion that never came. I don’t know if he figured out on his own or was overtaken by more pressing concerns, but MOOCs fell off the agenda.

The COVID pandemic was an idea test bed for MOOCs, since Zoom classrooms became pervasive across academis in the first couple of years. What everyone figured out pretty quickly is that teaching well online is hard, faculty and technology-intensive and makes students and professors unhappy. This was pretty predictable from the experience with MOOCs prior to the pandemic–only a small fraction of students who enrolled actually completed MOOCs. Most dropped out. Not a lot of learning there. If MOOCs didn’t get a shot in the arm from the COVID Zoom years, I don’t know what it would take.

Some subjects (STEM topics in particular) lend themselves to online instruction, since mastery of some formulaic content is required. Interactive sessions could be reserved for problem-solving using the toolkit presented online, the so-called “flipped classroom” model. Of course, that was already possible with textbooks.

In the end, most learners lack the self-discipline and motivation to learn on their own. They need an instructor to provide a vector for their efforts. MOOCs, like flying cars and fusion energy, will remain mostly a futuristic vision.