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.
Could be that maybe on-line courses are not such a great learning experience?
Or perhaps that, since the expectation among students was that they would free, they were not exactly good for the offering school’s revenue stream.
No doubt both apply. Also, when folks don’t pay for something, they often don’t value it.
Anyone here old enough to remember correspondence courses? Distance learning has been available for a long time, and some people can learn that way and others don’t. Some knowledge or skills are better fitted to the distance paradigm, others less so.
Exactly. Whether most learners are really college level learners is another question.
I certainly remember correspondence courses. What I remember most is the ads for correspondence courses. I don’t recall meeting many people who got college degrees via correspondence courses, but that could be me.
The data I’ve seen showed that only a small fraction of initial registrants complete MOOCs. Not none, but a small fraction of those that enroll.
Gotta admit; it got me to thinking about the future of higher education.
It got lots of folks thinking about the future of higher education. At the time, I was subscribing to the Chronicle of Higher Education, and there were one or more articles on MOOCs in nearly every issue.
But as far as I can tell, the impact of MOOCs on higher ed has turned out to be modest at best.
Part of learning is the ability to exchange information/discuss the lessons one is involved in with fellow students/travelers of the quest. The “shared” experience is part of the motivation. It is also part of the mastering of the material beyond just regurgitating it. Can’t get this online.
Maybe as the generations equate virtual experiences/texting etc as being the same as actual in person experiences online learning will have a place. Unfortunately, current studies suggest we are losing an aspect of life which is important to healthy psyches and thus society.
Then again, a generation raised without something can never know they are missing it. So, adaptation?
It wasn’t til I had school-age kids that I learned that there are (now) various different kinds of ‘learning styles’ and how our kids learned and which types of learning styles a particular teacher whould support could make all the difference in the world to their learning experiences. (This perhaps made a significant difference for one, but the other was brilliant enough for it to seem not to make any difference at all.)
That wasn’t true, apparently, back in the fifties & sixties, when one style had to fit all.
How do MOOCs deal with this?
MOOCs are for adult learners, not school-age kids.
Well, that’s fortunate, I’m sure.
I wonder if MOOCs are anything like the massive chem lectures that one had to endure at RPI back in the day (1964-66 for me) each semester for two years, 500 or so students packed into a crowded lecture hall with a chemistry prof droning away up front, sometimes with Mr Wizard type experiments on stage. Not the greatest of learning experiences either.
For many of the MOOCs I’ve read about, 500 students would be small, not massive. Think >5000 enrolled.
The sections of Organic Chem I took in college at UT-Knoxville (1975-76) had ca. 300 students. They could easily have been done online, if such a thing had existed, which would have meant watching at home. Basic chemistry is a good example of a course that could be effective online, when paired with problem-solving sessions in a flipped classroom format.
In fact, the introductory econ courses at UT-K were taught by closed circuit television back then.
Interesting on the organic chem. I had to do mine in summer sessions. 2 semesters in 6 weeks. All day, 5 days a week. 3 hr lecture and the rest of the time was lab. It was a very small class of about 20.
Just to be clear, I don’t think I learned much from those Organic Chem courses, even though I’ve been a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology for over 35 years. I got As by taking good notes and memorizing them for the exams. Whatever organic chem I needed for my career, I taught myself later. The Organic Chem faculty at UT-K saw themselves as the guardians of the portals of medical school.
It’s an odd experience for an agoraphobe such as I to attend lecture classes with 500 other students, to say the least. MOOCS might be better for me I suppose, from the comfort of home.
A prof from my time at RPI wrote an autobiography a decade ago titled A Science Career Against All Odds – Berhard Wunderlich. He was just starting out at RPI where he ended up as a distinguished prof, but back then he was teaching freshman chemistry (among other duties I’m sure). He was one of the guys on the stage espousing the Ideal Gas Law and such (PV=nRT!). Chapter 8 in his book is on line. He was at ROI from 1963 to 1988.
A Science Career…
Describes among other things how the West Hall auditorium was put to use for chemistry lectures. It’s said to be a great book, but it’s very expensive, $150 and up per copy.
The sad reality is that at most research universities, the faculty who teach introductory courses are often the ones who don’t have research funding to buy their way out of teaching. In such cases, the university isn’t putting their best teachers in front of their learners, they’re often putting resentful faculty on the front lines of what for many learners is an early formative experience. Also, at most research universities, teaching is like hygiene: nobody notices if it’s done well, they only notice when it’s done badly.
That is quite true. I had no understanding of this when I went off to RPI. Most of the profs were quite aloof, not approachable. Some of the grad students who did most of the actual teaching were quite good.
I had a Korean grad student for a 2nd year physics class who had a terrible accent, but really knew the material and you had to listen very intently to understand him, which worked really well for me.
My daughter went off to an engineering school that focuses entirely on undergraduate education and did extremely well.
Bernhard Wunderlich left Cornell to come to RPI. (RPI regarded Cornell as its main academic rival in NY, so this would have been quite a coup.) Not being into chemistry that much, I was not all that impressed.