Online university courses for the masses fail to materialise

In five years, Moocs go from dream of universal education to limited service for higher-end customers

January 11, 2019
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More than five years into the era of massive open online courses, hopes of a broad educational gift to the masses have evolved into a far more limited experience for higher-end customers, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study has concluded.

While technologies continue to evolve and hard data on student behaviour are elusive, neither public funding nor private interest has reached levels necessary for broad and meaningful online sharing of university-level content, said the study’s lead author, Justin Reich, an assistant professor in comparative media studies at MIT.

Professor Reich and his co-author, José Ruipérez-Valiente, a postdoctoral associate in his lab, based their assessment on Moocs offered by MIT and Harvard University, and found a series of disappointing indicators.

“The vast majority of Mooc learners never return after their first year, the growth in Mooc participation has been concentrated almost entirely in the world’s most affluent countries, and the bane of Moocs – low completion rates – has not improved over six years,” Dr Reich and Dr Ruipérez-Valiente report in Science magazine.

Their study used data from the Harvard-MIT venture edX, from its start in October 2012 to May 2018. Their database consisted of 565 iterations of 261 different courses, covering nearly 13 million course registrations by more than 5.6 million learners.

With little of the student support found in traditional educational settings, attrition has proven widespread, the study found. More than half of those who registered for a course never opened the courseware. Second-year retention rates declined consistently, from 38 per cent at the beginning of edX to 7 per cent in the 2016-17 academic year.

Hopes for a huge global community of continuing learners using Moocs “never materialised”, the authors write. That reality has solidified in recent years, they say, as edX and other Mooc leaders including Coursera and Udacity have put previously free content behind paywalls.

“The sustainability of just offering the teaching part is really hard,” Professor Reich said. “What people are willing to pay for is the credential.”

As a result, he and Dr Ruipérez-Valiente say, Mooc providers are largely moving to compete with online degree providers. The preferred segment, they said, is professional master’s degrees, credentialed by leading universities, in high-demand areas such as computing and business.

One lesson for colleges now contemplating their online options, Professor Reich said, was to stick with their area of speciality – teaching – and contract outside experts for other services.

Another lesson, Professor Reich said, was that technology cannot solve a failure to invest in necessary public services such as education. “That’s what the role of politics is,” he said.

As a graduate of the University of Virginia, Professor Reich said that he felt particular vindication for leaders such as Teresa Sullivan. Professor Sullivan was forced out of the university’s presidency in 2012 by the institution’s governing board over disputes that included her refusal to jump faster into online courses. She was reinstated shortly afterwards, as staff, students and alumni protested in her favour.

Professor Reich said that he recalled being “quite unnerved” to see Professor Sullivan pushed aside for “not reacting swiftly enough to the impending tsunami of online education”. The current reality validates “her more cautious long view”, he said.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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