MOOCs May Already Be Wearing Out Their Welcome

As the massive, open, online courses known as MOOCs grow exponentially in number, as millions of students enroll and as dozens of colleges and universities make deals to jump on the bandwagon, MOOCs have been applauded as the latest and greatest innovation in higher education.

But do they actually work?

That question hasn’t been much asked, except by faculty. But, as a report released last week by San José State University shows, the answer is likely yes for a few students, and no for many more.

The promise of MOOCS is this: They’ll deliver no-cost higher education to far-flung students around the world, solving the very serious problems of college access and affordability. In the New York Times, columnist Thomas Friedman called it the “MOOC revolution,” and it said it was “real and here.”

It’s here, for sure. To date, around 4.7 million “Courserians” have enrolled in courses through Coursera, a for-profit technology company that has partnerships with more than 80 universities, including the University of California system and Georgia State University. Meanwhile, the MIT-Harvard non-profit collaboration, called “edX,” has surpassed 1 million students.

But is it real? The experience of students and faculty at San José State University (SJSU), where administrators rushed into a deal last year with Udacity, the for-profit company ed-tech company started by the inventor of the self-driving car, says maybe not. Earlier this summer, after SJSU students in three Udacity courses showed incredibly dismal passing rates compared to students taking the same subjects face-to-face with SJSU professors, the university announced it would “pause” its partnership. Last week, a report on the experience raised questions of how or why it could ever start again. Meanwhile, faculty are organizing to ask questions and raise concern among students, lawmakers, and the public.

“The huge issue that faculty have is that this is being touted as a one-size-fits-all solution,” said Jonathan Karpf, a lecturer in biological anthropology at San José State and also a member of the board of directors of the California Faculty Association. Obviously, given the demonstrated passing rates, it’s not.

At San José, administrators actually entered into two agreements with MOOC providers. The first, with MIT-Harvard’s edX, enabled students in an engineering course to first watch MIT course lectures online, and then attend classes with a SJSU professor who engaged them in questions and worked with them closely. That kind of approach is considered a “hybrid,” and students in SJSU’s engineering course did better than those in traditional classes.

That kind of blended approach was recently endorsed by NEA in its new digital policy statement. The policy also says clearly that NEA supports the use of educational technology, and embraces its great potential in improving student learning and closing achievement gap, while making clear that decisions around digital learning must be made by the people who know best. That’s not for-profit “educational industry” vendors—it’s educators.

The second SJSU-MOOC agreement was a no-bid contract with Udacity to offer three for-credit, online-only classes in developmental math, algebra, and statistics at a cost of $150 per student to SJSU students and others, mostly high-school students. That partnership was acclaimed as a “game-changer” by SJSU President Mo Qayoumi at a January press conference attended by California Gov. Jerry Brown and Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun.

But just months after that press conference, it became clear that the play had been fumbled. At the conclusion of the spring semester, just 25 percent of SJSU students had passed the online-only algebra class, compared to a long-term average passing rate of 65 percent among SJSU students who take that class face-to-face with professors. In none of the three Udacity partnership courses did more than half of SJSU’s students pass. (It’s unclear how many of the non-SJSU students passed, but presumably high school students would not have done much better.) Four out of five students told surveyors that they wanted more help with the content.

Although not much research has been completed around the efficacy of MOOCs, it seems that SJSU’s experience is not an anomaly. It’s generally accepted that about 90 percent of MOOC students drop out. It’s also becoming more clear that the better the student, i.e., the more experienced and more successful in previous college courses, the better he or she will do in a MOOC. The least experienced students do worst. Meanwhile, research also shows that students in hybrid courses do better.

You can call this a great “experiment,” but what happens to those students who failed, asks Karpf. “One of the issues being raised by faculty is this idea that you have to ‘fail to succeed,’ which you hear in the language from Thrun and, to a certain extent, our provost and president. What’s being called into question by faculty is that we’re talking about real students. What happens to those students who took these classes, rather than face-to-face classes, who are now set back in their academic careers? They’re like collateral damage and there’s no sense that this is a real cost in this experimental approach to higher ed.”

During the summer, administrators pointed proudly to improved passing rates in the Udacity classes: 72 percent in algebra, a still-lousy 29 percent in development math. But they didn’t draw attention to the dramatically different student demographics. More than half of the summer-semester students had already graduated from college, compared to none in the spring. Also, students taking online exams in the summer were prompted with “hints” to exam questions. “If we gave hints in our face-to-face classes, we might see higher passing rates too!” Karpf said. In July, the Udacity partnership was suspended.

Meanwhile, SJSU faculty has galvanized in their collective desire to provide a high-quality, personalized education for every student. An ad hoc group calling itself the “Faculty for Quality Education” is convening a public forum this week. And the state-wide California Faculty Association continues to provide resources and support around these issues.

“It’s at least partly about knowing what questions to ask,” said Karpf. And those include: “What are the motivations here: Is to enhance learning? Is it to provide a quality education? Is it vetted by faculty or generated by faculty? Who controls the intellectual property? Does it involve outsourcing to a private, for-profit company?” Having a good collective bargaining agreement also helps, Karpf noted.