All Hail MOOCs! Just Don’t Ask if They Actually Work

Despite booming enrollment and enthusiastic administrators, scant research offers little evidence that online courses are effective

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Matt Rourke / AP

University of Pennsylvania professor Peter Struck, accompanied by teaching assistant Cat Gillespie, teaches a mythology class during a live recording of a massive, open, online classes (MOOC), in Philadelphia, May 30, 2013.

Dozens of top universities and colleges are scrambling to get in on the latest trend in higher education, massive open online courses known as MOOCs. Enrollment is ballooning by the hundreds of thousands each semester. A third of administrators say they think residential campuses will eventually be obsolete. Google just announced it’s teaming up with Harvard and MIT to create “a YouTube for MOOCs.” And The Economist asked this summer if the courses portend “the fall of the ivory tower.”

There’s only one hitch: No one really knows if students learn anything in a MOOC. Scant existing research suggests that the success rate of online education, in general, is poor. And even the people behind MOOCs are becoming concerned about sky-high expectations, which they say represent a misunderstanding of their purpose.

“At this point, there’s just no way to really know whether they’re effective or not,” said Shanna Jaggars, assistant director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, which has produced some of the most recent scholarship about online education.

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“Everyone in the research field agrees that, for the particular purpose of replacing on-campus education, the evidence [for MOOCs] is ambiguous at best,” said Andrew Ho, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and research director for HarvardX. “Far more research is needed. And we’re conducting some of it. But we’re way out over our skis when it comes to that particular purpose of MOOCs.”

Enrollment in online college courses of all kinds increased by 29 percent to more than 6.7 million between 2010 and last year, the latest period for which the fast-changing figures are available, according to the Babson Survey Research Group. And this explosion is happening at a time when the number of students in conventional universities and colleges has started to decline.

MOOCs alone—as opposed to other kinds of online classes, including those with limited enrollment and for which tuition is charged—are growing so quickly, it’s impossible to know how many people take them. Barely a year and a half after its debut, Coursera, a startup launched by Stanford faculty, reports that about 4.4 million students have signed up. The MIT-Harvard MOOC collaboration called edX, which premiered just four months later, boasts more than a million.

But those numbers probably don’t augur a new wave of learning. About 90 percent of people who register for MOOCs fail to complete them, most providers acknowledge. Advocates say that’s because there are no admissions requirements and the courses are free; they compare it to borrowing a book from the library and browsing it casually or returning it unread.

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 A survey of students by the market-research company Qualtrics and the education technology provider Instructure seems to confirm that trend. Seventy-five percent said the main reason they signed up for a MOOC was that it didn’t cost them anything, while 29 percent of those who dropped out said they got too busy to continue, and 20 percent said they lost interest.

Two-thirds of those students said they would be more likely to complete a MOOC if they could get college credit or a certificate of completion for it, something that’s still not widely available. Until it is, said Jaggars, it will be hard to measure the effectiveness of MOOCs—a Catch-22, since without knowing their effectiveness, it’s unlikely colleges will give academic credit for them.

To study what happens when students get credit for online courses, Teachers College looked at online courses at community colleges in Virginia and Washington State that were not MOOCs—since tuition was charged and credit given—but were like them in other ways. The results were not encouraging. Thirty-two percent of the students in online courses in Virginia quit before finishing, compared with 19 percent of classmates in conventional classrooms. The equivalent numbers in Washington State were 18 percent versus 10 percent. Online students were also less likely to get at least a C, less likely to return for the subsequent semester, and ultimately less likely to graduate.

In July, San Jose State University suspended its experiment with offering MOOCs for credit after only half of credit-seeking students who took the online courses passed, compared to three-quarters of those who took the traditional versions. In one of the three pilot classes, which were offered during the spring, fewer than 30 percent of the online students passed. And while the university and its partners hailed an apparently dramatic improvement in results in the summer semester, a closer look showed that more than half of the summer students already had at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to none of the students who took online courses in the spring—and even then, more of the summer registrants dropped out.

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While their scale is unprecedented, the underlying way that MOOCs are taught isn’t really new, Jaggars and others said. It’s very, very old—a system in which professors lecture to huge numbers of students with whom they seldom, if ever, interact. “In general, students don’t do as well in online courses as they do in conventional courses,” said Jaggars. “A lot of that has to do with the engagement. There’s just less of it in online courses.”

None of the evidence has slowed the MOOC craze. Seventy-seven percent of academic leaders already think that online education is as good or better than face-to-face classes, and 69 percent say that it’s essential to their long-term strategy, the Babson group found (though the administrators also conceded that only 30 percent of their faculty agreed). Four in 10 said their schools plan to offer MOOCs within three years, according to a survey released in the spring by the IT company Enterasys. And legislators in several states are pushing to speed up the shift to MOOCs for college credit, which they see as a way to expand access to higher education while reducing costs.

John McCardell, vice chancellor of Sewanee: The University of the South, is one of the skeptics. He points out that the American Council on Education has recommended only 10 MOOCs for credit, and even those recommendations are merely advisory. Quoting poetry he said he studied in an old-fashioned brick-and-mortar classroom years ago, McCardell invoked Alexander Pope’s advice:  “Be not the first by whom the new are tried, nor yet the last to lay the old aside.”

“That might be a useful thought to keep in mind,” McCardell said, “as the world seems to be rushing headlong to embrace this latest pedagogical fad.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

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