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MOOCs don’t work?

But don’t worry! It’s not the fault of the visionaries, like Sebastian Thrum, who have been promoting the use of Massive Open Online Courses. No, we know where the problem lies: in those darn students.

After low performance rates, low student satisfaction and faculty revolt, Thrun announced this week that he has given up on MOOCs as a vision for higher education disruption.  Thrun told Fast Company that the experiment failed because the students were not “ideal”.  The “godfather of free online education” says that the racially, economically diverse students at SJSU,“were students from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives…[for them] this medium is not a good fit.” It seems disruption is hard when poor people insist on existing. Thrun has the right to fail. That’s just business. But he shouldn’t have the right to fail students like those at San Jose State and the public universities that serve them for the sake of doing business.

The article makes two major points: that MOOCs neglect issues of class and race and therefore are poor educational tools for precisely the people who would benefit most from free education resources, and we’ve been experimenting on poor and diverse students with these machine-based cheap teaching methods.

Man, I wish all of my classes were stocked with nothing but ideal students.

Comments

  1. says

    The “godfather of free online education” says that the racially, economically diverse students at SJSU,“were students from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives…[for them] this medium is not a good fit.”

    And they didn’t know this in advance? How educated are these “educators?”

  2. ChasCPeterson says

    Man, I wish all of my classes were stocked with nothing but ideal students.

    oh, please. UMM has to be as close to that wish as any public institution in the country. Put in some time at an urban community college and your whine might be credible.

  3. jamesramsey says

    I love this quote from Bertolt Brecht


    Some party hack decreed that the people
    had lost the government’s confidence
    and could only regain it with redoubled effort.
    If that is the case, would it not be be simpler,
    If the government simply dissolved the people
    And elected another?

  4. says

    Yes, UMM students are not that bad. But they’re also diverse. We’ve got a fairly elite student body, but they’re not all cut with the same cookie cutter.

    Not as diverse as the students I had at Temple University though, that’s for sure.

  5. carlie says

    The NEA Thought&Action for this year had a very good article about MOOCs, making the same point that it’s the students at most risk who are being marketed to, and yet those are the very ones that all studies show do worst with these kinds of classes. Students who do best at MOOCs are those who are already full-time students in residence in a degree program on a physical campus, who have already taken regular online courses. I’d link to it, but it looks from their website that they don’t have the 2013 issue up.

  6. iknklast says

    Teaching in a community college in the rural midwest, I rarely get ideal students. I adapt my class to deal with that fact, and help them learn. Maybe by the time they transfer, they could become ideal students. Maybe not. If all we ever had were ideal students, we wouldn’t really need universities at all. Ideal students can learn on their own without all that rigamarole, if the material is accessible.

    Me? I don’t need ideal students to succeed. I need to be a good teacher who recognizes that my students are a diverse mix ranging from extremely committed to completely disinterested, and they span a wide range of abilities and backgrounds. If MOOCs aren’t doing that, of course they will fail.

  7. tbp1 says

    I don’t think that PZ was whining, just pointing out that no one has all ideal students, so that blaming the students for the failure of the MOOCs was not fair or realistic. To some extent you simply must adapt your teaching to the students you actually have, not the ones you wish you had.

  8. numerobis says

    Equally, to some extent you simply must adapt your students to the teaching you actually have, not the one you wish you had. Thrun has a teaching method, and is trying to find the right students. I feel a bit of told-you-so (not that I actually did tell him) about campus education being more than just the lectures and assignments, but it’s certainly more gratifying to see him re-evaluate and retarget than to simply charge on as if nothing was wrong.

  9. brett says

    You have to look at the comparative cost of running the course, plus the number of students when considering the failure rate. If your course costs much less than running a regular in-person lecture at a university, and you’re teaching 50,000 students at the same time with it, then a failure rate of 93% still means that you’ve successfully taught 3500 students.

    Blaming a course for not having “ideal students” is stupid, obviously. I don’t see why they partnered with a university for this course when there were issues with students having access to computers for a computer course, for example. That’s some very bad oversight.

  10. clayhale says

    Honestly, when I taught, I preferred a mix of less ‘ideal students’. I think it made me a better teacher when I couldn’t assume anything.

  11. markgisleson says

    MOOCs may not compete well with universities, but I still am hopeful. Like the Indian experiment with dropping off a computer in a poor village, I think MOOCs will find their following and the world will be better off for our having them.

    But I also think we need MOOC Jrs. — online classrooms for bright children who don’t get enough learning in school. Traditionally, they would be the bookworms. At some point we may wake up to discover kids going to college who’ve completed serious upper level coursework through MOOCs and if that day comes, those students will be a real challenge: 18-year-olds who’ve done post-grad level work, but lack the proper context for much of what they’ve learned. Students who maybe should have accessed some more age-appropriate MOOCs.

    ??!! Or am I just wishing for the best?

  12. AMM says

    If your course costs much less than running a regular in-person lecture at a university, and you’re teaching 50,000 students at the same time with it, then a failure rate of 93% still means that you’ve successfully taught 3500 students.

    And wasted 6 months of 46,500 students’ lives, not to mention their tuition payments.

    Plus, those students now have to spend time unlearning what the MOOC has mis-taught them. (I spent a year as a math adjunct prof. teaching remedial courses, and I always felt I would have had less work if they had never been “taught” any math at all.)

    This is the sort of calculus private companies use all the time. Like mining operators that use highly toxic chemicals to extract ore (and poison whole counties in the process) because they make more money that way and they don’t have to pay for the damage caused by their pollution.

  13. says

    If you have “ideal students”, pretty much any educational program will produce awesome outcomes. But that’s like saying if only Eddie Van Halen would be in my band, we’d be awesome.

    The shocking thing about the people who want to “reform” education in America is how very foolish and ignorant they are when it come to education.

  14. gregpeterson says

    With two exceptions–one professor who tried too hard to be entertaining and wasn’t nearly rigorous enough, and one who crafted an “introductory” physics course that was well beyond the grasp of my math skills–I have had amazing learning experiences on coursera.org. I learned much more from the online astrobiology course I took from the University of Edinburgh than I did from an astronomy course I took live from the University of Minnesota.

    It’s probably true that MOOCs aren’t working for people that nothing much else has worked on, but I sure hope they remain available to those who have a passion for learning new things but can’t give up our day jobs and go to universities.

  15. brett says

    @12 AMM

    And wasted 6 months of 46,500 students’ lives, not to mention their tuition payments.

    And how many kids stay in the regular courses without dropping out? Besides, MOOCs are potentially much lower both in time required and in cost, so you don’t stand to lose as much if you end up dropping out of the course.

    This is the sort of calculus private companies use all the time. Like mining operators that use highly toxic chemicals to extract ore (and poison whole counties in the process) because they make more money that way and they don’t have to pay for the damage caused by their pollution.

    Regular colleges make those kinds of choices all the time. They could try to expand the student body and faculty when they’re in hot demand, taking in more students – but more often than not, they prefer to keep the student body growth small to boost “selectivity”, and then up-scale to higher paying students by giving low-paying students just enough financial aid that it’s still too expensive for them to attend.

  16. magistramarla says

    To me, there could never be any substitute for a real-time classroom in which the teacher/professor and the students can interact, ask questions and even debate. That is what learning is all about.
    I can see getting some boring required class like health or a refresher class out of the way by taking an online class, but true learning happens best in a real classroom.
    I think that online learning should always be used as an adjunct to, never a total replacement for, the real classroom.

  17. carlie says

    then a failure rate of 93% still means that you’ve successfully taught 3500 students.

    Except that it doesn’t – it simply means that 3500 have made it through the course. The article that it’s annoying me about not being online also discussed how MOOCs work primarily through peer grading, and the worst pedagogical idea is to have people who are in the class precisely because they don’t know what they’re doing grading other people. The grading itself ends up being meaningless.

  18. gregpeterson says

    carlie, that’s a salient point. I’m taking Evolution for Educators right now, and while the quizzes are multiple choice and machine graded, the essay is “peer graded.” I wrote a sophisticated and comprehensive essay, and I frankly don’t trust some of my “peers” to grade it fairly and well. I show a clear grasp of the subject matter in the essay, so I will expect the highest mark, but I have no idea what my “fellow classmates” will see in it. A guy showing off? Someone with an inability to tailor the level the material should be delivered at? It’s a real problem.

  19. elly says

    I’ve taken online college classes; so have my two (college-aged) kids, so I have some relevant experience with the beast.

    IMHO, online classes require more self-discipline than their traditional, on-campus counterparts – there are no environmental cues that tell you “it’s time to work.” In fact, you have to steel yourself against distractions. This is the primary reason that my daughter – normally a top student – floundered in her first online class, and eventually withdrew from it to protect her GPA. She’s a quick study, and rarely needs to ask questions or interact with her teachers, so she figured it would be easier for her… lol. She learned differently – she needs the routine of being in a certain place at a certain time, and the expectations that are reinforced by personal contact with an instructor.

    My son’s experience with a summer online class was much more positive… but he still prefers traditional classroom instruction, and routinely passes on online alternatives when registering for classes.

    Even I – who enjoyed and excelled in my 3 online classes – dropped the Coursera class I tried earlier in the year. I found the size of the class off-putting – the message boards were unwieldy and time-consuming to read through. In addition, the emphasis was on watching vids and reading supplemental material – something that I don’t need a formal class to do. Sitting passively in front of a computer isn’t very appealing to me… I think the reason I did so well in my earlier classes was because I had things to work on (I took C++, Java I and Java II online through the local CC, so there were weekly programs to write and debug).

    Overall, I like the flexibility provided by online classes, but – if my experience is anything to go by – I can see why the MOOC model is a loser.

  20. jefrir says

    MOOCs could work pretty well for someone like me – someone who already has academic qualifications and experience, and is basically just doing the course for fun. But they’ve been sold as an alternative to university for those who’ve traditionally been excluded – and that’s bullshit. They aren’t giving an equivalent experience or education, and they sure as fuck aren’t going to be treated the same by employers.

  21. gregpeterson says

    elly, I totally respect everything you wrote and I’m not going to gainsay any of it, but I do have to add that I find MOOCs tremendously helpful in getting me to actually do the work necessary to learn. I love reading and watching documentaries and going to lectures and so forth. But without knowing I’m going to be accountable to prove that I’ve learned the material, I know I’m not actually interacting with the material in the same way. For me, that’s what online courses have done–they have forced me to find, and create, the discipline I need to not merely read an article or book, or watch a TED talk or something from HHMI (all great stuff), but then to be able to answer 10 questions that, if I can get them all correct, demonstrate–to ME, the only audience that matters in these cases–that I have gained something I didn’t have before. You’re certainly right that not every class offers enough engagement and involvement to be worthwhile. But that’s largely a problem of class design. The best ones offer a combination of lectures, articles, online fora, and interactive web applications. The one on dinosaurs I took from the U of Alberta had an app that allowed the student to examine dinosaur (virtual) bones in 3D space. Just as an example. And I feel sure much more can be done. What I’m afraid of–why I bother to defend MOOCs–is that they will be given up on too early, before the kinks and weaknesses have a chance to get worked out. They’re there and I don’t deny them. But I still have very high hopes for how the Internet can help bring knowledge to people who might have no other access to education.

  22. carlie says

    But I still have very high hopes for how the Internet can help bring knowledge to people who might have no other access to education.

    That’s the problem that’s being noticed, though – people like you, who are able to wring all of the use out of the courses, are few and far between. The people who have no access to education haven’t been able to develop all of the skills necessary to succeed in classes. Not that they’re not really smart, or that they’re not dedicated, but sorting through class materials, taking notes, doing assessments in the style classes tend to do, those are skills that are kind of unique to the classroom experience. Without having developed those skills first, they tend to flounder. That’s why brick-and-mortar universities that are successful with first-gen college students are doing so much in the way of remediation and skills development. People who have no access to education are the ones at risk in the first place, and the most likely to flounder in an environment that expects them to already know what they’re doing.

  23. tbp1 says

    @ 20: Exactly. I can imagine a MOOC being a great sort of cultural enrichment tool, but I don’t see them as emparting the essentials of a college education for most people.

  24. Adam says

    Or there could be a much simpler explanation for Udacity’s failure as a MOOC provider:

    Thrum’s investors realised that they were not going to make any money providing free course materials and so stopped funding the venture.

    This would also explain Udacity’s move to providing corporate training. Corporations can be made to pay.

  25. chrislawson says

    I doubt that MOOCs “don’t work” at all, but I suspect that they were seen as a great way to teach lots of students at low cost rather than as a helpful adjunct to other teaching methods.

    As for “ideal students”, you could generate great educational outcomes by giving them food, shelter, and the internet.

  26. northstar says

    Mark@11 — I hesitate to reply so late to a topic, but Mark, I couldn’t pass up a chance to post in response to your comment. No, you are not too far off on your thoughts — I’m a homeschooling parent, and have been doing Coursera MOOCs with my kids (17-9) as they’ve been available, and we thought applicable. The olders have done great history and lit courses; with the youngest, I’ve done the Dino 101, and am doing the Epidemiology with the 9 and 17y.o. So, the 4th grader can add “anteorbital fenestre” to her already huge volume of dino-lore, and is now enjoying a whole subunit on infectious disease. (Yep, enjoying — papercraft virus models yesterday, and MedMyst, an infectious disease gaming system through Rice University, adds more kid-style fun.)

    At the same time, her 4th grade-leveled textbook had multiple pages covering… dirt. Dirt, in all its fascinating intricacy. We were both howling with mock exasperation while reading it.

    I have no doubt my kids come out of these lectures with a much deeper understanding of the topic than they would have had, had they been in regular school. (My oldest’s national test scores bear that out.) I have no idea how many families are out there like ours, but they do exist.

    So yes, these resources can make a huge difference to people on the lower end of the economic scale, like us. I’m so glad to be able to take these MOOCs, now, for the time being, while they are free. I’m also able to sample and drop out when they don’t fit my needs — not a failure, in my book, just that they weren’t right at the time, or I found something lacking in them, or I just ran out of time to participate.