Massive open online courses haven't lived up to the hopes and the hype, professors say

October 16, 2015 by Dan Stober
Online learning hasn't lived up to its original billing, Stanford experts say, but it has produced unexpected insights into how people learn. Credit: mtkang/Shutterstock

Three years after a groundswell of online learning swept through higher education, Stanford researchers who were at the forefront of the movement have concluded that online learning has not been the cure-all that many educators had hoped for. Nonetheless, the techniques developed for online learning may lead to great advances in how students learn, both online and in conventional classrooms.

The vision was of unlimited online courses, available to virtually anyone with an Internet connection, that would dramatically reshape the standard classroom while also changing the life paths of students in developing countries, at little or no cost.

But it hasn't worked out that way, say Stanford professors John Mitchell, Candace Thille and Mitchell Stevens, who have been deeply involved in the effort.

Completion rates remain low. Even offering high-level online classes from major universities doesn't necessarily work; without a solid academic background, the classes may be too difficult for many students to follow.

As a result, most MOOC (massive open online course) students have been college-educated men from industrialized countries.

The researchers say it is frustrating that MOOCs can provide educators the technical ability to watch as online learners fail. "We see people struggling and there really isn't any mechanism to help them," said Mitchell, Stanford's vice provost for teaching and learning.

Helping people around the world learn is not a simple thing, he said, and getting there "is going to be much harder than simply putting these courses online."

Thille, an assistant professor of education, agreed. "MOOCs weren't the solution," she said. Nonetheless, she added, MOOCs have prompted a widespread interest into research about how people learn.

This valuable new side effect of MOOCs has provided researchers an ocean of data about how students learn or fail to learn, and that data can be useful in the classroom as well as online.

While protecting the privacy of participants, researchers can monitor the activities of students online, seeing what approaches work, where students stumble, what grabs students' attention and what style of videos work best in various situations.

However, the insights into student learning that can be gleaned from MOOC data have been limited by the type of interaction that is observable. Most of the student activities in MOOCs are either too passive (watching a lecture) or too simple (multiple choice questions) to be useful to the science of learning, Thille said.

But as MOOCs mature, she said, they will present the complex tasks that are instrumental in collecting fine-grained data on the learner's intermediate learning process.

The data can be used to reveal the thought processes of the student. Along those lines, Thille is interested in adapting a successful intervention technique for students, one developed in collaboration with Stanford psychology Professor Carol Dweck's research group, PERTS (Project for Education Research That Scales).

The idea is to embed interventions into environments. The interventions would re-engage disengaged students and encourage them to adopt a growth mindset toward learning. The student becomes a participant in a carefully designed psychological intervention, encouraged to persevere, reassured that he or she belongs in the class and can do well. Similar interventions with students in other situations have had remarkable success.

The action in the MOOC world now, the researchers said, is learning about . "I think that's what the technology is really valuable for," Thille said.

Despite their limited success, "I'm not disappointed at all with MOOCs," said Stevens, associate professor of education. "We're still in the horse-and-buggy stage. The boundaries are blurring between online and face-to-face."

Some schools, for example, allow to complete part of their studies online and part on campus.

There are questions about MOOCs that need to be answered, Stevens said, such as "who owns the data?" For now it's an open question.

Stevens suggested that the economics of MOOCs might make them attractive to California's financially struggling college system.

Despite the disappointments of MOOCs, Stevens remains optimistic: "We're looking at a future of lifelong education online. Much of that will come at little or no cost to learners. How can that be a bad thing?"

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5 / 5 (7) Oct 16, 2015
There's some tricky psychology associated with MOOCs. While they make the courses available to everyone it leads to people viewing the course material alone.
If you are exposed to such material in a group setting you immediately get feedback on difficult concepts (this can be something as subliminal as a raised noise level amongst co-students nearby) - which can validate any uncertainty you feel and will make it OK for you to inquire further.

Chatrooms and forums aren't a perfect substitute for study groups. They do not contain the emotional encouragment to ask questions (nor do they give the immediate feedback that the question may not be as dumb as one thinks). They also do not provide the positive 'peer pressure' that keeps one striving just to stay in the group - which can be crucial at times to not drop out of a course.

The idea of MOOCs is fine. It just needs more work into connecting the students on an emotional level.
not rated yet Oct 16, 2015
Perhaps MOOCS will be the final nail in the coffin of universal intellectual equality.

I participated in two MOOCS perhaps three years ago that were unsatisfactory for the instructors and my interest being drowned in the cacophony of the unready.

My tiny community has many retired instructors, our face-to-face social/seminar contact sessions are quite satisfying. MOOCS leverage authoritarianism and credentialism that ne'er-do-wells rely upon.
not rated yet Oct 16, 2015
MOOCS were a pie-in-the-sky concept from the get-go. Many of the most valuable college classes (Differential Equations) I had required completing previous classes. Others (my chemistry lab classes) needed hands-on activity that simply could not be done virtually. Some (Introduction to Modern Physics) required the kind of extended Q&A interaction with an expert that a student could not readily get in a MOOC.
5 / 5 (1) Oct 16, 2015
I agree with Antialias, that there are positive effects from being in a classroom, with other students. You can compete with them, ask questions that enhance the lesson, listen to others ask questions you may not have thought of, interact in group projects, and most importantly-Learn from the other students. I have found online courses almost useless. They want me to read a book and take tests, there is not a lot of "learning" going on, just coursework. I have found that I learn much more when I can interact with other students and pick their brain as well, not just the professor's. I also enjoyed watching other students present things, and get ideas from their work, thus improving my work in the future.

Maybe they can improve MOOC by making them more like world of warcraft, where you access the course in a video game format, more closely mimicking the classroom setting. I think it would help with the shortcomings of MOOCs. Why are we using chatrooms like its 1996?
not rated yet Oct 16, 2015
I'm all for MOOCs and for improving them. But don't define success in terms of student completion rates or how broad the reach is. You have to accept that even in a perfect environment with excellent students, the completion rate will be low. Why? Some students will sign up for a course to find out if the are interested in that field. For example, I was in graduate school when I finally discovered the type of math I wanted to specialize in--and even then, the course (Operations Research) was offered in the School of Management. Given a lower degree of commitment required by MOOCs, more students will shop and drop.

The other problem is that some of this material is hard, and it is a rare type of student who can breeze through their coursework, run into calculus and then learn how to learn while falling behind. Perhaps what is needed is for libraries and community colleges to offer MOOCs combined with an instructor for a small group.

5 / 5 (1) Oct 16, 2015
I completed my degree the last couple terms by taking 50% online courses. I found them mostly bland and uninteresting at best. I always had trouble learning outside of a structured classroom, because out in the real world there are too many distractions. The part of your brain you activate when you type is not the same part that helps you learn things when you physically write them down. Words you type may as well go straight from your subconscious to your fingers, and you pretty much don't even notice them as they go. (Probably part of why it's so easy for people to fall into the Troll-Trap online, hate speech especially can yell straight from your racist/sexist/etc subconscious through the fingers right into these little boxes of crazy.)

TL;DR I didn't learn F'all from online courses, but I competed my degree in any case. I guess I learned a little about forum participation, but nothing more than I could find here or any place else online.
1 / 5 (3) Oct 16, 2015
The technology will improve, that's why we try stuff.

My only concern is that this technology wasn't invented to address a problem with education, but with greed. The CNN documentary Ivory Tower (a real piss you offer, if you haven't seen it), painted these as America's only hope to combat the capitalist strip mining of humanity that is college tuition. Since the problem isn't with the quality of education, but the quality of our (abysmal) national character, the path to improvement is really muddied. Is it about what is being taught, and how, or about the kind of person who comes to these courses unprepared by a society that constantly denies them the basic tools of thought?
not rated yet Oct 17, 2015
You can't teach "high-level" science if the students don't have access to the scientific literature.

If they want to "Explore further" (to use PhysOrg's term) they can only access whatever pop-science (sometimes crackpot) they find on the Web.
not rated yet Oct 17, 2015
You can't teach "high-level" science if the students don't have access to the scientific literature. If they want to "Explore further" (to use PhysOrg's term) they can only access whatever pop-science (sometimes crackpot) they find on the Web.
And access here means more than physical Open Access. High-level science is not found in the mass media. Paraphrasing; sufficiently high-level science is indistinguishable from magic. Technology vastly validated is not falsifiable as science must be.
5 / 5 (1) Oct 17, 2015
Last year I took a MOOC in International Economics from George Mason U as a refresher course, and I was impressed with the content and effectiveness. I had taken this material in 1970 as an undergraduate and 1985 at the grad level from two different schools, and this seemed to be better than either "live" class. I'm convinced that an important niche for MOOCs would be refresher courses for mid-career types.
not rated yet Oct 19, 2015
MOOCs follow the traditional, one size fits all, non-facilitated, teaching methodology, so they were doomed to not advance, long term, deep, individual student learning success from the beginning.
The research is painfully clear that truly personalized, individually facilitated, adaptive, elearning
platforms empower students to advance learning outcomes.
Why educational organizations, who should know better, hyped a platform that is known to be ineffective is beyond me.
Follow the proven learning research and your disappointment will be minimal
Oct 21, 2015
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