By Phil Hill
Given the hype of national media coverage of massive open online courses (MOOCs), it is refreshing to see more recent analysis looking at important attributes such as revenue models, dropout rates, and instructional design. Steve Kolowich at Inside Higher Ed wrote a revealing and important article looking at early demographic data. Jeff Young at the Chronicle wrote an excellent article about Coursera’s contract with the University of Michigan, along with key insights into Coursera’s and the university’s motivations. Audrey Watters, in response to an article in the Atlantic, asks the tough question of whether we should care about the high dropout rates of current courses offered in this new model.
When analyzing the disruption potential of MOOCs, it is easy to forget that the actual concept is just 4 or 5 years old. Furthermore, the actual definition of the concept has undergone a significant change in the past 12 months as an entirely new branch has emerged.
While the current examples of massive online courses are interesting, the real potential of MOOCs will be revealed in future generations. To provide context, it is useful to consider two observations (based on a recent post):
- The two current branches of MOOCs are different and will not merge – despite the common name, they have different aims and methods. It is a mistake, in my opinion, to overlook the differences.
- Both branches are early prototypes or pilots. The future of MOOCs will be based on further developing the concepts and techniques – we should not expect massive adoption until future generations evolve.
The current generation of courses has proven the feasibility of massive online enrollments, but the Kolowich article reveals that the result is based on a form of adult continuing education. The majority of students in the Udacity and Coursera courses analyzed were professionals in the software industry – hardly the target audience for those seeking a change in how we educate postsecondary students. The current MOOCs provide a nice proof-of-concept, but hardly solve significant educational problems.
So what are the barriers that must be overcome for the MOOC concept (in future generations) to become self-sustaining? To me the most obvious barriers are:
- Developing revenue models to make the concept self-sustaining;
- Delivering valuable signifiers of completion such as credentials, badges or acceptance into accredited programs;
- Providing an experience and perceived value that enables higher course completion rates (most today have less than 10% of registered students actually completing the course); and
- Authenticating students in a manner to satisfy accrediting institutions or hiring companies that the student identify is actually known.
Given this short timeline and the nature of investment-backed educational experiments, I think the real focus should be on whether and how MOOCs or successor models build on current scalability and openness while overcoming these four barriers.
The University of Washington is not merely throwing courses online with Coursera, they are experimenting with changes that could lead to real credits, as reported in the New York Times.
So far, MOOCs have offered no credit, just a “statement of accomplishment” and a grade. But the University of Washington said it planned to offer credit for its Coursera offerings this fall, and other online ventures are also moving in that direction. David P. Szatmary, the university’s vice provost, said that to earn credit, students would probably have to pay a fee, do extra assignments and work with an instructor.
It is obviously too early to tell if this experiment at Washington will work, and indeed Steve Kolowich has another article clarifying that the MOOCs will not directly lead to credits, but the examples that attempt to tackle the four barriers of revenue, credentials, course completion rates, and student authentication will most likely determine the disruption potential and future of MOOCs.
Update 7/24: added link per Audrey’s comment to clarify that UW will not directly offer credit or be regular MOOC experience.
Update 7/27: Changed graphic to clarify creation dates of MIT OCW (2002) and Udemy (2010)
Update 8/15: Added CC license and DI logo to image to facilitate sharing