Udacity office in Silicon Valley

A recent study of massive open online courses, known as “MOOCs,” found that only about 4 percent of the million users tracked actually completed their courses. Earlier this year, San Jose State suspended its online courses after poor results, including one math class where fewer than a quarter of the students got a passing grade. We discuss the future of online classes.

Laura Perna, professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and co-author of the recent study on MOOCs
Sebastian Thrun, CEO and founder of Udacity
Peter Hadreas, chair of the Philosophy Department at San Jose State University

  • Mrs. Eccentric

    “content” doesn’t cover any of the sciences, either, where much of the coursework involves learning critical thinking as it applies to evaluating experiment design, conclusions drawn, etc. In my experience, critical thinking is best taught in small group discussion formats, i can see a skype-type set up working well for this. steph

  • Scott A

    MOOCs should not be conflated with online education.

    MOOCs are to online education as the 200+ student lecture class is to classroom education. Student’s can’t ask meaningful questions in either setting.

    MOOCs have a real advantage in that at least the students can rewind the lecture to catch a tricky point. However they sufferer from the lack of social pressures that ensure that students continue to show up.

    This is far from unexpected.

    The 30yr old movie, Real Genius, illustrated this well with a scene where the students brought tape recorders to the lecture hall to time-shift when they would “attend” class. In turn, the professor eventually just places a reel-to-reel audio player at the front of the room to present the material.

    The trick to ed-tech is to use the technology to do the things that _can’t_ be done easily otherwise. Not to emulate the very worst attributes of the lowest type of classes currently in existence.

    • I think MOOCs can be much better than gigantic lectures. The best ones I’ve taken provide frequent quizzes testing that you understand the material. When you don’t you go back and try again. If that doesn’t work, you go to the forums and ask questions of your fellow students and instructors. In some ways, that is much better than even small classes where there is often pressure to move on. (you don’t want to look stupid or hold the class back)

  • Ben Rawner

    I have taken multiple free classes from ITunes University, which has numerous Stanford classes and love it. I get bored easily in lecture halls, so being able to watch the lectures in double speed is great, plus I can rewind or slow down when things get difficult. Thanks for all the hard work these guys have been putting in.

  • John

    MOOCs are not a solution to the underfunding of higher education and cannot replicate the quality or effectiveness of an in-person experience that comes from direct instructor-student interaction.

    • Maybe they don’t replicate the experience of learning with a great teacher. But how many of those great teachers did you meet in your education? I did not meet that many and I went to expensive private schools my whole life.

      • David J McBee

        Funny you should say that. I was a philosophy major at SJSU and I ran into several great teachers.

  • jdm79

    I would argue that it has less to do with the medium that is used, and more with the educator’s engagement with students. If you post a lecture and voila, that’s it, then yes — online education can fail. But if you have engaged professors, an online course can be just as challenging — and rewarding — as an in person class.

    Side note: I earned my Master’s degree from a blended, online / in person program. The online courses I took were on a smaller scale, but when a professor was engaged, they were highly effective. When they phoned it in, so did we.

    • Scott A

      This is exactly the issue, and it’s surprising how often is over-looked in implementation.

      I helped run some of the first online/blended courses offered at a Big-Ten university well over a decade ago. A _lot_ of thought went in to how to increase engagement between students and faculty, and among students. It was immediately clear when those attempts succeeded, and when they failed.

      As important as having good content is, we found that connection & communication between users of the system was far more important than content in terms of classroom success.

  • Jeremy

    Hi I’d like to hear a bit more about the economics of MOOCs. How is Udacity different from other “degree factory” for-profit companies?

    Also, talk a bit about the political implications. Can MOOCs be used to justify further de-funding our public universities?

  • Mjhmjh

    I’m sure that those holding the administrative purse-strings favor online courses as a cost-cutting measure. I don’t think that MOOCs should become a substitute for a traditional college education. College is more than just the courses one takes. However, when I needed to jump through hoops, in order to obtain US equivalents for my overseas qualifications, I opted for online courses wherever I could. As a working wife and mother, taking online, rather than traditional courses saved me an enormous amount of time and stress. For working adults, who need to take a few extra classes, I think they can very helpful. indeed.

    • Scott A

      The large lecture-hall classes (100-400 students) have traditionally the biggest cash cows for universities. Not surprisingly, they’re also the worst offerings for actually learning something.

      This cash-cow status has universities both salivating at the idea of milking them for even more $, and terrified at the prospect that their cow is walking out the gate for greener, lower-cost (free) pastures.

      Most university systems I’ve worked with are so terrified of the change in business-models that this requires that they’re floundering and refuse to listen to the advice of anybody under 35.

    • Bob Fry

      Maybe MOOCs should not “become a substitute for a traditional college education”, but something sure does. Education is the last holdout of very labor-intensive, very costly factory work that could be done better and far cheaper by automation.

      Start with undergrad textbooks. Very little changes in any major, so the textbooks should be open-sourced. Better yet, why not have open-source, interactive learning software for many subjects?

      Continue with the lecture. It’s not clear to me that a lecture is the best way to learn, but it was the cheapest way to educate people for a few thousand years. Even if we want to keep the lecture, get the best teachers (not necessarily the most knowledgeable) of each subject and record their lectures. Add open-source material and some knowledgeable teaching assistants. Effective education at a fraction of the price.

  • Fay Nissenbaum

    My experience with online learning varies. In the first case, I was taking a website design class at SF’s City College. The classroom was uncomfortably full and only a few desks had a clear view of the projection screen. So I took the same class a second time online and it was easier to follow along at home in the evening without the stress of classroom crowding and trying to get to the school after a full day of work. Then there was the time I signed up for an online Coursera class in law and philosophy and just never began the class b/c I forgot when it began! I have a grad degree and am very computer literate and did this for career development. For me, I prefer working at home to fighting traffic. Nightime adult learning is just different; I dont find the intellectual exchange I had in undergrad college years.

  • Watty Helms

    Sebastian Thrun is so breathtakingly full of $hit… what planet does he live on?

    • Scott A

      I feel like he makes a lot of good points, and clearly speaks from a place of experience.

      However, when he says stuff like a “class can be offered for $150”, that lie makes him loose nearly all credibility. I have no idea why he’d say something like that without going out of his way to be very clear about the externalities they include.

      * Subsidies from other partners need to be explicitly mentioned. If you can produce a class for $150 because a corporation give you $50k, that needs to be clear for the sake of integrity.
      * If you’re getting free volunteers to act as TAs, instead of paying them the $20-$60/hr that time is worth, that needs to be stated.

      I wish he wouldn’t make statements like the $150 fib, so that I don’t immediately have to question everything else this clearly knowledgeable person says. The story is good enough on it’s own. He shouldn’t embellish it with things that force him to loose credibility.

    • zorgparts

      That my friend is the typical management viewpoint. From 30,000 feet up it looks very clear.

      I have noticed companies looking for employee’s with hugely demanding responsibilities, little resources to speak of and none of the upside their managers enjoy. Companies are “strip mining” their employees. What can keep this cycle going is that its an employers market.

  • Fay Nissenbaum

    Before online learning got so established, the promise was that “master” teachers would be used and that this would allow people from the backwoods to far flung locales enjoy a quality education. Why has that loftier promise been monkeyed with?

  • Fay Nissenbaum

    No one has stressed the difference between taking online classes to learn a skill, like Excel vs. earning a degree from a specific institution. Classes seem to be scattered willy-nilly and I find myself snacking around rather than focusing. How in heck does one choose where to study online?

  • Richard

    My favorite MOOC’s have been Coursera Startup Engineering; Mung Chiangs Networked Life Princeton ; Anant Agrawals Edx Circuits & Electronics.

  • Nathan Braun

    The public face of “tech” is social media, with a bottomless and largely mindless pit of online distraction–games, YouTube kittens, trolling, porn–heavy at its heels. If we are to address that tech skills gap that Mr Thrun mentioned, Silicon Valley is going to have to moderate its entrepreneurial fascination with constant innovation in flash and play and figure out how to make problem-solving understood as an interesting and fulfilling way to spend time. I’m not surprised that older, more educated students are able to complete MOOCs: they understand that a viable living (in all dimensions of the term) requires some degree of focus and seriousness that the current iteration of public tech does not cultivate.

    • zorgparts

      I agree, the public face of tech is trivial beyond belief. Unfortunately the underlying assumption that if you complete some of these courses you will be offered a well paying job at a company doesn’t ring true.

      Companies slow down hiring for years at a time and then like lemmings decide its time to grow and then complain when the pipeline is “empty” that there is a lack of qualified candidates. The qualified candidate is code for:
      21 – 34 years old
      great experience
      last job is exactly what they will be doing at current position
      pay -15% less

      for management its kind of the same but loaded up with more bottom line responsibilities.

      Its an employer pipe dream but it creates real problems in the job market; the search for “stars” means very solid people are not getting the jobs they should be.

      Education is a long term issue; lets not lose focus on the short term dysfunctional corporate behavior is having a negative impact on people and the economy

  • Fay Nissenbaum

    Not mentioned was Khan Academy. I love the idea of teaching anything for free, but I find Khan to be vastly overrated. His class in statistics is pure trash. I like the idea of online learning but its success is in the teacher! Hearing the same guy’s voice for each class is a bit like chewing tin foil, especially if the teacher is a bore. Voice is very important when it’s the main thing to focus on. This was not discussed today. Boring professors are WAY more boring online!

    • JimmyOo

      used Khan Academy for pre-calc and found it extremely helpful. This was in 2010/2011. Checked it out lately and first impression was that the presentation was slicker but not as effective.

  • Most people who take MOOCs are life long learners who already have a college education. It will be interesting to see how MOOCs will complement higher ed. I hope this form of education is not banned like it was in Minnesota. (http://chronicle.com/blognetwork/castingoutnines/2012/10/17/moocs-in-minnesota/)

    You can view every MOOC on Class Central. Here is the subject page: https://www.class-central.com/subjects

  • Erin Flanagan

    As always, great show, Mr. Krasny. Did anyone else notice that guest Peter Hadreas, chair of the Philosophy Department at San Jose State University, appeared to be under-prepared, and I’d even say not paying attention to the questions or callers when we was asked to comment? I’ve never taken online classes but don’t have anything against them- why does it have to be one or the other? People learn differently and some people make the most of where they are and some don’t. If you don’t study, aren’t engaged in the subject matter or don’t participate it doesn’t matter if you’re enrolled at Harvard or Phoenix Online. Who these days hires someone based on a grade anyway?

  • JimmyOo

    have not heard entire broadcast; please excuse as appropriate. am aged 65, have over the past few years taken several skills-oriented computer science courses at a California community college, as well as classroom lecture courses in the same field. my school, and I imagine the entire system, use a product called CCC Confer*. It has some limitations, but those could be overcome with technological improvements. Affords students the opportunity to join live or watch/listen to the recorded version. If live, can ask questions real-time. Environmental and scheduling advantages avoiding commuting to class; miss the social dimension. Seems that the community colleges could find the cream among their several campuses, and avoid some duplication of effort, although there is some “downsiding” there.

    *have noticed significant improvements to CCC Confer over time. Lends itself to a variety of implementation. Given the budget constraints in Calif, a very significant leveraging of technology, imho.

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