online learning

By Eric Westervelt, NPR

One year ago, many were pointing to the growth of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, as the most important trend in higher education. Many saw the rapid expansion of MOOCs as a higher education revolution that would help address two long-vexing problems: access for underserved students and cost.

In theory, students saddled by rising debt and unable to tap into the best schools would be able to take free classes from rock star professors at elite schools via Udacity, edX, Coursera and other MOOC platforms.

But if 2012 was the “Year of the MOOC,” as The New York Times famously called it, 2013 might be dubbed the year that online education fell back to earth. Faculty at several institutions rebelled against the rapid expansion of online learning — and the nation’s largest MOOC providers are responding.

Earlier this year, San Jose State University partnered with Udacity to offer several types of for-credit MOOC classes at low cost. The partnership was announced in January with lots of enthusiastic publicity, including a plug from California Gov. Jerry Brown, who said MOOC experiments are central to democratizing education.

“We’ve got to invest in learning, in teaching, in education,” he said. “And we do that not by just the way we did it 100 years ago. We keep changing.”

But by all accounts, the San Jose experiment was a bust. Completion rates and grades were worse than for those who took traditional campus-style classes. And the students who did best weren’t the underserved students San Jose most wanted to reach.

It wasn’t really proving to be cheaper, either, says Peter Hadreas, the chairman of San Jose State’s philosophy department. “The people that do well in these kind of courses are people who are already studious. Or … who are taking courses for their own enrichment after they’ve graduated,” he says.

“A year and a half ago … people thought this was going to solve the problems of higher education because people would be educated for less money. That’s not the way it’s worked out.”

Now, San Jose State is scaling back its relationship with Udacity, taking more direct control of the courses it offers through the company and rethinking its commitment to MOOCs.


Other schools are hitting the pause button as well. A recent University of Pennsylvania study confirmed a massive problem: MOOCs have painfully few active users. About half who registered for a class ever viewed a lecture, and completion rates averaged just 4 percent across all courses.

Sebastian Thrun, Udacity’s co-founder and a prime mover in MOOCs, recently told Fast Company magazine, “We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don’t educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product.”

Thrun says he doesn’t regret that position. “I think that’s just honest, and I think we should have an honest discourse about what we do,” he says.

“Online education that leaves almost everybody behind except for highly motivated students, to me, can’t be a viable path to education. We look back at our early work and realize it wasn’t quite as good as it should have been. We had so many moments for improvement.”

That the former Stanford professor and inventor — whose online artificial intelligence course helped kick off the MOOC frenzy — was fundamentally rethinking its viability shook the higher education world.

What was missing, many students complained, was a human connection beyond the streamed lecture.

That’s what Tracy Wheeler found lacking. This year she immersed herself in five MOOCs from two providers and completed three, including a course on global poverty. She had read the professor’s book and was excited and upbeat.

“I thought I’d go in deeper and come out wanting to move to India and help her with one of her experiments,” she says.

Instead, the 52-year-old education consultant says she hated being chained to the computer screen and found the entire MOOC experience mechanistic, dreary and ineffectual. “I’m a very social person. There was nothing to grasp on to,” she says. “There were no people; there was no professor. In a sense you’re just learning in this void. … I would come away from my computer just kind of despondent and feeling really reduced somehow.”

She says the courses’ online forums — the key support structure for many MOOCs — were isolating and largely absent of meaningful back-and-forth — or joy.

“It was like going up and scrawling your name on a graffiti wall. You know, there was no sense of community.” In a class, she says, “you can pass a note. You can have fun.”


Wheeler’s experience is just one of hundreds of thousands of MOOC takers’, of course. Many others praise the online courses as brilliant, time-saving and cost efficient. But providers are responding to criticisms like Wheeler’s.

Enter MOOC 2.0. Udacity and other leading MOOC providers now realize that a more expansive, human-centered support structure is key to helping students retain information, stick with the course — and finish.

“We [added] human mentors,” says Thrun. “We have people almost 24-7 that help you when you get stuck. We also added a lot of projects that require human feedback and human grading.”And that human element, surprise, surprise, makes a huge difference in the student experience and the learning outcomes,” he says.

In 2014, the company will put more emphasis on employee job training classes for corporations, including Google, Facebook and others. Classes will include an introduction to big data analysis and mobile app development.

Like Udacity, MOOC pioneer Coursera is also changing. The company is creating “learning hubs” at U.S. consulates around the world that will include a weekly in-person instructor to foster discussion.

Some critics believe the changes underway amount to a full-scale MOOC retreat and lay bare online education’s deep flaws.

But Thrun says those critics simply don’t get the nature of tech innovation: You closely evaluate failures, think forward, adjust — and use the word “iterate.” A lot.

“It’s certainly an iteration,” Thrun says. “And the truth is, look, this is Silicon Valley. We try things out, we look at the data, and we learn from it.”

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  • leonardwaks

    Nothing in this article that has not been aired a lot already. But useful to see summary of the year’s lessons. I have been blogging about these developments throughout 2013, and will continue to cover, critique, encourage, and brainstorm in 2014 at

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  • MOOCs have NOT drifted off course. This is precisely how disruptive innovation works. It always starts out as an inferior, low quality product. But there is significant demand and future iterations will vastly improve the experience.

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  • David Knise

    This sounds like a problem with student motivation and not with the online platforms. One could also argue that classrooms full of unmotivated students who don’t turn in their homework or show up on test day are also failures.

  • An Opinion

    I don’t see the big difference between MOOC degrees and online Master’s degrees offered by Stanford or Carnegie Mellon (except the cost and some automation).

    Comparing free courses with no reward or punishment to the results of in-class students that had to apply to get in, that are motivated by their desire to graduate, and their fear of life failure is dishonest in of itself.

    I believe that Georgia Tech’s effort will turn out different.

    • Jadhoo

      You hit the nail on the head. As the CEO of a training company for one of the largest certifications, we offer both “paid” classroom sessions and a lite “free” sessions. The difference in student performance is enormous. Fundamentally, the online MOOCs (schools) have to include reward / penalty elements, inform them upfront about the ground rules, and enforce them strictly. This will show the true statistics of potential success of MOOCs.

  • Seen this general sentiment floating around a lot. It’s great to see the blogosphere catching up to where MOOCs were from the beginning — the early 2000s. If people want to learn about a topic they can go on youtube and wikipedia, why get roped into the commitments and hassles of taking an online course when you just want to learn a bit about something in your free time (hence 4% completion or lower). Saying this will disrupt and replace education is akin to saying that Walmart should replace all other stores. Price and scale does not = quality and online classes can replace SOME aspects of the physical classroom but absolutely not all.

  • Mike Ruff

    “We were trying out a new, never before attempted thing, and our first shot at it didn’t work the way we thought it should. Guess we may as well give up, and go back to doing it the way we always have in the past, regardless of new knowledge and technology.”

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  • Dale Hisiger

    As a working professional who sucessfully completed a MOOC in 2013, I can appreciate the challenges and benefits of this education medium. Being able to incorporate the sessions into my schedules and learning at my own pace was ideal. However, sending my papers into cyberspace to be reviewed by those who have technical knowledge but lack the proficiency in giving constructive feedback undermines the learning process. Additionally there is the reality that to learn from a MOOC requires intrinsic motivation as well as instruction from a professor who has superior platform skills. The current scrutiny will result in a better MOOC process. Remember though that this was not meant to take the place of traditional

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  • Dwayne Lindsay

    4% completion is still a significant number when compared to enrollment, and many people complete the content but don’t have the time, resources, or temperament to fulfill the assignments. I don’t see this as a failure but simply a alternate use of the vehicle; no different than auditing a traditional course. Many folks also are interested in only a portion of the content, and may glean usefull information by only attending a few lectures, or viewing a few topics. No different than attending only a few evenings of a live lecture series.
    Using traditional measurements of sucess and failure, and overemphasizing the participation ( or lack ) of non traditional students is a short sighted methodology, it will take time to develop useful measurement tools, and to see the impact of course offerings in day to day life.

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