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No Surprise That Study Finds Almost No Benefits to MOOCs

Every few months, the established university and college system publishes a scientific-sounding study that inevitably finds that the online learning movement of the last three years has pretty much been a failure. This month, Teachers’ College at Columbia University published one based on interviews with 83 “faculty members, administrators, researchers, and other actors in the MOOCspace”.

What these studies aim to disprove is generally always the same: that MOOCs will eventually make traditional colleges obsolete, and MOOCs main purpose is to open access to higher education to poor and uneducated students without access to a prestigious college education. Of course, the results are always that colleges are continuing just fine, and that the majority of MOOC students are not poor or uneducated. Insert shock here.

So the whole basis of these studies are flawed from the start. I personally don’t believe that colleges and universities will disappear in 10, 20 or even 50 years. Is anyone saying that? We as a society will always need a place where students between 18 and 24 can go and do dedicated learning before entering the workforce full time. But I do believe those institutions will change the way they teach in-person students based on the new teaching styles and technology required for online and distance learning. We’re already seeing changes, and the study does mention they are seeing changes to teaching styles as well. It may not currently be cheaper to deliver one MOOC course online than to stand in front of one class and deliver that same material, but once that lesson is recorded, it can be reused while an in-person lecture needs to be delivered anew every class.

As for the other point, there are many, many people in this world who have no desire to take a class in the traditional college topics (math, science, art, history, philosophy, etc.). This probably is 90% of the population of the world across all countries and economic classes. Does Donald Trump, Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffet, or any other American billionaire take online courses? No more or less likely than a poor person living in a favela in Brazil. The fact that a lot of the students in online courses already have a college degree is no surprise – these people have already shown a desire for more learning beyond the mandatory amount. Most MOOCs are “just” free classes, voluntarily taken, with nothing more than a certificate of completion for finishing. The fact they attract people who have already have shown the desire for learning more than the minimum required by law should not be shocking.

But that doesn’t mean the Harvard and MIT courses at edX are not opening up that prestigious education to more students. Even though I have an University degree, would I ever in my life have the chance to be taught Finance by a Nobel-prize winning professor? Not without Yale opening that course up. Would I be taking a Marketing class from the Wharton School? Not without Wharton making that class available online. Online courses have made formerly rare and expensive education available to hundreds of thousands of people around the world, even if they already have a college or university degree. 

The study even makes the claim that online courses are actually increasing the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” when it comes to education. It’s hard to imagine how a free online class reduces the access to education when compared to a $40,000 per year institution that hoards it’s knowledge and training like a gold pirate protecting his treasure.

Of course, the study tries to throw some additional mud on MOOCs by suggesting some prestigious college brands are cheapened with free, online classes, and the cost of producing a class can run into the $300,000 range, and that money is stolen from other college programs. There’s no evidence, of course, to suggest that people are less likely to go to Harvard because of the free Harvard courses available online or that Harvard tuition costs are being lowered as a result. They are both completely bogus, unsubstantiated claims.

One would think that Columbia’s study would cite facts and figures, showing that the hundreds of thousands of students who have taken classes online have not actually learned anything, or that the schools have gained no important knowledge in experimenting with these types of distance learning classes. Perhaps there is no way to quantify that with numbers as those things are not easily measured in a study like this. But that didn’t stop the authors from speculating on the declining value of the college brand though.

I suspect these types of defensive, conflicting interest studies will continue to be done. I await the day when the authors realize online and offline learning can peacefully co-exist, and that online benefits offline learning tremendously, as offline also benefits online.

Agree? Disagree? I want to hear from you in the comments.


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  1. Sadly I’m afraid that this kind of studies will lead to more pay-for MOOCs justification, like Udacity that recently removed its free certificates and introduced VERY expensive monthly fees to have the full content and not just the videos.
    They saw that most of the people completing could affort to pay, and they are trying to push them to do so, based on flawed reasoning like the one in this study.
    Just as an example, Udacity founder always cites %, not absolute numbers, to say that his system is better, because 60% complete the MOOC, compared to 10% before… but 10% of 100’000 is more than 60% of 5000, for example…
    I really hope that coursera and edX will stay on their tracks instead, and not look for easy and quick money in fear that the whole thing is going to end.

    • You’re right, Chiara, that some things will change in the next 12 months for MOOCs. Some Universities will stop offering their courses (i.e. they tried it, and decided they were not getting the ROI on the money invested), while others will start charging for what used to be free. I hope a way can be found to keep it open to all as much as possible. Like I said, online and offline courses help each other, and are not competing against each other.

      I always appreciate your comments, and thanks for leaving a reply.

      • I suppose that there will always be online records of classes, as there were before the MOOC “revolution”, but I find that classroom recorded and put on youtube are not as good as videos that are recorded specifically for the online audience.

        I hope that they will leave online on coursera/edX the courses, even if they were to stop making new ones. I have a wishlist so long there that I can be occupied for the next 5 years 😉

        • You’re right. Videos recorded specifically for the web are generally of higher quality (and thus, better at teaching) than ones recorded in a classroom in front of an audience.

          And there are tons of interesting classes that are on my wishlist too. That’s why I had to start taking up to 4 courses at the same time!

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