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The last two years have seen an explosion of interest in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs, for short). Universities and companies team up to create these courses, which provide free content to students around the globe. Early on, the accolades piled up, with MOOC proponents championing the courses as the sign of a new age in inclusive education. Before the end of the year, The New York Times dubbed 2012 “The Year of the MOOC” (Pappano, 2012). Clayton Christensen of the Harvard Business School prognosticated that universities would be overthrown by the courses (Skapinker, 2013). And in just a few years, the three major players in the MOOC market—Coursera, edX, and Udacity—grew from tiny upstarts to formidable companies (Pappano, 2012). In the last six months, though, enthusiasm has begun to cool, with underwhelmed critics shedding light on the ways MOOCs fail to deliver.

The rise of MOOCs was touted as a paradigm shift because the courses eliminate three of the restrictions to open higher education: cost, class size, and geography. Harvard, Yale, MIT, and UCLA are just a few of the prestigious (and pricy) universities offering free versions of their classes online (Scholarix, 2013). In most MOOCs, video lectures take the place of expensive classroom time. The open enrollment of MOOCs brings down another barrier to accessible education. So far, legions of students have taken advantage of the courses, with the most popular MOOCs attracting enrollments of over 100,000 (Pappano, 2012). Finally, the ubiquity of the Internet and the ease of enrollment means that people from the most isolated parts of the world can learn from professors at top-tier universities. Coursera has such a broad reach that the company sponsors student meet-ups in 1,400 cities across the globe (Pappano, 2012).

So, what’s wrong with MOOCs? Dennis Yang (2013), president of MOOC provider Udemy, suggests that all the hype surrounding the courses has produced unrealistic expectations. Academics and pundits alike lost sight of reality in the early years of the MOOC. Since the beginning, though, detractors have uncovered a number of key flaws, including a lack of accreditation and dropout rates that exceed ninety percent (Lewin, 2013). Journalist Michael Skapinker (2013) points to a couple reasons MOOCs pose no immediate threat to the postsecondary education system. For one, it’s hard to measure the effectiveness of video lectures. Even more fundamentally, employers focus more on an applicant’s alma mater than any specific coursework he or she completed while in school (Skapinker, 2013). MOOCs provide information, but not credentials.

MOOCs are not the cure-all that some of their early supporters claimed, but the courses still have a major part to play in the quest for low-cost, open education. MOOCs are just a stop on the path to an effective model. Dennis Yang writes that “no matter where things end up with MOOCs, there is no question they have already provided wider access to education than anything that’s come before.” Massive enrollment, video lectures, and easy class registration may not be the last word in e-learning, but MOOCs are an integral part of the conversation.

1 Comment
  1. This is interesting, yet MOOC’s haven’t offered an engaging experience to many students. Videos of most lectures are largely an ineffective instructional medium.

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