Reality Check: Have MOOCs lost their shine?

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On November 14, 2013, the magazine Fast Company published a remarkable article. A profile of Udacity founder and Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) evangelist Sebastian Thrun, it contains a stunning revelation: even those closest to the MOOC industry have serious doubts about their quality and educational impact.
 
As Thrun states:
 
“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….It was a painful moment.”
 
This realization came after analyzing some uncomfortable data. Fewer than 10 per cent of completed a Udacity course, and many of those did not receive a passing grade. According to the article, “for every 100 pupils who enrolled in a free course, something like five actually learned the topic.”
 
It gets worse. Udacity recently partnered with San Jose State University, a large public institution in California, to deliver remedial math, college algebra, and elementary statistics. These programs were for credit, charged a $150 tuition fee, and were targeted at high school students from a low-income high school and struggling San Jose students.
 
The results were “disastrous.”
 
Among those pupils who took remedial math during the pilot program, just 25% passed. And when the online class was compared with the in-person variety, the numbers were even more discouraging. A student taking college a lgebra in person was 52% more likely to pass than one taking a Udacity class, making the $150 price tag–roughly one-third the normal in-state tuition–seem like something less than a bargain.
 
In the wake of these disappointing outcomes, Thrun is backing away from the idea that MOOCs are capable of delivering free, high quality  higher education to hundreds of thousands of students beyond the wall of the traditional university. Instead, Udacity will move to a fee-per-course model and abandon academic disciplines in favor of more vocational-focused learning. Much of these new courses will be designed for corporate clients, such as Google, to meet their in-house  training needs.
 
For Thrun, MOOCs have gone from a much-hyped higher education revolution (the New York Times even christened 2012 as “The Year of the MOOC”) to a corporate training tool in less than two years. Institutions and governments looking to these courses – whether to build profile, reach more students, or cut costs – should temper their enthusiasm accordingly.

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