Weighing the benefits of massive open online courses (MOOCs)

The arrival of a new year brings all sorts of changes, along with a few old bad habits. The most prominent of these are New Year’s resolutions. Most people make them, and to hear most people talk of them, most resolutions are not kept for a substantial period of time. New Year’s resolutions generally begin with grandiose goals and vows that they will never be broken no matter what, and they gradually end up forgotten and abandoned.

A recent trend that closely resembles New Year’s resolutions are MOOCs, or massive open online courses. In the last several years, entrepreneurs and educators have been hawking MOOCs as a quick, cheap or even free method of gaining knowledge and credentials. The available courses are too numerous to even count, and the sites offering MOOCs are a who’s who of respectable universities and corporations; edX is operated by MIT and Harvard University, Coursera features courses from universities from Taiwan to France, and sites such as Udacity, Saylor, Open2study and many others have the backing of Silicon Valley moguls and Ivy League professors.

My experience with MOOCs began last fall when I signed up for a computer science course on edX. Soon enough—like entering a new store and emerging with armloads of goods I was positively sure I needed—I had explored other MOOC sites and registered for about a dozen other classes. The MOOC seemed like a gift from God; well-organized courses offering fascinating knowledge on navigable websites that could make me a better-rounded, more intelligent and employable person. Best of all, they were free!

My initial elation degenerated into apprehension and assurances that I would keep up when I found myself buried with work from my classes in real life, extracurricular activities, personal commitments and other issues. Gradually, the classes I signed up for slipped into the back of my mind, and as I read notification after notification in my email reminding me of my course progress, I would grimace in despair. By the end of winter break, I had completed most of the courses I signed up for on Open2study, but my completion rate for courses on other websites was deplorable.

The New York Times featured an article in 2012 declaring it to be “the year of the MOOC,” and various commentators have opined that we are about to witness the disappearance of hundreds of universities across the world, since so many offer unaffordable tuition, education of questionable value, and are incapable of sustainability in the future. More than a few critics charge that the “end of the university as we know it,” as Nathan Harden wrote, is coming, and that virtually all education in the near future will take place online, with students and teachers communicating seamlessly in higher numbers than were ever possible in a lecture hall. The vast majority of schools would be forced to close and would be replaced by only the finest schools offering the finest education at little or no cost. We would reach an intellectual golden age.

The rapid rise and decline of MOOCs resembles the excitement and disappointment that accompanied the launch of the Segway a decade ago; one innovation was supposed to revolutionize an entire field, yet ended up used by only a tiny fraction of consumers. MOOCs have faced backlash for attracting students who are already in possession of a bachelor’s degree, whereas MOOC champions hoped to draw students who lacked the means to pay for college and instead could learn online for free.

Although MOOCs were hailed as a method of decreasing economic, educational and racial inequality, they are far from achieving these goals. The Wall Street Journal reported in October that over 90 percent of MOOC students fail to complete courses on time, and MOOC students consistently drop out and lose interest. The websites are used heavily around midnight, suggesting that MOOC completion is not a high priority for most people.

Human behavior is the most pressing reason why students have failed to benefit from the MOOC trend. There is nothing so hard to change as willpower, and MOOCs are heavily dependent on one’s own initiative for success. If MOOCs are to succeed, they require a much more rigorous format, a comprehensive series of linked courses forming a concentration or major rather than isolated classes, some form of oversight so that students will be more focused in their studies, and more interesting teaching methods, instead of lectures followed by multiple choice questions. MOOCs, at this early stage, cannot be entirely written off as a failed experiment, but virtually all critics have agreed that MOOCs need reform in how they teach and test students, and ought to find ways of holding students accountable for finishing courses.

I am still signed up for a number of MOOCs starting soon. I hope that with a new year, I can turn over a new leaf and complete at least most of my courses without losing interest, time or focus. Hope really does spring eternal, and this time I am absolutely, positively, entirely certain that I can have more success. The MOOC is still a great idea, and is quite early to say whether they are completely untenable. Hopefully, changes in the MOOC structure can make them more useful to students by offering accessible and affordable education that enables them to find careers. The MOOC can succeed, but like a New Year’s resolution, it is ultimately up to the individual to make the most of it and obtain the best results.