2012 was the year of the MOOC. MOOC, an acronym for massive open online courses, grabbed the media attention and became a widely discussed topic in education. Three of the most famous initiatives, Coursera, Udacity and edX enabled a large world-wide audience to take courses from elite universities for free. Especially the fact that high-level education suddenly became available for free for anyone who wanted to take part, was heralded as a major advantage and the start of a new era in education.

However, every hype is followed by a backlash and the descent into the trough of disillusionment is an almost inevitable occurrence. MOOCs are no different in this regard. Considerable criticism has been launched recently and reports of failed attempts make the rounds. Here are two of these failed attempts.

In January the Coursera course "Fundamentals of Online Learning: Planning and Application” with 40,000 initial participants went wrong to the point that the class was suspended. “Within days, many of those students—including some who are educators themselves—were taking to Twitter and blogs to complain that the class was unravelling.” The biggest problems seemed to be related to class-organization. Confusion was caused by what appear to be misjudgements by the course lecturer who later suspended the class “to make improvements.” This experience is particularly bitter as the class itself was about online learning. (1)

The second example comes from a Udacity course that didn’t seem to suffer from bad organization but failed because students didn’t learn enough to pass the course. In January San Jose State University began to offer five courses in various subjects for a modest fee and with the possibility to gain a certificate. The course retention rate of about 80 percent was exceptionally high for online learning. However, almost 50 percent failed their final exams. This was enough reason for the university to suspend its partnership with Udacity. (2)

The response in both cases was similar. Coursera co-founder Andrew NG said that they viewed the experience "not as a failure, but rather as an opportunity to learn and improve things the next time around." And Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity, said: “We are experimenting and learning …That to me is a positive.”

And indeed, we need to learn. A lot needs to be done before online learning can re-shape higher education. We need to learn how to learn online, both as teachers and as students. An honest discussion about the requirements of online education, its advantages and pitfalls is needed. As the MOOC-hype slows down, we have a good chance of doing so.  

1. http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2013/02/05/mooc_meltdown_courser...

2. http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2013/07/19/san_jose_state_suspen...


Katharina Höne's picture
Katharina Höne
Thanks Hannah. I agree, it is very important to not over-state "the failure of the MOOC". Two courses out of hundreds going awry is really to be expected and not a problem given the larger picture. In terms of "learning to learn online," I think a lot can to be done. Having the technology ability does not mean that a good course will be delivered. It will be largely up to the course developers and lecturers and their ingenuity to make the course work. I like the phrase "form follows function" - in that sense online learning needs to take a different form from the classroom. This is where the challenge comes in for those being used to more traditional forms of learning.
Jovan Kurbalija's picture
Jovan Kurbalija
MOOC is one phase in the process of bringing online tools into learning process. One can expect many more failures. Personally, I do not think that MOOC developments will be the major one. The approach is based on a 'massive' - more industrial age learning. We will soon face a new generation of learners with limited attention span and problems with time-management. Online learning will have to help them to get out of avelange of information and 'disturbances' and concentrate on learning (quite demanding tasks which requires time and concentration). The main challenge of the future online learning will be how to make customised without making elitist. MOOC's main achievement has been easy access for almost anyone. While we try to solve this puzzle, we should be carefully manage expectations. Hype, which has surrounded MOOC last two years, won't help!
Katharina Höne's picture
Katharina Höne
I absolutely agree. One important point is to (re-)think MOOCs as a tool for education that is more inclusive than traditional set-ups. You are very spot on in saying that this summer will see more reports on failure of the MOOCs. It seems only an all too predictable reaction to the hype. To underline that, here is a very critical article from yesterday: "The MOOC Racket: Widespread online-only higher ed will be disastrous for students—and most professors." http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2013/07/moocs_could_be_disastrous_for_students_and_professors.html
Hannah's picture
Thanks for this interesting posting, Kat. It seems we are at the phase with MOOCs where the media is searching for negative elements to criticize, as reporting about the ‘revolution in education’ is no longer new or interesting. I would not consider the failure of two MOOCs (from hundreds) as a significant problem. A MOOC, like any course, needs to be carefully designed, and tested. I think many institutions are rushing to get their MOOCs out there, probably without spending enough time considering the right learning and teaching methodologies, or developing the right lecturer and support staff skills to run the courses effectively. In addition, any institution can expect difficulties during a pilot course; the purpose of a pilot, or first course session, is to try it out and see where improvements are needed. So the failure of a couple MOOCs should not really come as a surprise. Of course, it is an embarrassing situation when you have thousands of learners registered, and the media just waiting to make the most of the failure! The response from the MOOC providers – that these failures are an opportunity to learn – sounds like an excuse. But I think it’s a valid response to failures, and some failures should have been expected from the start of the initiative. I think your title - 'we still need to learn how to learn online' catches the essence of the current situation with MOOCs. Like any model of online learning, MOOCs need time to mature, and so do the staff and support structures in the institutions which offer them.

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