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We still need to learn how to learn online: the backlash of the MOOC-hype

Published on 23 July 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

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. https://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2013/02/05/mooc_meltdown_courser…

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

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