Three years ago, this headline appeared in The New York Times: "Virtual and Artificial, but 58,000 Want Course." We all know the rest of the story. When the artificial-intelligence class at Stanford University started that fall, 160,000 students in 190 countries had signed up, touching off MOOC mania on campuses around the world.
Massive open online courses were heralded as the invention that would disrupt higher education’s expensive business model and would become the next big innovation in the tech world. By the end of 2012, the Times declared it "the year of the MOOC."
But a year later, after a series of high-profile failed experiments using MOOCs, another proclamation from the Times about the massive classes arrived in this front-page headline: "After Setbacks, Online Courses Are Rethought." In the news media, MOOCs had gone from being higher education’s savior to a bust in a little more than a year.
That doesn’t mean MOOCs are dead, however. Far from it. More than six million people have signed up for a MOOC since 2011. Massive open online courses are clearly resonating with an audience looking for instruction on the web. And the format is able to scale education in a way that simply can’t be done on a physical campus.
MOOCs might not put thousands of colleges out of business in the next 50 years, as Sebastian Thrun, a co-founder of Udacity, predicted in 2012, but they are changing how students learn, how professors teach and grade, and how higher-education leaders figure out what differentiates face-to-face instruction from online learning.
These remain the early days of MOOCs. Remember the early days of the web? "No one knew what web search would become in 1998," Ryan Baker, an associate professor of cognitive studies at Teachers College, Columbia University who has taught a MOOC, told me. "We had Infoseek and AltaVista, and Yahoo tried to do it like a phone book. And then Google came along, and that’s how we remember search today."
It’s during this time, after the phase of the initial and unrealistic hype, that the primary players—Coursera, edX, and their college sponsors—need to answer three fundamental questions about the position of MOOCs in the academic ecosystem if the technology is ever to deliver on some of its promises.
What role should MOOCs play at traditional colleges and universities? Although a few MOOC pioneers still see the free online courses as capable of changing the world, the courses right now can be best viewed as a supplement to formal classroom learning and as a professional-development tool for people who already have a college degree. MOOCs have augmented a system of education, not replaced it. Lost in the disillusionment over the end of the MOOC hype are the hundreds of thousands of students who have actually completed the courses, and how for many of them the online classes served a critical need for professional and personal development.
College leaders should focus on using MOOCs to complement and enhance their continuing-education programs, as the number of options students have for education in small bites and on their own schedule continues to grow.
How do colleges make open online courses actually open? Despite the word "open" in their name, MOOCs are not really open in a way that allows anyone to adapt and redistribute courses or that allows open collaboration among users. Indeed, it’s still not clear exactly who owns the content delivered through a MOOC: the professor or the college. The answer has significant implications for MOOC students because it will affect the incentives both colleges and professors have to offer free online classes, and ultimately the ability of today’s MOOC students to have access to a rich catalog of courses when they want them.
Perhaps the biggest battle yet to come between the MOOC providers and colleges is just how long MOOCs should be "turned on" for students. Most MOOCs are run like traditional courses, with a start date and an end date, meaning students who drop out usually can’t pick up another offering of the course until the following year.
Course materials often disappear from the web a few weeks after a class ends. Andrew Ng of Coursera told me he wants to run courses more frequently and to allow the content to always be available. But that means colleges and faculty members would need to allow intellectual property to live online indefinitely, and professors would need to be available to moderate courses year round, all for classes that don’t make a cent for colleges.
How can the quality and success of MOOCs be measured? Both Coursera and edX have turned away so many institutions asking to offer MOOCs that they have lost count. But when the providers reject colleges, they don’t have the best interests of today’s MOOC students in mind. After all, those students are searching for skills-building courses across a range of careers and interests, so they want more choices of colleges and classes, not fewer.
Both the MOOC providers and their college partners still view free online courses through the lens of the traditional, on-campus students they are accustomed to teaching. They are trying to protect what they currently offer to 18-year-olds fortunate enough to have gotten into top-tier colleges, rather than thinking about MOOCs for the adult continuing-education market the courses are already serving. (Udacity has already changed its direction to serve that continuing-education audience.)
Higher education also measures the success of MOOCs by applying traditional measurements of completion. Declaring MOOCs a failure because fewer than 10 percent of students complete them ignores the motivation of many students who enroll to try out courses or to sample a particular lecture. They hadn’t planned to complete the course, and they have nothing to lose when they stop taking it.
The companies that rode to fame on the MOOC wave had visions of offering unfettered online elite education, not just providing what amounts essentially to continuing education for adults. For many of today’s MOOC students, however, what the companies created is incredibly valuable.
But we should eventually expect more from MOOCs given the time and money colleges have spent developing and offering the courses.
Whether MOOCs follow through on their pledge to alter higher education and, in the process, reduce costs and improve outcomes for everyone depends on whether colleges and the MOOC providers tackle the difficult questions facing them in the next few years while they are out of the media spotlight.
Jeffrey Selingo is a contributing editor at The Chronicle. This essay is adapted from his latest book, MOOC U: Who Is Getting the Most Out of Online Education and Why, published this month by Simon & Schuster.