MOOCs Won’t Replace Brick-and-Mortar Colleges


In one of my early posts as a LinkedIn Influencer, I wrote that sophisticated, relatively inexpensive technology and free educational content available online were coming together to create a huge new opportunity to learn.

What I didn’t write then – and am writing now – is that MOOCs won’t replace brick-and-mortar colleges.

I’m not the first person to say this. Even Sebastian Thrun, former Stanford professor and pioneer of free online education on a massive scale, has famously changed his views on what he believes his company, Udacity, should accomplish with MOOCs.

Said Thrun, quoted in an article earlier this year in Fast Company, “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.”

Over the last six months or so, Thrun has refocused Udacity to deliver online training to help people get jobs or advance in their careers. His public admission – and his rapid pivot to a more realistic goal – should be admired.

To be clear, I certainly am not a MOOC “hater.” But, I don’t believe MOOCs in their current iteration are as wildly disruptive to our higher education system as some have led us to believe.

Here are three reasons why.

First, MOOCs require motivation and persistence.

By now the statistics are well known: MOOC completion rates are typically lower than 10%. Only the most committed students view the lectures, turn in their assignments, participate in discussion groups — and do well. Most struggle, participate in some but not all aspects of the course, or simply drop out.

That’s because learning online, without the structure provided by a professor in traditional classroom setting with other students, requires enormous focus and self-discipline, and above all, a strong desire to learn. It also requires time and space to concentrate and work, free from other obligations or distractions, at least part of the time.

In other words, students who complete MOOCs and perform well typically are self-starters, probably already have good study habits, and are lucky to have a lifestyle that allows them to devote time and attention to learning.

Personally, I think the obsession with MOOC completion rates is misplaced. What the data don’t tell us are the motivations of people who sign up for MOOCs and don’t complete them. Our singular focus on completion discounts what someone may have accomplished or learned through participation in just part of a course.

Another factor is that the life situations of some people make it difficult or impossible to fully commit to MOOCs. They might be working full time or at two jobs. They could be single parents whose children occupy most of their off-the-job time.

Bottom line, even the people who don’t complete a MOOC might be learning something or getting satisfaction from the level at which they choose or are able to participate.

Second, while MOOCs are new, the instructional approach used by most of them is one of the oldest in the world.

While it’s exhilarating to think about technology enabling hundred of thousands of people all over the world to take a course online, the truth is many MOOCs use a traditional teaching method – the lecture.

Some of the lectures are engaging. But even the very best and most inspiring lecture is delivering content in a one-to-many broadcast mode without an opportunity for interaction. Anyone who has ever attended a formal school is very familiar with the strengths and limitations of the format.

Third, MOOCs don’t replicate the one-on-one interactions that occur between students and professors in traditional colleges.

Even though the core of a MOOC might be lectures, depending on its approach the rest of the course might include discussion forums, practice sets, application of learning through projects and either peer-graded written assignments or automated feedback based on objective assessments such as quizzes and tests. But even in the most interactive MOOC, there is little or no opportunity for direct one-on-one contact with the professor.

This lack of personal interaction with professors – and even with other students – can be less than satisfying to someone looking for group collaboration and personal guidance and feedback.

In fact, it’s often the quality of the personal interactions that people who attended college in a traditional setting remember – and value – most.

Despite their current limitations, I’m sure MOOCs will evolve with innovative methods that replicate some of the interactive aspects of traditional colleges. But even current MOOCs play an important role in improving our opportunity to learn. For example:

  • Are you intent on learning college-level content, yet in a life situation that prevents you from attending classes in person?
  • Are you in a rural area or a developing country seeking access to learn from top professors at top universities?
  • Are you an employee who wants to develop new professional skills or earn certifications to advance in your career or change careers?
  • Are you a professional required to complete continuing education to maintain a license?
  • Are you looking for ways to shorten the amount of time you need to spend getting an undergraduate degree?
  • Are you passionate about a subject and want to learn more about it in your spare time?
  • Are you a student looking for additional knowledge or skills that will help you perform well in a high school or college class you are enrolled in?

In these types of situations for these types learners, MOOCs might be exactly what you need.

So even though MOOCs have not yet changed the world, they have the ability to change a person’s life. And we are just getting started.

This post appeared on the LinkedIn Influencer page of Karen Cator on May 5th, 2014 and can be viewed there by clicking here.
Karen Cator is President and CEO of Digital Promise, a non-profit whose mission is to vastly improve the opportunity for all Americans to learn by accelerating innovation in education through technology and research. From 2009-2013, Cator was Director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education.