How do you define MOOC success?

Online classes play a valuable, but unexpected, role

Massive open online courses—better known as MOOCs—have failed to meet wild expectations that they would revolutionize the world of higher education. But that doesn't mean they've failed overall, Jeffrey Selingo argues in the New York Times; he just thinks they were judged by the wrong metrics.

See EAB's expert insight: The expectations versus reality of MOOCs

Three unrealistic expectations

Selingo suggests that there are three reasons why the hype around MOOCs hasn't measured up to the reality.

First, says Selingo, the average MOOC student is not, as many expected, a foreign individual living in a remote location with no other access to higher education. He's a white, American male with a bachelor's degree and a full-time job.

From 2012-2013, 80% of students enrolled in MOOCs hosted by the University of Pennsylvania and University of Michigan already held a degree of some sort. According to edX, 34% of students enrolled in their courses already have a bachelor's degree, 31% a master's, and 7% a Ph.D.

Second, as Selingo points out, MOOCs do not seem to work as a replacement for traditional courses, as many thought they would. When MOOCs replaced a traditional class, most students fail them or drop out.  =Only 25% of students passed in one experiment backed by Gov. Jerry Brown (D-California) and run at San Jose State University. In another, only 50% passed. These were both significantly higher than the failure rates in the courses' traditional equivalents.

Related: What your institution needs to know about the "murky middle"

"The basic MOOC is a great thing for the top 5% of the student body, but not a great thing for the bottom 95%," says Thrun. Almost all MOOCs come from elite universities, so like Thrun, professors may not grasp the needs of the average student.

Third, contrary to the early approaches, professors who are popular in face-to-face courses may not make the best professors for MOOCs. Many instructors must teach themselves how to lead an online class on-the-fly. Two-thirds of MOOC professors had never taught a completely online class before their first MOOC, according to a 2013 survey by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Selingo calls the major MOOC providers edX and Coursera the "gatekeepers for American higher education online," arguing that they replicate "the pecking order in the physical world as determined by U.S. News & World Report rankings."

Using prestige and completion rates as metrics, says Selingo, MOOCs have failed.

A new way to measure MOOCs

However, that conclusion overlooks the ways MOOCs are being used and the tangible benefits they have brought. By more realistic metrics, MOOCs have proven valuable to many students.

MOOCs offer a low-risk way for people to explore new topics, access supplemental material, and gain professional skills, Selingo argues. Students can register, often for free, for as many classes as they like. They might be traditional students dabbling in a new subject—or professionals seeking access to a single lecture that will help them in tomorrow's meeting.

Such students have little desire to complete the whole course—rendering completion metrics meaningless.

MOOCs provide "learning in chunks, at a student's own pace," and "put students in control," Selingo says. They might not be as glamorous as we imagined, but they are nevertheless a valuable asset for students and professionals alike (Selingo, New York Times, 10/29).

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