One year ago, many were pointing to the growth of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, as the most important trend in higher education. Many saw the rapid expansion of MOOCs as a higher education revolution that would help address two long-vexing problems: access for underserved students and cost.
In theory, students saddled by rising debt and unable to tap into the best schools would be able to take free classes from rock star professors at elite schools via Udacity, edX, Coursera and other MOOC platforms.
But if 2012 was the "Year of the MOOC," as The New York Times famously called it, 2013 might be dubbed the year that online education fell back to earth. Faculty at several institutions rebelled against the rapid expansion of online learning - and the nation's largest MOOC providers are responding.
Earlier this year, San Jose State University partnered with Udacity to offer several types of for-credit MOOC classes at low cost. The partnership was announced in January with lots of enthusiastic publicity, including a plug from California Gov. Jerry Brown, who said MOOC experiments are central to democratizing education.
"We've got to invest in learning, in teaching, in education," he said. "And we do that not by just the way we did it 100 years ago. We keep changing."
But by all accounts, the San Jose experiment was a bust. Completion rates and grades were worse than for those who took traditional campus-style classes. And the students who did best weren't the underserved students San Jose most wanted to reach.
It wasn't really proving to be cheaper, either, says Peter Hadreas, the chairman of San Jose State's philosophy department.
"The people that do well in these kind of courses are people who are already studious. Or ... who are taking courses for their own enrichment after they've graduated," he says.
"A year and a half ago ... people thought this was going to solve the problems of higher education because people would be educated for less money. That's not the way it's worked out."
Now, San Jose State is scaling back its relationship with Udacity, taking more direct control of the courses it offers through the company and rethinking its commitment to MOOCs.
'We Have A Lousy Product'
Other schools are hitting the pause button as well. A recent University of Pennsylvania study confirmed a massive problem: MOOCs have painfully few active users. About half who registered for a class ever viewed a lecture, and completion rates averaged just 4 percent across all courses.
Sebastian Thrun, Udacity's co-founder and a prime mover in MOOCs, recently told Fast Company magazine, "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." Thrun says he doesn't regret that position. "I think that's just honest, and I think we should have an honest discourse about what we do," he says.
"Online education that leaves almost everybody behind except for highly motivated students, to me, can't be a viable path to education. We look back at our early work and realize it wasn't quite as good as it should have been. We had so many moments for improvement."
That the former Stanford professor and inventor - whose online artificial intelligence course helped kick off the MOOC frenzy - was fundamentally rethinking its viability shook the higher education world.
What was missing, many students complained, was a human connection beyond the streamed lecture.
That's what Tracy Wheeler found lacking. This year she immersed herself in five MOOCs from two providers and completed three, including a course on global poverty. She had read the professor's book and was excited and upbeat.
"I thought I'd go in deeper and come out wanting to move to India and help her with one of her experiments," she says. --------------------------------------- SIDEBAR: Students at the Oakland Military Institute took several courses offered by San Jose State and the online course provider Udacity this year. The university is now scaling back its relationship with Udacity. Laura A. Oda/MCT/Landov ------------------------------------------ SIDEBAR: We look back at our early work and realize it wasn't quite as good as it should have been. We had so many moments for improvement. - Sebastian Thrun, co-founder of MOOC provider Udacity ****************************************** -- Jerry P. Becker Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction Southern Illinois University 625 Wham Drive Mail Code 4610 Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O] (618) 457-8903 [H] Fax: (618) 453-4244 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org