After a year of setback after setback, the hype around MOOCs is settling down a bit. The latest evidence of this comes courtesy of an interesting profile piece at Fast Company of Udacidy CEO Sebastian Thrun, a man who is in many ways the godfather of the MOOC concept.
Instead of his original goal of offering a “Stanford-quality education to millions of students around the world”, Thrun is shifting to “more vocational-focused learning”.
MOOCs have been a “lousy product“.
… Thrun highlights his disappointments with MOOCs’ record: 90 percent drop-out rates with only half of the remaining 10 percent actually earning a passing grade; the student demographic overwhelmingly populated by well-educated, college-degreed professionals rather than the underprivileged students he had hoped to reach; the San Jose State University debacle, in which San Jose students taking Udacity-delivered MOOCs performed significantly worse than their peers in physical classrooms; and the unexpected failure of Thrun’s interventions intended to raise passing rates. Thrun tried adding mentors and TAs to provide personalized attention and interaction with students, incorporating immediate feedback and rewards in the forms of badges and progress meters, and partnering with schools such as San Jose to provide college credit, which Thrun expected to ramp up student interest. “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,” Thrun remarked. “We have a lousy product.“
Online education will clearly continue to change higher education, and the first wave of MOOCs were only part of this evolution according to Walter Russell Mead.
Thrun’s change of focus may not be as big a shift as it appears on its face. It’s been apparent from the beginning that the format is better suited for some subjects than others. Math, science and business are easier to teach online than liberal-arts subjects like English and philosophy that rely more heavily on in-class discussions. And while a liberal arts education remains a good option for many people, the vast majority of American college students are choosing majors that are tightly linked to future careers: only 7 percent of all students major in the humanities. On the other hand, subjects like business, science, nursing and computer science are among the most common majors in the country. Even if MOOCs only impact the “vocational” side of the higher-ed world, this still amounts to a pretty sizable chunk of the industry.
Furthermore, while MOOCs as they’re currently offered may not be enough to upend the higher-ed system on their own, there’s lots of promise for “blended” courses in which the online material is supplemented by regular meetings with teachers or tutors who lead discussions and proctor exams. These meetings could be handled remotely using teleconferencing technology, or they could be done in person at local testing centers, in either case adding that human component that remains the weakest link in how these courses are offered today.