Archive | November, 2012

Is MOOC Solving The Wrong Problem?

30 Nov

In 2011, Sebastian Thrun, a research professor at Stanford University, and his colleague at Google, Peter Norvig, put their course on Artificial Intelligence online. Soon, 160,000 people from 190 countries enrolled in their online course. The number of students who enrolled in this course at Stanford? 300. Encouraged by the massive scale of this endeavor, they started a company, Udacity, to provide online courses on computer science topics.

Around the same time, many other people and universities were looking at this opportunity and taking steps to lead and participate in what many call an online learning revolution. Coursera, UdacityedX, and Venture Lab are just a few of the high profile Massive Online Open Courseware (MOOC) providers. Thousands of people of all ages from every part of the world enroll in the courses provided by these for-profit and not-for-profit online organizations.


The basic assumption seems to be the following:

  1. Universities accept only a limited number of students, but with an online course, there is no limit to the number of students who can be served high quality courses.
  2. Students (or people of all ages) want to learn new subjects, and they don’t have to pay any money to take the courses offered free online.
  3. The cost of producing these courses is minimal as the lectures in physical classrooms can be recorded and put online for everyone to see.
  4. People can improve their skill by taking these courses, which is going to help them in their careers or hobbies.
  5. The courses are free so students will flock to these companies, and nobody will buy books or enroll in colleges and universities because they are too expensive.
  6. The newly launched companies will find a business model later to make money.

I believe the MOOCs serve a purpose. They certainly help people who do not have or want to spend money to enroll in college courses. Or simply do not have access to these courses in their colleges or countries. I’m one of them. I learn new things on the Internet without spending any money. But my problem is not access to quality content. The Internet is full of high-quality and free content on virtually any topic under the sun. My problem is perseverance, motivation, and time. Exactly the same problems thousands of students face who enroll in physical universities. The US has a very high college enrollment rate (8th among 34 OECD countries) but an extremely high dropout rate too (33rd). The main issue is not access to quality content. One of the main issues is money. Even if that is taken care of, an online course is a lonely place to be, without a teacher or a friend to guide, socialize with, or provide motivation and encouragement.

From the article Size Isn’t Everything in The Chronicle of Higher Education:
“Making courseware “massive” may dangle the eventual possibility of trillion-dollar profits (even if they have yet to materialize). But it does not “fix” what is broken in our system of education. It massively scales what’s broken.”

I tried to learn JavaScript on Codecademy and took a course on creativity on Stanford University’s Venture Lab. I dropped out in both courses despite a high level of interest in both topics. And most of the people enrolling in MOOCs are doing the same. The course completion rates are less than 10% despite a much lesser demand on one’s time and resources. The main problem, I believe, is that of relevance and motivation.

Suggested readings
The Online Pecking Order
Playing the Role of MOOC Skeptic: 7 Concerns
MOOC Skepticism Persists Among University Presidents, Despite Rapid Growth Of Online Courses In 2012