MOOCs Three Years Later

One constant in K-12 and higher education reform has been policymakers adopting policies they say will make fundamental changes in their institutions and seeing those efforts scaled back to become incremental changes or disappear completely (see here, here, and here).

Higher education reformers, for example, touted Open Admissions  at  City University of New York in 1970 as a fundamental change in higher education (any graduate of a New York City high school could enter CUNY, tuition-free; the number of students entering CUNY especially black and Hispanic jumped dramatically). Yet within a few years, a fiscal crisis led to altering the program. Another fiscal crisis two decades later led to CUNY charging tuition and dropping Open Admissions.

Or consider the introduction of small high schools (or schools-within-a-school of 400 or so students) in urban districts in the early 1990s. Top policy makers and enthusiastic donors believed that small high schools would restructure large (1500-plus students) comprehensive high schools leading to improved curriculum, instruction, and student academic performance. It did not happen. What did happen is that many urban districts created portfolios of schools that included large comprehensive high schools and smaller charters and magnet schools. Small high schools became an incremental change.

Again and again, the dream and rhetoric of fundamental reform gets down-sized into smaller bite-sized policy chunks.

And that is the unfolding story of MOOCs.

Where are MOOCs Now?

On the Hype Cycle, three years after they went viral I would put MOOCs into the Trough of Disappointment but slowly inching up the Slope.







Rather than recount the history of MOOCs (see here, here, and here) since their inception in the U.S. (but earlier in Canada), I want to concentrate on one claim that has been made repeatedly: MOOCs will revolutionize teaching and learning in U.S. higher education (see here and here). They have not even come close to either.

And they won’t for three reasons:

1.The pattern of down-sizing reforms intended to revolutionize an institution into becoming an incremental change is already underway with MOOCs.

MOOCs are peripheral at most selective residential colleges and universities. Few award credits to students taking these courses. Often at such places like Stanford, Harvard, and other elite institutions institutions, they have been folded into prior distance learning platforms.

Community colleges and lower-tier universities where teaching is primary mission, however, will increasingly adopt MOOCs as money-saving enhancements of their offerings. Nonetheless, MOOCs will remain marginal to their overall operations

2. The fundamental error in policymaker thinking is that teaching is solely delivering subject-matter to students. There is far more to teaching that content  delivery such as creating a learning culture in the classroom, organizing lessons involving students in tasks that build understanding of what is supposed to be learned, and applying and practicing newly-learned knowledge and  skills.

3. The absence of evidence for students actually learning and applying the content of MOOCs is startling.

I have tried to keep abreast of the literature on MOOCs and repeatedly I have struck out in finding studies–anecdotes there are, to be sure–that demonstrate MOOC students have learned the content of the course and applied it.

Given these reasons, for universities and colleges, then, to adopt MOOCs wholesale,  at a time when top policymakers–including President Obama–press for rating systems and more accountability for students’ performance (and debt load), would be somewhere between wacky and idiotic.

And that is why MOOCs will fall far short of transforming higher education and eventually settle into an incremental change of marginal proportions in higher education.





Filed under how teachers teach

22 responses to “MOOCs Three Years Later

  1. Pingback: Larry Cuban: MOOCs Three Years Later | educaci&...

  2. Alice in PA

    Once again Larry, thanks for going past the hype and anecdotal tales of transformative success and delving into the messy details. Rarely is any change a raving success or dismal failure.
    My favorite part is “The fundamental error in policymaker thinking is that teaching is solely delivering subject-matter to students. ” So much energy is wasted in education policy because of this ignorance.

  3. Kunal Chawla

    Hi Larry,

    I was discussing this blog post with a few friends and wanted to highlight an insight we had.

    Both the examples you use (CUNY and small high schools) to make the case that changes that are touted as fundamental disruptions often end up being incremental improvements have one thing in common.

    They both end up increasing the cost of education.

    MOOCs (or online instruction in general) has one thing going for it – it brings down the cost of education. Now whether they are effective learning instruments is a different story and there I am as much a skeptic as you are. But it seems evident that online instruction helps reduce the cost for the learner. And at least in that sense it is different from the examples you sight.

    Do you buy that?

    • larrycuban

      Nice point, Kunal, but let me point out that the cost of MOOCs will continue to rise because organizers and students will want more interaction in offerings (rather than heads talking) and, more important, blending of online and face-to-face will occur–both of which will add to sunk and operating costs.

  4. Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    Larry Cuban explains why he thinks that MOOC’s are now in the through of disappointment on the Hype Cycle and why MOOC’s probably remain marginal to their overall operations.

  5. Nic Voge

    Your point 3 is crucial to someone like me (though I think you may have meant something like “apparent” not “absent”) who is interested in how students learn from instruction.

    If I may, I’d like to add a couple of generalizations to consider when considering technological innovations. First, many innovations are initially touted in terms of both their increased efficiency and quality of outcomes. Soon, discussions of quality of outcomes (much harder to demonstrate as you have discovered) are elided as if the whole justification had always been increased efficiencies. Second, the POTENTIAL of innovations are regularly compared to the FAILINGS of current practices and thus innovations are always viewed as an advance. The potential of MOOCs to transform education and learning is obvious if one holds a simplistic notion of learning from teaching (see your point 2), but the reality is far more complex (as evidenced from data on how students engage these courses). Innovations like this might be understood as now communities coming to enduring questions in education and offering solutions without knowing much about other communities’ efforts around the same questions. Thus, those working on MOOCs seem not to know much about the work on “student engagement” (see Kuh and others), and academic engagement in particular. I suppose that is a third generalization.

    I wonder if MOOCs can be seen as an extension of some of the dynamics or forces which you identified in your book “When Scholars Trumped Teachers”. MOOCs are opportunities for scholars to teach their specialisms to a bigger audience by broadcasting to a global audience rather than engaging in the pedagogical move of making their research focus accessible to a novice (and thus larger) audience.

    • larrycuban

      Thank you, Nic, for taking the time to comment. I did find your poking at the bias embedded in “innovation” quite good. You said: “…the POTENTIAL of innovations are regularly compared to the FAILINGS of current practices and thus innovations are always viewed as an advance.” The diversity of settings in higher education (University of Phoenix to Yale to the local community college make it hard for me to generalize. But I still do on some issues. Connecting the incentives built into MOOCs to the incentives that research-driven top colleges and universities lay out for faculty in research, well, I had not thought of the linkages. Thanks.

  6. Sandy

    I was struck by the commentor’s statement, “…the POTENTIAL of innovations are regularly compared to the FAILINGS of current practices and thus innovations are always viewed as an advance.” In my experience this appears to be an accurate comment. I met with a school board member just yesterday to speak about the 1:1 in our school division which is moving forward this fall without an implementation plan. The member’s view is that the technology has SO much potential to individualize instruction (online learning, tutoring programs that will branch as the student gets the right answers, etc) if done well.

    The presumption I took from her statement was that clearly the teachers can’t do this, so we have to look to technology for the solution. And as you stated so aptly, Larry, the classroom culture that a teacher creates, the opportunities to apply or demonstrate knowledge and skills that the teacher organizes are obviously overlooked in this push to embrace 1:1 devices. And is the technology a miracle tool without professional development I asked her? I told her the Department of Instruction is completely uninvolved in this “pilot.” So what is the compelling reason that the teachers would even engage in a pilot that is not connected to what their curriculum outlines?

    Then I had the audacity to ask what measures do they have in place that don’t rely on anecdotal evidence that the devices will improve student achievement – answer: “I’ll look into that.” In the meantime, the devices will be delivered to the students in August/September.

    I should add I engage my students with technology whenever I find it an appropriate tool to use. I have developed with other teachers best practices for using tablets and cell phones, so my objections are not anti-technology but rather the lack of understanding what a teacher does to create learning opportunities and the assumption that technology will in and of itself, improve learning.

    • larrycuban

      Nice to hear from you, Sandy. Your recent experience with the school board member is, I must say, sad but oh so true to my experience. I am surprised because the district you work in has, in the past, been fairly well attentive to implementation issues and teacher involvement. Perhaps those days are no more.

  7. Dr. Mark Taormino

    There has been much debate about MOOCs, but the core issue with MOOCs is that they completely ignore many principles of distance education. One in particular is the need to reduce transactional distance. The timely and frequent interaction between the instructor and student is a cornerstone of DE. The process of feedback from the instructor is notably absent in the MOOC process. Despite scores and mountains of research about effective distance education practices, one can only ponder why MOOCs were touted in the first place. If simply accessing content was the only necessary ingredient for the learning process, long ago we could have settled on just read a book, watch a video, and be done with it. We know that is far from effective. I would be less concerned if MOOCs were simply pushed by those outside of education, but sadly they are/were pushed by the very people that should know much better. MOOCs are an illogical extension of DE and the quality processes and practices that we know lead to positive learning outcomes. While MOOCs might have application in some areas, for the most part, they are not durable as delivery vehicles for quality learning experiences.

    • Hi Mark,

      I’m largely in agreement – though I’d argue that the criticisms probably need to be altered depending on the type of mooc.

      For example there are task based moocs, (sometimes in coding) where feedback is delived based on how someone engages with a coding task. Feedback here can actually be quite good.

      Or there are connectivist moocs, where there is no feedback, but the focus is on building a community that generates learning laterally across it. Here the focus is probably more on professional development and informal learning, and, for a cetrain tyoe of learner – a highly motivated individual with good critical faculties, good learning strategies, and high motivation – there can be benefit.

      I do agree that feedback is, generally, key to learning outcomes, and to motivation, effort and persistence on the part of students, as well as a welath of other things ( modelling and encouraging specific forms of peer engagement, developing critical abilities, faculties and processes, etc. etc.). And moocs do seem to have wilfully ignored the lessons, failures and successes of the past.

      But they don;t need to continue to do so. I admire the idealism behind the massive and open aspect of moocs, if not, always, the execution of that idealism.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks, Keith, for your comments on MOOCs, one to Mark’s comment and the post itself. Keeping in mind the different kinds of MOOCs and the actions of Udacity is helpful.

  8. Hi Larry,

    thanks for the thoughtful post, and, as a huge bones, thanks to the posters commenting too. Lots of thoughful, and insigtful ideas and perspectoves to chew over.

    I’;d add some limitations to your list (while acknolwedging A;ice’s earl;ier, and excellent comment about innovation rarley being a runaway success or dismal failure).

    MOOCs in a community college setting are probably going to be problematic. Udacity ditched students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds as a target demograophic after the SJSU experiment last year failed, and that should probably serve as a word of warning to community colleges considering moocification.

    Their moocs ( remedial and foundation courses for students who needed them) hugely underperformed relative to comparable face to face classes in San Jose, and the financially disadvantaged seemed to do significantly worse in online classes. Everyone did worse, but disadvantaged students underperfomed by a larger margin, hugely, than all other underperforming groups.

    We know that students from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to suffer more in wholly online contexts, and we can take a stab at guessing why ( though the jury;s still out on a definitive answer). Lack of support, lack of experience in online educational contexts, less likely to have unfettered access to the resources required, less skill in self-directed learning.

    I’;d also argue that MOOCs haven;t solved the feedback and associated revenue model issues. I pay fees and my government subsidises my instituition) and I get feedback as a consequence. MOOCs have a feedback issue. In contexts where automated feedback is not enough (and that’;s a aheck of a lot of contexts) feedback is either peer based, intern based, or costs money.

    Coursera have tried out the peer feedback thing, and it;s not going so well. Patch quality, lack of critical engagement, lack of expertise, grading that substantially lacks any form of standardisation across the board, grading cultures amongst peers that reward agreement over quality, and axe grinding have all been issues.

    Moocs will probably have to compromise oin the massive and open elements to achieve quality feedback. There is a place for volunteer based feedback on moocs, but it;s not likley to be the mainstreams answer. And Coursera’s idea of rewarding voluntary power users with ta status and accreditation may not work as an answer either.

    As yoy mention in another reply, moocs are cheaper if they stint on feedback. Hopefully moocs incorporate meaningful, targetted and speedy feedback as a part of their evolution, but it does mean bumping up costs.

    MOOCs are experiences that tend to denude, or minimise support in comparison to face to face, or blended, or small scale elearning contexts that are well designed. You are on your own. There is the text, the video, the automated test, there is the homework, and the peers you have to navigate, and the platform, or social media in connectivist cases, you need to familiarise yourself with. If community colleges are experiencing students who need greater support, the answer is not to place them in a context that gives less support.;

    In addition, Udacity, who did provide techical support online for their students, were hugelt suprised when many failed to utilise it. They found correlation between succes raes in the moccos, and whther students had accessed the help for the course in the first five weeks. They also noted that the teaching faculty, who were not providing tech supported, reported that they received very few course related queries from students, something they would have expected, and large num,bers of tech help requests.

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  12. “And that is why MOOCs will fall far short of transforming higher education and eventually settle into an incremental change of marginal proportions in higher education.”

    Isn’t three years a bit premature to imply the demise of MOOCs? I think the future of educational communities will be hybrid which will include online learning. MOOCS in their current primitive form have the potential to evolve into something useful 10-20 years hence.

  13. “The fundamental error in policymaker thinking is that teaching is solely delivering subject-matter to students. There is far more to teaching that content delivery such as creating a learning culture in the classroom, organizing lessons involving students in tasks that build understanding of what is supposed to be learned, and applying and practicing newly-learned knowledge and skills.”

    If only these facts were better understood by those who wield power, or influence, over public education. The truth in the maxim “walk a mile in their shoes” should be considered before any new policy is rolled out.

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