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.