So many hopes, so many promises, so many disappointments about MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) in the past three years.
Hopes for expanding enrollments to anyone in the world with an Internet connection and downsizing tuition costs have shrunk. Consider that the average MOOC student is not the hoped-for rural Indian villager but a white American, 20-something male with a college degree. While there is much talk about $10,000 bachelor degrees from online courses, only one university thus far has offered such a degree.
Yet after shrink-wrapped hopes have been put away and with disappointing outcomes including high dropout rates (over 80 percent) and many students failing MOOCs when they replace traditional college courses (25 to 50 percent), MOOCs are still around. They have found a niche as online courses for self-starting students inside and outside the university.
As one recent article put it, MOOCs are slowly becoming institutionalized in higher education as offerings to highly motivated students from small business entrepreneurs to seasoned graduate students. For many adults, MOOCs have become “just-in-time” education fitting busy schedules where chunks of knowledge and skills can be acquired.
Take Leo Cochrane, who already has a bachelor’s degree but took a free online class from the University of Virginia Darden School of Business to help expand his start-up air-purifying business. The course was perfect for the time-pressed entrepreneur. He had little inclination or money to follow a path that would take him to a traditional campus or even to an old-fashioned online course, with its rigid deadlines for lectures and completing assignments. With a MOOC, he could watch video lectures on his iPhone while running on a treadmill and pick and choose what he needed to learn from the syllabus. MOOCs put students in control. Students can do as much or as little as they want at any time, one reason that many never complete the courses. Roughly one in 10 finishes.
From universities to community colleges, MOOCs are now finding a small niche in higher education by offering access to knowledge much like adult education did a few generations ago.
In just three years MOOCs, a star-burst of hope for higher education to be extended to everyone in the world at knocked-down prices or even free, has settled into a familiar within a university’s portfolio of choices available to part-time and full-time students.
The journey of this falling star is familiar to anyone aware of the history of technological innovations. Consider the road traveled by teachers and students from the earliest desktop computers in the 1980s to tablets and smartphones now. From an average of over 125 public school students per desktop computer in 1983 to 3:1 (2008) to even a lower ratio in the past few years, devices dot exurban, rural, suburban, and city schools with nearly universal wireless connections making the Internet accessible at a click. Cell phones are ubiquitous.
The hype surrounding the introduction of desktop computers into public schools in the early 1980s promised a transformation in students’ academic achievement, how teachers taught, and access to jobs in an increasingly changing economy. Districts mandated keyboarding classes, set up computer labs, and gave professional development to teachers after machines were deployed. By the late-1990s, Internet connections spread to most schools and in the next few years, wireless became standard. In the early 2000s, 1:1 laptops were introduced and spread.
Every few years, states and districts, with funding help from various grant-givers including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, bought and deployed new desktops and eventually laptop computers to schools and classrooms.
By 2014, school laptops and tablets are commonplace. Yet had academic achievement improved as a consequence? Had teaching and learning changed? Did use of devices in schools lead to better jobs?
These questions get at the inflated promises school officials made prior to purchasing new technologies and what happened after states and districts adopted such policies. The answers to the above questions are no, no, and don’t know (see here, here, and here). Like MOOCs going from the purple rhetoric of inflated hopes to finding a small niche where online courses can be taught to motivated adults and students, the journey of desktop computers to hand-held devices in K-12 schools has certainly entered most classrooms as teaching and learning tools but has hardly transformed age-graded schools into those dream-like scenarios that champions of new technology promoted.
Nonetheless, most K-12 teachers use these devices in different ways every week. Lessons using software on, say, the five desktops in the room or the 30 laptops or tablets on the cart, are common across elementary and secondary schools. Yet these powerful computers have hardly altered the prevailing ways of teaching that have gone on for years. What has occurred is that teachers have expanded their teaching repertoire to incorporate software and hardware. New technologies have found a niche in classrooms far smaller than the promises that originally accompanied new technologies.
And locating in small niches is what has happened time and again to new technologies such as MOOCs and computers in K-12 classrooms.