exploring e-ffective & accessible learning design

Do MOOCs Matter?

There’s no question that higher ed is in trouble. The ominous idea of a higher education bubble about to burst continues to make headlines. And it’s no surprise, really. A student who enrolled full time last fall could expect to pay anywhere between $38,300 and $129,700 for 4 years of higher ed. And once graduated, there’s no guarantee of a solid return on investment. A Slate Magazine article from this past spring reported that, per the Economic Policy Institute, unemployment rates for college grads aged 21-24 is approximately 8.5%, while 44% of college grads aged 22-27 work jobs not requiring a college degree. Perhaps it’s no wonder then, as a NYT article reported last year that, while 70% of Americans enroll at 4-year colleges, one third never make it to graduation. Adding community colleges to the mix drops graduation rates to just above 50%.

MOOC infographic

Crash Course in MOOCs Infographic

The classroom has let us down, it seems. Costs are soaring, and the return on the investment in so many cases has been disappointing. Checking back in with Michael Horn in 2014 (remember Michael who started this whole conversation with his book), he speculates that a traditional  face-to-face classroom is “built to batch students, lecture to them in the same way at the same pace…it is inherently not suited for this personalized learning world.”

Enter the mighty MOOC. Now in it’s sixth-or-so year of life, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have generated no small amount of buzz. So much so, in fact, that they are often the first–and sometimes only–thing thought of when the conversation turns to online education. With benefits like “the world’s best courses, online, for free” (Coursera’s tagline) and the goals of “accessible, affordable, engaging, and highly effective higher education to the world (Udacity’s mission) and “advancing teaching and learning through research” (edX) it’s not hard to see why. Students gravitate to this new medium in part out of curiosity, but also due to their promises of low-to-no cost, flexibility, and availability.

However, while generating a lot of attention, MOOCs haven’t quite materialized into the hero we’re looking for. Despite the impressive amounts of investment, both in terms of brain power and dollars, they’re struggling. For one, their track record of bringing students from enrollment to course completion has been, to put it mildly, abysmal. And completion–in the form of graduation–is currently the primary means in how we measure student success (whether MOOCs should be measured by this same standard is worth exploring at a future point). Another major concern with MOOCs is the lack of a sustainable business model. By offering courses for free and without major and on-going donations, there’s no way for providers to recoup their costs.

image of flying cow with cape and mask

Adapted from Super Cow by TAO LaBossiere

So are MOOCs just a passing fad, as many critics are claiming? Hardly. While I’m not ready to hand them a cape and a mask just yet–at least in their present form–the interest and response MOOCs have received to date show that tapped into something real: the need for accessible, available, and affordable first rate education. There are kinks, yes, and some significant ones at that.

But let’s not forget, as Rena Palloff and Ketih Pratt (who’ve been writing on the topic of online learning for the past 15 years) remind us that “the field of online learning as we know it today is in its infancy” (2007, p. 232). It wasn’t until 1995 that the web, as we know it, launched to popular use. MOOCs will likely undergo many revisions and iterations before being able to meet this need in a meaningful and sustainable way, but I believe that the basic concept of them is here to stay.



Clouse, T. (2014, January 15). Discussing disruption and the future of edtech with michael horn, part 2. [Web log comment].  Retrieved September 20, 2014 from http://www.rukuku.com/blog/discussing-disruption-and-the-future-of-edtech-with-michael-horn-part-2/

College savings 101. (n.d.). In Savingforcolleges.com. Retrieved September 20, 2014 from http://www.savingforcollege.com/tutorial101/the_real_cost_of_higher_education.php

Higher education bubble. (n.d.) In Wikipedia. Retrieved October 13, 2014 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Higher_education_bubble

LaBossiere, TAO (2003). Cow parade super cow [Sculpture]. Retrieved from https://www.swiss-knife.com/en/cow-parade-super-cow-1.html?___from_store=fr

New child vaccine gets funding boost. (2001). Retrieved March 21, 2001, from http://news.ninemsn.com.au/health/story_13178.asp

Palloff, R. M., & Pratt, K. (2007). Building online learning communities: Effective strategies for the virtual classroom (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Porter, E. (2013, June 25). Dropping out of college, and paying the price. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/26/business/economy/dropping-out-of-college-and-paying-the-price.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&

Weissman, J. (2014, May 8). How bad is the job market for the college class of 2014?. Slate Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/blogs/moneybox/2014/05/08/unemployment_and_the_class_of_2014_how_bad_is_the_job_market_for_new_college.html


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This entry was posted on October 13, 2014 by and tagged .


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