MOOCs on the Road to Damascus: What Chance Do We Have to Reinvent Higher Education Better and Cheaper?

How to to take advantage of new educational technologies?

Max Chafkin writes about the problem with MOOCs:

Max Chafkin: Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun, Godfather Of Free Online Education, Changes Course:

Very few people seem to finish courses when they’re not sitting in a lecture hall. Udacity employs state-of-the-art technology and sophisticated pedagogical strategies to keep their users engaged, peppering students with quizzes and gamifying their education…. But… only 7% of students… make it to the end….

Thrun initially approached the problem of low completion rates as one that he could solve single-handedly. “I was looking at the data, and I decided I would make a really good class,” he recalls. Statistics 101, taught by the master himself and recorded that summer, is interactive and full of accessible analogies… designed so that students who are not particularly adept at math or programming can make it through…. “From a pedagogical perspective, it was the best I could have done,” he says. “It was a good class.” Only… Statistics 101 students were not any more engaged than any of Udacity’s other students. “Nothing we had done had changed the drop-off curve,” Thrun acknowledges.

He then set about a number of other initiatives… hiring “mentors”… offer[ing] college credit…. [But] when the online class was compared with the in-person variety, the numbers were even more discouraging. A student taking college algebra in person was 52% more likely to pass than one taking a Udacity class, making the $150 price tag–roughly one-third the normal in-state tuition–seem like something less than a bargain…. For Thrun… the results were not a failure; they were clarifying…. The San Jose State… “students from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives,” he says. “It’s a group for which this medium is not a good fit.”

To those who have more shall be given. If you are a self-starter who can keep yourself focused on what you want to learn, the interactive and forking-paths and multimedia nature of MOOCs is a godsend that allows you to leverage your mind. But if you are that kind of person, you are the kind of person who could and would learn from a book or over a pizza discussion anyway. And Khan Academy is absolutely wonderful. If not… then you are the kind of person who needs the structure of a class: regular hours, significant time devoted to the subject, required attendance, periodic examinations, public humiliation upon poor performance, et cetera. If online education does manage to succeed in allowing us to deliver more education at a lower cost, it will be because it figures out not how to deliver the content, but rather how to deliver the structure.

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