The purpose of this blog is to discuss career management issues in history. It has already discussed the danger that on-line education poses to the new faculty member in Blog CXXXIX (139): On-line Education: More of the Same. Massive On-line Open Courses are another, similar threat, but one that might be fading now.
One of the main reasons Massive On-line Open Courses were popular was that they seemed to offer a way out of the problem of rising college tuition and student loan debt loads. The idea of MOOCs also combined with a traditional American view that technological change is always a good thing. President Barack Obama stated that MOOCs were the "tide of innovation ...that drives down costs while preserving quality." New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman described MOOCs as a "revolution" and Stanford University President John Hennessy said on-line instruction was a "tsunami coming." Sebastian Thrun, who left Stanford to form Udacity, one of the first companies to implement MOOCs, claimed that in 50 years there would only be 10 universities left on the entire planet.
The hype surrounding MOOCs was not limited to the United States. David Willetts, the British cabinet officer in charge of education said MOOCs would keep Britain's place in the "global race of higher education."
There were some skeptics. Catharine Hill, President of Vassar College, noted: "I don't think we know yet about the quality implications or the cost implication." Karan Khemka of the Parthenon Group noted in the Financial Times, "MOOCs are unlikely to prove a silver bullet for students or universities."
The bloom seems to have come off the MOOC rose. Hennessy recently said MOOCs failed at Stanford on two very important counts: mass and openness. He told the Financial Times that such courses were too large and failed to either engage and motivate the majority of students. "Two words are wrong in MOOC: massive and open," he said. Most people taking online courses at his school were "not ready for the material at the same level" as Stanford students. San Jose State University bailed on the entire concept, noting that MOOCs had a high fail rate.
These problems are not unique to U.S. schools. Edge Hill University England offered a course on Vampires in English literature and of the 1000 students that enrolled, a total of 31 finished. That is a completion rate of 3 percent. And to add insult to injury, none opted to pay so they could receive credit for the course.
Not a one.
Reservations about these type of courses is growing. The Babson Survey Research Group has charted the growth of online education over the past decade. In a survey conducted in 2013, asked chief academic officers at 2,831 colleges and universities about online education. The finding: massive open online courses are not sustainable for the schools offering them and "cause confusion about higher-education degrees."
Thrun is admitting defeat. He now works for Google and described Udacity's courses as "a lousy product." Ouch!
The best defense for MOOCs has come from Mike Cassidy, a technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News: "And here's the thing: Like any technology-based disrupter, it's not so much that the new idea itself will make the world a better or worse place. It's how the new idea is deployed that makes the difference."
The best I can say in responses is maybe, but only maybe. The tide appears to have turned against MOOCs and if so, that is a good thing. That, though, maybe what I want to see. MOOCs are bad for history, bad for education, and bad for historians. They (and a lot of other on-line courses) are a way for institutions to limit the need for classroom instructors. As this essay comes to an end, I am going to repeat what I said in Blog CXXXIX: if you are every offered this type of employment, walk away.