Inflection Point: Whither MOOCs ?

Photo of empty lecture hallA few years ago, many of us in higher education were both highly excited, but also concerned, about the potential of MOOCs (massively open online courses) to disrupt our long-held models of higher education. The potential of almost free information to thousands of students, simultaneously, had many implications.  University administrators across the country were trying to develop a strategy to align with MOOCs or, alternatively, to emphasize other strategies to blunt the likely impact of MOOCs.

And, while one should “never say never” about new technologies, this article suggests that peak MOOC enthusiasm, from about 2012, may have come and gone. Research shows that the problem of many students taking MOOCs but not finishing continues to be an issue. And, more adults who already have earned college degrees are completing MOOCs, compared to other students.

As the article also notes, the for-profit MOOC providers are shifting their focus more to specific training courses for corporations and to the more educated audience, rather than to the “masses.”

The impacts of new technologies, especially in education, are very hard to predict, and are often disappointing.  But, this trend with MOOCs aligns with one of my favorite notions, which I first read on economist Brad DeLong’s blog.  He argued that the printing press (Gutenberg, 1440) was the real game changer – it made books affordable for the masses.  And, for many years now, you could have taught yourself physics, for example, by reading the textbook (free at the library) .  But few people can or will do that, and it appears that MOOCs have something of the same problem – focused attention to learning difficult concepts is a somewhat scarce commodity.  And, somewhat traditional (or online) university classes with closer teacher/students interactions may have an advantage in sustaining that focus.



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