How the Pioneers of the MOOC Got It Wrong

An illustration of a brain linked to multiple computer screens on desktops where people sit is evocative of a MOOC.
Illustration: Gary Waters/Getty Images
This is part of a series on MOOC and online learning

In 2011, when Stanford computer scientists Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig came up with the bright idea of streaming their robotics lectures over the Internet, they knew it was an inventive departure from the usual college course. For hundreds of years, professors had lectured to groups of no more than a few hundred students. But MOOCs—massive open online courses—made it possible to reach many thousands at once. Through the extraordinary reach of the Internet, learners could log on to lectures streamed to wherever they happened to be. To date, about 58 million people have signed up for a MOOC.

Familiar with the technical elements required for a MOOC—video streaming, IT infrastructure, the Internet—MOOC developers put code together to send their lectures into cyberspace. When more than 160,000 enrolled in Thrun and Norvig’s introduction to artificial intelligence MOOC, the professors thought they held a tiger by the tail. Not long after, Thrun cofounded Udacity to commercialize MOOCs. He predicted that in 50 years, streaming lectures would so subvert face-to-face education that only 10 higher-education institutions would remain. Our quaint campuses would become obsolete, replaced by star faculty streaming lectures on computer screens all over the world. Thrun and other MOOC evangelists imagined they had inspired a revolution, overthrowing a thousand years of classroom teaching.

These MOOC pioneers were therefore stunned when their online courses didn’t perform anything like they had expected. At first, the average completion rate for MOOCs was less than 7 percent. Completion rates have since gone up a bit, to a median of about 12.6 percent, although there’s considerable variation from course to course. While a number of factors contribute to the completion rate, my own observation is that students who have to pay a fee to enroll tend to be more committed to finishing the course. 

Looking closer at students’ MOOC habits, researchers found that some people quit watching within the first few minutes. Many others were merely “grazing,” taking advantage of the technology to quickly log in, absorb just the morsel they were hunting for, and then log off as soon as their appetite was satisfied. Most of those who did finish a MOOC were accomplished learners, many with advanced degrees.

What accounts for MOOCs’ modest performance? While the technological solution they devised was novel, most MOOC innovators were unfamiliar with key trends in education. That is, they knew a lot about computers and networks, but they hadn’t really thought through how people learn.

It’s unsurprising then that the first MOOCs merely replicated the standard lecture, an uninspiring teaching style but one with which the computer scientists were most familiar. As the education technology consultant Phil Hill recently observed in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “The big MOOCs mostly employed smooth-functioning but basic video recording of lectures, multiple-choice quizzes, and unruly discussion forums. They were big, but they did not break new ground in pedagogy.”

Indeed, most MOOC founders were unaware that a pedagogical revolution was already under way at the nation’s universities: The traditional lecture was being rejected by many scholars, practitioners, and, most tellingly, tech-savvy students. MOOC advocates also failed to appreciate the existing body of knowledge about learning online, built over the last couple of decades by adventurous faculty who were attracted to online teaching for its innovative potential, such as peer-to-peer learning, virtual teamwork, and interactive exercises. These modes of instruction, known collectively as “active” learning, encourage student engagement, in stark contrast to passive listening in lectures. Indeed, even as the first MOOCs were being unveiled, traditional lectures were on their way out.

The impact of active learning can be significant. In a 2014 meta-analysis published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [PDF], researchers looked at 225 studies in which standard lectures were compared with active learning for undergraduate science, math, and engineering. The results were unambiguous: Average test scores went up about 6 percent in active-learning sections, while students in traditional lecture classes were 1.5 times more likely to fail than their peers in active-learning classes.

Even lectures by “star” faculty were no match for active-learning sections taught by novice instructors: Students still performed better in active classes. “We’ve yet to see any evidence that celebrated lecturers can help students more than even first-generation active learning does,” Scott Freeman, the lead author of the study, told Wired.

Unfortunately, early MOOCs failed to incorporate active learning approaches or any of the other innovations in teaching and learning common in other online courses. The three principal MOOC providers—Coursera, Udacity, and edX—wandered into a territory they thought was uninhabited. Yet it was a place that was already well occupied by accomplished practitioners who had thought deeply and productively over the last couple of decades about how students learn online. Like poor, baffled Columbus, MOOC makers believed they had “discovered” a new world. It’s telling that in their latest offerings, these vendors have introduced a number of active-learning innovations.

To be sure, MOOCs have been wildly successful in giving millions of people all over the world access to a wide range of subjects presented by eminent scholars at the world’s elite schools. Some courses attract so many students that a 7 percent completion rate still translates into several thousand students finishing—greater than the total enrollment of many colleges.

But MOOC pioneers were presumptuous to imagine they could not only topple the university—an institution that has successfully withstood revolutions far more devastating than the Web—but also ignore common experience. They erroneously assumed they could open the minds of millions who were unprepared to tackle sophisticated curriculum. MOOCs will never sweep away face-to-face classrooms, nor can they take the place of more intensive and intimate online degree programs. The real contribution of MOOCs is likely to be much more modest, as yet another digital education option. 

An abridged version of this post appeared in the March 2017 issue of IEEE Spectrum as “MOOCs Come Back to Earth.”

About the Author

Robert Ubell is Vice Dean Emeritus of Online Learning at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering. A collection of his essays on digital education, Going Online: Perspectives on Digital Learning, was recently published by Routledge. He can be reached at bobubell@gmail.com

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