In my two previous posts, I offered reviews of my experiences with a couple of Udacity MOOCs: CS101 (Intro to Computer Science) and CS253 (Web development). My experience with the former was really good, and the latter, not so much (despite having a like-able instructor and some good content). Based on my two data points, and having spent the last year following the MOOC and online education movements (Twitter streams, higher-ed analysis, research findings, hand-wringing pleas that MOOCs just go away, Thrun-loving hagiography), I’m now going to making sweeping and completely unverifiable pronouncements about the future of MOOCs. And they will be as accurate as any others you read, because everyone is guessing…
Education shouldn’t be sink-or-swim
The world at large is pretty much a sink-or-swim experience. At the risk of being an idealist, I believe education (offered by learning providers) is one realm where that shouldn’t be the case. In real-world educational experiences, good teachers and mentors act as supporting elements that help people to achieve their learning objectives (i.e., to swim); they do this through good instructional design, practiced pedagogy, solid learning content, empathetic human interaction, and an understanding of learners’ individual needs. Of course, we all know that’s the best-case scenario. Education at all levels, and across all economic strata, is not immune to bad teachers, crappy courses, and experiences that wind up being sink-or-swim for students.
So if we think about the current crop of MOOCs as possible replacements for their real-world equivalents, how are they doing on the spectrum from sink-or-swim to support-and-succeed?
MOOCs today are pretty much sink-or-swim…But that’s ok
In my opinion, MOOCs are more sink-or-swim than they are supportive learning experiences. I don’t think they can be anything else, given current approaches and underlying technology-driven limitations. First, they are limited in terms of interaction between instructors and students, simply because of the large numbers of students. Teaching assistants can try to fill the gap, but that approach doesn’t really scale either. Students can create their own study groups, or find and join existing groups, but in my mind, that’s in the sink-or-swim world. Ditto for discussion forums; that’s really a user-help-thyself thing. Second, students often don’t have cohorts of peers from whom they might derive some motivation or support. Third, user experiences are often imperfect, which can lead to missed supporting content. When you combine all of these factors, it’s not surprising that some studies are showing MOOC success rates to be highest in a fairly narrowly defined group. The people most likely to succeed in the current generation of MOOCs are those who are already educated, good at learning, goal-directed (e.g., to improve employment opportunities) and self-motivated enough to fill in the gaps and find support (from peers or otherwise).
And that’s ok. Really.
There are a lot of people who fit that bill and who are learning great stuff for free as a result. I think the original promise of MOOCs that some people put forward was that of educating the masses for free with the highest-quality content. Anything that falls short of that ideal seems like a failure for some, which overlooks the fact that even with high dropout rates, lots of people are still deriving benefit from MOOCs. Sink-or-swim works for a lot of people in much the same way that finding stuff on Google works for people; you try, fail and try again until you get what you’re looking for. And there’s a lesson to be learned there.
The best way to learn is to fail and keep trying
The best way to learn, grow and improve is to fail and try again. As mentioned above, the expectations placed on the current crop of MOOCs are unrealistically high; people who want all the MOOCs to be perfect and get it right the first time need to get over it. These new approaches to online learning had to start somewhere, and they’re showing steady evolution. This evolutionary metaphor is worth keeping in mind, because it suggests (quite rightly) that some MOOCs will survive as a result of evolution, and many will not, which is precisely what you want. The MOOCs that provide the highest value to people will thrive as businesses, the ones that don’t, won’t. Maybe MOOCs will continue to evolve to the point where they can replace real-world courses. Maybe the current generation of MOOCs will serve better as a way of augmenting real-world education. Maybe a completely new approach involving Google plexiglass and hyperaugmented reality with gnomes as educational avatars will come to rule the day. Who can say exactly? At this point, nobody can.
The future is bright…Help shape it
Of the two (completely free) MOOCs I completed, one was really good and the other was just ok. Not a bad success rate, and I learned a lot. They’re not perfect, but I think there’s value to be had if you’ve got a clear goal and are committed to sticking it out to achieve that goal. And if you start a MOOC and don’t like it? Just drop it and find another one; repeat until you find something that works for you.
So if you’ve got something you want or need to learn, and there’s MOOC content to be had on the subject, my advice is this: Dive in! You’ve got nothing to lose, and your experience and engagement will not only help you – it will help everyone. Find a course on Udacity, Coursera, edX or one of the other MOOC providers and give it a real shot. Commit to it and to your learning goals, and whenever you need some motivation, remember the immortal words of Captain Taggart from Galaxy Quest: "Never give up! Never surrender!"