Are Online Courses Failing America?

Illustration by Ben Wiseman; Original artwork by Jacques-Louis David, 1787 Close

Illustration by Ben Wiseman; Original artwork by Jacques-Louis David, 1787

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Illustration by Ben Wiseman; Original artwork by Jacques-Louis David, 1787

Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, are the hot new thing in higher education. Their popularity has triggered some hysteria from tenured professors faced with the possibility of revolutionary change to the industry that employs them. In Slate today, Jonathan Rees warns that MOOCs could be terrible for…well, tenured professors. And maybe students, too. But mostly tenured professors:

"Unfortunately for everyone else in academia, their fame will likely come at a very steep price. From an administrative standpoint, the beauty of MOOCs is that they provide an easy opportunity to drastically cut labor costs by firing existing faculty members or simply hiring poorly trained ones -- whom they won't have to pay well -- to help administer the class. After all, this way of thinking goes, why should I hire a new Ph.D. when I can get the best professors in the world piped into my university's classrooms?

"Just asking that question is an insult to dedicated faculty members at universities everywhere. The answer is easy to anyone who understands how real education works. Local professors answer their students' questions while superprofessors are, as one recent New York Times op-ed put it, 'only slightly more accessible than the pope or Thomas Pynchon.' More importantly, local professors can offer their students the kind of personalized education that no massive course ever can.

“Ask any superprofessor why he or she decided to get involved in MOOC and you'll probably hear a long speech about improving access to higher education. Daphne Koller, one of the Stanford professors behind the MOOC provider Coursera, gave a much-viewed TED talk that centers almost exclusively on the tragedy of higher-education deprivation in the developing world. Her evaluation of the extent of that problem has been forcefully challenged by Jon Beasley-Murray of the University of British Columbia. Whichever side of that dispute is right, the cynicism of focusing on access to higher ed in the developing world when one-third of student loan borrowers in the United States never even finish college simply boggles the mind.

“Talking about access to higher education allows MOOC providers like Coursera to avoid discussing the effect their services will have on people who work in higher education now. Professors, believe it or not, are people, too. They have families and health problems and student loans of their own. Moreover, three-quarters of American college instructors work on a contingent basis, for a median income of $2,700 per course, often without benefits of any kind. Since these faculty members also have no chance at tenure, these adjunct faculty members would be by far the easiest professors to replace with MOOCs.”

Of course, if MOOCs are really as useless as Rees suggests, then the “problem” will take care of itself: No one will be willing to pay for the courses. A recent piece from Inside Higher Ed suggests that this may already be happening. It looks at San Jose State University, which just “hit pause” on a partnership with Udacity, according to provost Ellen Junn, because the students in its MOOCs didn’t do very well:

“The Udacity students fared significantly worse than their in-class peers, according to preliminary findings Junn presented to fellow California State University System provosts last month.

“A copy of that internal presentation, which Junn repeatedly emphasized was preliminary, was obtained this week by Inside Higher Ed from the California Faculty Association. According to the preliminary presentation, 74 percent or more of the students in traditional classes passed, while no more than 51 percent of Udacity students passed any of the three courses.”

The pause, writer Ry Rivard says, is "the latest in a series of developments that may dampen the often hyperbolic enthusiasm that has surrounded massive open online courses, even though the companies that provide MOOCs have received millions in venture capital money.”

But I’m not sure that either Rees or Rivard has the right attitude about MOOCs. The question is not whether they can replicate the current experience of going to college. The question is whether they can make it easier to get educated.

Start with the student population that was using the Udacity courses; many of them were high school students or in the military. These people were not substituting a MOOC for sitting in a college classroom; they were substituting them for not taking the class at all. Even if only 12 percent of students passed one of the classes, that represents a substantial number of people who might otherwise never have learned the material at all.

But possibly even more important is that MOOCs can change the whole approach to learning. In a traditional college classroom, you put a small number of kids in a room and the professor attempts to herd every one of them past the finish line of a passing grade. (Then they mostly forget almost everything they’ve learned.) It’s an intensive approach with a very low failure rate.

MOOCs will always have a very high failure rate. But that’s OK, as long as the cost of trying is low. Don’t have time for class right now? Drop out and come back when you have more time. Didn’t master Taylor Polynomials this time around? Do the course again.

As I’ll talk about in my forthcoming book, failure is often the best way to learn. More tries and more failures are almost always better than fewer tries and a lower failure rate. Letting people try a bunch of stuff, and fail at a lot of it, and then try again, is what makes the U.S. so innovative. We should welcome the ability to try this approach in education.

And it’s not just cost that makes software a particularly effective way to harness the learning power of failure. Software is very good at targeting exactly where a student is going wrong. Unlike a lecturer, or a teaching assistant, software can identify exactly what fundamental concepts a student hasn’t grasped, and let them practice over and over again until they master that concept. And practice, of course, makes perfect.

Obviously, this approach doesn’t work for every subject -- it’s better for basic math than poetry analysis. But the subjects it does work well for helping develop some of the most important tools students need to handle the modern economy.

Of course, this analysis applies as much to the MOOCs themselves as it does to the students. MOOCs are in very early days yet; they’re still learning what’s effective. Most first-generation products have significant drawbacks that get worked out through iterative improvement -- just look at early automobiles or the first Kindles. They may even have drawbacks that don’t get worked out: 100-odd years in, my car still can’t drive me home while I nap, something that many a good horse could do in 1880. But the other advantages of cars, like speed and comfort, outweighed that one disadvantage.

So maybe Jonathan Rees is right to panic, because he’s absolutely correct that disruptive innovation tends to be very bad for the folks whose industries get disrupted. But the rest of us should be excited. Even if our grandkids miss out on the experience of ivy-colored classrooms, they may end up with a whole world of opportunity we never had.

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