The Web education phenomenon has hit a rough patch of late. After massive open online courses, or MOOCs as they're awkwardly called, lured tens of millions of dollars in venture funding and millions of users over the past two years, the dream of bringing a quality virtual education to anyone, anywhere isn't quite working out as planned.
Even Sebastian Thrun, the online education pioneer and founder of Udacity, told Fast Company in November that he's helped develop a "lousy product" because so few students finish the digital courses.
So it's a peculiar time for Harvey Mudd College, a highly-rated engineering, math and science school in Claremont, California, to join the party. Mudd secured a grant from an anonymous donor last year to start a massive online program and hired a recent graduate, Elly Schofield, to run it.
But this one won't be so massive.
Mudd's courses -- one for middle school computer science and another for high school calculus-based physics -- are being developed to help teachers help their students rather than targeting students directly. A middle school computer science teacher, for example, could use video lectures from a Mudd professor along with recommended discussion topics to supplement classes. The courses will be available in the second half of the year.
"I discovered as soon as I joined up on the project that this was not going to be a traditional MOOC," said Schofield, 22, who graduated from Mudd last year with a degree in math. "It's designed to be a tool for teachers who want to use it within a classroom."
Should the project prove effective, these massive courses may start looking to reach smaller, more concentrated groups while still taking advantages of Internet ubiquity. Mudd's approach differs from those promoted by Udacity and Coursera, two venture capital-backed online education providers that were started by former Stanford professors. Those companies focused on getting professional instructors to put college-level courses on the Web so anyone across the globe could take them for free. Coursera has 560 classes available, according to its website, while Udacity is in the process of shifting its business to vocational-oriented courses sponsored by companies.
Thrun's comments to Fast Company about the problems with massive open online courses were made around the same time the journal Nature published a skeptical study on the topic. Based on a survey from the University of Pennsylvania, it showed that most people taking these free classes worldwide are among the best-educated and wealthiest of the population, undermining the notion that these programs were democratizing education and reaching remote corners of the planet. The survey was based on responses from almost 35,000 participants of courses offered by Coursera and found that 83 percent of students already had a two-year or four-year college degree.
Another study published last month by the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education found completion rates for courses averaged 4 percent.
Mudd's online program, which is using technology developed by EdX, is an extension of summer courses the college has hosted to help middle and high school educators gain a deeper understanding of computer science. The workshops typically attract 20 to 30 teachers a year, said Mike Erlinger, a computer science professor at Mudd and one of the developers of the new program.
Should this online computer science program gain traction, Schofield said reaching 1,000 to 2,000 additional students is a realistic goal. All the material is free, so Mudd has no intention of making money from the project. Rather, in the hyper-competitive world of computer science, the Southern California school with fewer than 1,000 students is hoping to become a more familiar name among high school kids looking to enter the science, technology, engineering and math (otherwise known as STEM) fields.