The Unexpected Resistance to MOOCs


When Stanford president John Hennessey told the New Yorker in April 2012, “There’s a tsunami coming,” he wasn’t forecasting the next undersea earthquake. Rather, he predicted a seismic collision between academia’s cost and availability. After David Brooks borrowed the metaphor for a New York Times op-ed, “tsunami” became synonymous with the rise of the MOOC (massive open online courses). These massive open online courses gained celebrity as hundreds of thousands of students joined and credibility as dozens of big name schools agreed to offer online adaptations of their classes free, though without credit.

So last fall, when Colorado State University–Global Campus became the first American university to announce plans to grant credit for MOOCs, the earthquake threatened to rumble and the tsunami looked set to roll. Students could take an introductory computer programming course hosted by the MOOC platform Udacity and pay for a proctored exam at one of Pearson VUE’s testing centers. In exchange, students would receive three college credits from Colorado State University–Global Campus, an independent, online school within the Colorado State system that caters to working professionals. (The course itself would remain free on Udacity’s website and available to those uninterested in pursuing credit.) The price of the proctored test, $89, rang up as less than one-tenth of a regular CSU–Global Campus course. But almost a year after CSU–Global’s announcement, and with 200,000 students enrolled in Udacity’s programming course, not a single student has claimed the college credit.

Everyone knew that the transition to a credit-granting MOOC would be tricky. How would schools verify a student’s identity based on a thin online profile? How would the online homework, unmonitored and often untimed, protect against cheating when typing a few keywords into a Google search or snitching from a nearby friend might yield the answers? Who would grade student essays? And how would credit-granting schools guard their reputations and their rigor when accepting transfer credits on the basis of an outside company’s course? CSU–Global’s case, however, brought a unexpected twist: students might not even want credit for MOOCs.

Complements, not Substitutes

If higher-ed is a seashore, then MOOCs aren’t the tsunami threatening to wreck the infrastructure and transfigure the shoreline. They’re a ripple–a sizeable ripple–that supplement rather than replace higher-ed’s basic model. They’ll rattle a few shaky institutions, forcing them to either reinforce or give way, but for the most part they offer complementary additions to the various higher ed options (public, private, secular, parochial, for-profit, not-for-profit, online, brick-and-mortar, blended, etc.).

Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun agrees. Thrun famously told Wired at the outset of MOOCs’ ascendancy that in fifty years, a deluge of MOOCs would reduce higher ed to a mere ten institutions, with new online partners rebuilding the wreckage. Since then, however, Thrun has backtracked. “MOOCs are not the future of higher education,” he wrote in a blog post for the Chronicle of Higher Ed in early July. “That future will be far more various and surprising than we can see now–but they do expand the horizon of the visible.”

The MOOC-user demographic reveals why MOOCs won’t drown traditional colleges.  Preliminary data on MOOC enrollees indicate that few of them desire credit for their courses. Most already have degrees. They’re largely recent graduates looking to fine-tune their skills, mid-career professionals boning up for a promotion or a career change, or lifelong learners keen on a good mental challenge.

Dan Greenstein, who heads postsecondary success at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (which has awarded millions of dollars in grants to promote MOOC usage), sees “innovation exhaustion” in academia. Students may sign up for MOOCs by the thousands, but they’re not looking for traditional college credit. Worn out by successive waves of new college models and unsure which ones will ride out the crests, students stick with traditional, reputable schools, at least when it comes to seeking a degree. MOOCs work fine as audio-visual books meant to expand the knowledge of a broad public, but they fall short in their ability to facilitate the discussions, connection with professors, and learning assessments necessary for a rigorous, credit-worthy education.

Credit Binging

Nevertheless, schools are battening down for the forecasted surge in credit-seeking MOOC students. Starting mostly with remedial courses and BA completion programs, schools ranging from for-profits to state universities to community colleges have started diving into the MOOC waters. They’ve developed a host of methods to circumvent concerns of cheating, ranging from proctored exams at central testing centers, to end-of-semester interviews, to flipped classroom formats in which students watch lectures at home and spend class time working through practice questions with a professor.

Following CSU–Global’s announcement last fall, Antioch University began a pilot MOOC program. It used two U Penn courses hosted by Coursera at its Los Angeles Campus, and laid the groundwork to expand its MOOC use nation-wide. Georgia State University, San Jose State University, the University of Maryland University College, two Massachusetts community colleges, and a handful of European and Australian universities have also moved towards awarding credit for MOOCs.

In January, forty public universities took the plunge on their own by initiating MOOC2Degree, an educational sample buffet that will offer students free credit-bearing introductory MOOCs in the hopes that they will enroll as tuition-paying students. Cheering on schools’ credit-granting spree, the American Council on Education recently recommended that schools award transfer credit for eight MOOCs from Coursera and edX (four from each). State governments have jumped in, too. Florida recently passed a law setting out rules for pre-college students racking up MOOC credits.

Meanwhile, the MOOC craze has spawned a handful of spin-offs, such as Minerva, a private for-profit start-up that aims to marry the Oxford tutorial with MOOCs’ tech-savvy structure. Minerva scored accreditation–two full years before it’s set to open–by aligning itself with Keck Graduate Institute, an accredited science, engineering, and management graduate school affiliated with the Claremont University Consortium.

But for the most part, the schools seem more enthusiastic than the students. CSU–Global is not the only school with MOOC-credit woes. San Jose State University’s two semester pilot program with Udacity floundered, and a few weeks ago the school decided to halt its Udacity partnership indefinitely. The reasons remain murky, but the college decided to take a “breather time” after San Jose provost Ellen Junn presented preliminary data to the California State University Academic Council indicating widespread student dissatisfaction and low passing rates. Of 3,500 students taking the Udacity math courses, the 100 credit-seeking enrollees found the courses too rushed, too reliant on the Internet, and too impersonal–despite San Jose’s enlisting a team of Udacity staff mentors who kindly sent frustrated students periodic “automated e-mails” meant to “provide help and encouragement.”

Even more striking, few students have tried to redeem MOOCs for credit via colleges’ non-traditional learning programs, perhaps the most direct credit-granting route. Some schools, such as Georgia State University, award credit for non-classroom learning, based on an evaluation of students’ previous knowledge and skills. But the American Council on Adult and Experiential Learning, which helps non-traditional students assemble portfolios demonstrating their proficiency in various subjects, reported, tellingly, that not a single student has come to them trying to convert a MOOC into credit.

Going Forward

Seismologists know that tsunamis are characterized by an inverse relationship between speed and height. The deeper the seawater, the higher the wave and the slower the speed. The shallower the water, the faster the wave travels, unimpeded by extra water weight.

A year and a half ago, MOOCs blitzed onto the scene with splashy momentum, gathering students, partner schools, millions of dollars in grant money, and outbursts of high-minded enthusiasm in an instant. But its speed outpaced its depth: the “campus tsunami” has turned out to be a much smaller undulation. It’s possible that academia’s tectonic plates are still creaking, and that the earthquake is yet to come, but so far, higher-ed is surfing the MOOC wave just fine.


One thought on “The Unexpected Resistance to MOOCs”

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