It was two years ago that Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun drew 160,000 students from around the globe to his free online course on artificial intelligence, starting a conversation about the coming wave of free online education. But despite claims that free online courses would revolutionize education, the New York Times is reporting that initial results for large-scale courses are rather disappointing. A study from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education of a million users of massive open online courses found that, on average, only about half of those who registered for a course ever viewed a lecture, and only about 4 percent completed it. One of the bigger arguments for MOOCs has been the promise of what a free online education could mean for disadvantaged people worldwide. However, a University of Pennsylvania study found that 80 percent of those taking the university’s MOOCs already possessed a degree. San Jose State University garnered attention with one of the most visible flops in the MOOC world. In January, California Governor Jerry Brown, San Jose State, and Udacity, a Silicon Valley company co-founded by Stanford artificial-intelligence professor Sebastian Thrun, announced a partnership that would offer three low-cost, online introductory courses for college credit. As part of the program, online mentors would work with students to complete the classes. All of the pilot classes -- which had about 100 students each -- failed. According to the New York Times, the mentors didn’t help the process. Last spring, the online students, including many from a charter high school in Oakland, fared worse than students in campus classes. The paper also reported that less than a quarter of the students in the algebra class — and only 12 percent of the high school students — received a passing grade. The program was halted in July, and there is no word if it will continue.
MOOC Money or Education?
Despite the attention Thrun’s artificial-intelligence course received, he’s now become a lightning rod for criticism of the MOOC world. A profile in Fast Company magazine described him as moving away from college classes in favor of vocational training, in partnership with corporations that would pay a fee. The educational community saw the move as a major defeat for MOOCs and confirmation that Udacity, a venture capital-backed company, was more about the money than educating disadvantaged students. The magazine article also reported Thrun as saying the Udacity MOOCs were “a lousy product” and “not a good fit” for disadvantaged students. But Thrun contended that he had never concluded that. “I care about education for everyone, not just the elite,” he said in an interview. “We want to bring high-quality education to everyone, and set up everyone for success. My commitment is unchanged.” Thrun is now working with San Jose State to revamp the software, to give students more time to work through courses. “To all those people who declared our experiment a failure, you have to understand how innovation works,” he wrote on his blog. “Few ideas work on the first try. Iteration is key to innovation. We are seeing significant improvement in learning outcomes and student engagement.” Siemens told the New York Times that MOOCs are merely "moving from the hype to the implementation stage. Now that we have the technology to teach 100,000 students online, the next challenge will be scaling creativity, and finding a way that even in a class of 100,000, adaptive learning can give each student a personal experience.”
Despite its earlier high-profiled MOOC flop, San Jose State is getting positive results using videos from edX, a nonprofit MOOC venture, to supplement classroom time. edX is also producing videos to use in high school Advanced Placement classes. Meanwhile, Coursera, the nation's largest MOOC company, is experimenting with using a facilitator in small discussion classes at some U.S. consulate offices. It marks another move to supplement online learning with an in-class experience.