In January, San Jose State University (SJSU) made headlines when it announced that it would let students take credit-bearing online courses through the MOOC-provider Udacity. The courses were remedial in nature, focusing on topics like basic math, elementary statistics, college algebra, introductory computer programming and psychology. And the hope was that thousands of students could eventually take these courses at reduced rates — $150 per online course versus $620 for a traditional course. It sounded like an easy way to slow down the ever-escalating costs of secondary education. Plus we had Thomas Friedman telling us that MOOCs were going to bring about a revolution in American education, and elite universities rushing to offer courses on Coursera. So what could possibly go wrong?
By spring, everyone had to start contending with reality. It turns out that San Jose State students were failing Udacity courses at a rate of 56 to 76 percent, according to the San Jose Mercury News. Meanwhile, SJSU professors were busy writing open letters of protest against a newly-formed relationship with another MOOC provider, edX. In their letter, they claimed: “The move to MOOCs comes at great peril to our university,” and professors “who care about public education should not produce products that will replace professors, dismantle departments and provide a diminished education for students in public universities.” Finally, we also discovered that, outside of SJSU, students were completing MOOCs at a rate of only 7.5% on average. With the inconvenient facts piling up, San Jose State suspended the Udacity experiment yesterday. A school spokeswoman said, “The plan right now is to pause for one semester, there are a couple of different areas we need to work on.” Like, I guess, making sure that half of the class doesn’t fail a course.
At this point, we should start taking a more sober look at the MOOC revolution. Maybe students everywhere will be taking large, scalable and affordable courses in the future. But should we rejoice? Or should we ask if we’re going to get what we’ve paid for? If you’re a lifelong learner, you probably don’t have much to lose or complain about. You might already be well educated, and you might enjoy having a big list of free MOOCs to choose from. If you finish a course, kudos. If you don’t, no worries. For undergrads, it might be an entirely different story. They might save some money, but they might also find themselves lost in a cheapened and anonymous educational experience. In MOOCs, you’re not a student, you’re a number — you’re one of 50,000 in a course, or you may be one of the 76% at SJSU that failed. I suspect that’s how many SJSU students are feeling right now. And it’s probably not what they bargained for when they first enrolled at the university.
Here’s one thing to keep in mind: revolutions almost always have mass casualties, and they’re almost always the very people the Revolution was supposed to help. It’s ironic but true. At this point, educators, politicians and journalists would be advised to take a more measured approach to MOOCs. They should adopt a position of healthy skepticism, ask more intelligent questions about what MOOCs can offer undergrads, and see real results before deciding that MOOCs are the easy solution to a complicated problem. Reflection before action never hurts, particularly in academia.
H/T Azin M.