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'Massive Open Online Course' movement sputters as students underperform, drop out

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Creative Problem Solving class
Students in Professor Brad Hokanson's Creative Problem Solving class plan how they'll make Rube Goldberg machines Thursday, Apr. 24, 2014 at the University of Minnesota. This class is also offered as a 7-week Massive Open Online Course, which includes video lectures and assignments to complete. The exercises are designed to encourage students to get out of their comfort zones and try new things.
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

It has been quite a comedown for Massive Open Online Courses.

The free online courses that top-notch universities offer to the public were once hyped as an innovation that could threaten the higher education establishment. But now many in the industry are scaling back expectations. University studies show MOOC students aren't performing as well supporters had hoped, and they're not exactly the underserved masses that many educators were hoping to reach.

Yet two Minnesota schools see value in them and are pressing on. They say the courses help faculty perfect the craft of teaching and even prompt students to take more traditional classes.

"It's a startling innovation in education," said University of Minnesota Provost Karen Hanson. "And figuring out how best to deploy it ... is something that's learned through experience."

America's fascination with the online courses began about two years ago when businesses like Coursera and Udacity teamed up with top-notch universities to produce the classes.

Although online education had existed for years, MOOCs expanded its reach to unprecedented scale. With one professor able to teach more than 100,000 students online at a time, they offered the promise of free college education to the global masses.

"When you consider how many problems around the world are attributable to the lack of education, that is very good news," wrote New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman in May 2012. "Let the revolution begin."

After millions actually took the courses, that revolution appears to be sputtering.

Group project
University of Minnesota sophomore Katrina Rudisel puts together pieces of a drawing that she and her classmates made as part of a "do something different" activity for Professor Brad Hokanson's Creative Problem Solving class Thursday, Apr. 24, 2014.
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

Moocs falling short of education revolution for all

University studies have shown dismal results: MOOCs suffered from high dropout rates - often above 90 percent. A majority of those who took the classes already had bachelor's or master's degrees. And participants didn't perform as well as students who'd taken the same course in a traditional classroom on campus.

And the godfather of MOOCs - Udacity founder and former Stanford University professor Sebastian Thrun - told Fast Company magazine last November they weren't working as he'd hoped.

"We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don't educate people as others wished, or as I wished," he said. "We have a lousy product."

One of biggest complaints: MOOCs lack academic support. Face-to-face interaction between students, their instructors and peers is one of the strengths of the traditional on-campus experience.

When the student-teacher ratio is thousands to one, and class members are spread out all over the world, the closest most students get to that is exchanging questions and comments in online discussion forums.

"For all the talk that there are discussion forums," said University of Minnesota computer science professor Joseph Konstan, "most students that I found in the MOOC I was teaching had no direct interaction with other people."

Thrun and other MOOC supporters say the classes won't replace a traditional education, but add to it.

And that's what some at the U say they expected all along.

"I don't think we ever bought into the [hype]" that MOOCs would be a free replacement for the traditional university education, said chemistry professor Chris Cramer. "But we did think it was experimental technology, and that we'd learn something doing it. The goal was to use whatever we learned to enhance the experience of Minnesota students."

Limited study of the U's MOOCs - it has more than half a dozen - shows the campus has had similar experiences to the rest of the U.S.

But Konstan, who ran a MOOC on computerized recommender systems, said students did get a lot out of it. Tests indicated students who completed "knew a whole lot more [about the subject] than they did when they started."

Left at that, MOOCs might seem like a free, better-than-nothing educational service to the public.

But Cramer and Hanson say they offer more than that.

Group project
Students in Brad Hokanson's Creative Solving Problem class show off the result of a group "do something different" exercise Thursday, Apr. 24, 2014 at the University of Minnesota.
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

Better than better-than-nothing education

Faculty members use the MOOC videos and exercises of their colleagues as supplemental material for students in traditional on-campus classes.

And some have integrated the videos into the course as required viewing. Students watch the videos before class. Then they walk into the classroom ready to discuss the material or conduct exercises based on it.

Konstan said "an overwhelming number of students" preferred that environment to traditional classroom courses. And he found that those who learned in that "blended" environment performed a little better than those who learned solely from MOOCs.

Cramer said faculty members have learned a lot about the art of teaching from their MOOC experience. They come to explain their material so that a wide range of students can understand it. And they use visual aids hat are more focused and streamlined, because MOOCs don't give professors classroom time to explain them.

"It has made me a better instructor," he said.

One professor who has found the huge scale of MOOC classes a benefit to students is Brad Hokanson. In his MOOC on creative problem solving, his students evaluated each others' creative ideas. The large class size greatly increased the diversity of opinions, he says, and the anonymous nature of the critiques ensured they were honest.

"I have 3,000 guest critics," Hokanson said. "That's huge."

Cramer said MOOCs have also spurred faculty to investigate other forms of digital learning technology.

In the College of Science and Engineering, he said, several instructors have started creating video modules for first-year courses that will supplement teaching.

Brad Hokanson
Graphic Design Professor Brad Hokanson during his Creative Problem Solving class Thursday, Apr. 24, 2014 at the University of Minnesota.
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

Getting academic credit for MOOCs

The big question that remains is: Will the U ever grant academic credit for MOOCs?

That is, after all, the key to the promise that MOOCs would become an inexpensive path toward a college degree.

But doing so would require U officials to analyze whether each MOOC was on par with its counterpart class on campus.

"That's not something we're in a position to do right now," Hanson said. "I wouldn't rule it out, but it is a complicated enterprise."

Konstan said he sees more potential for MOOCS, but that "we're not quite there as to understanding how to exercise that yet."

One school may have already found a specific use for MOOCs - The College of St. Scholastica.

Its three courses so far don't really qualify as massive. The largest, anatomy and physiology, has enrolled about 5,000 students, but that's still far larger than its traditional classes.

Instead of catering to the general community, they target a particular niche - working professionals in health care, a field that Scholastica specializes in.

Those who enroll in the courses can earn free continuing- education credits - something often required when professionals need to renew licensing or certification.

Don Wortham, vice president for strategic initiatives, says many MOOC students - even those who never completed - have expressed interest in enrolling in one of the school's fully accredited online programs.

"Maybe what they're realizing is that they'd like to be in a program where the courses are structured like the MOOC," he said, "but that have ... engagement with instructors and with peers."

Thus to St. Scholastica, the MOOC ends up functioning as a cost-effective marketing tool.

"Our plans are not grand," Wortham said. "We're looking for ways to introduce segments of the consuming public to Scholastica, and we'll do it a few hundred or a few thousand at a time - and be very happy with that."

However the national mood on MOOCs goes, he said, "is somewhat irrelevant. ... As long as we don't run out of niches, we'll keep at it."