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Are MOOCs For Rich People?

It's not what I expected.

It’s not what I expected.

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Delaware, I worked in the College Try program, which reached out to students who were traditionally underserved by the university. This generally meant ethnic minorities and/or students from poorer families.

The program provided extra assistance to prepare students to succeed in university. For two summers – after their junior and senior years of high school – the students lived on campus for six weeks and took college preparatory courses. We aimed to get them prepared academically and socially for university (and dormitory) life.

When the students arrived as freshmen, they took classes with our best teachers and received extra tutorial assistance. I was one of the tutors for the first two years of the program. I lived in the same dormitory with the students and was available day and night.

I thought College Try was an exceptionally well-designed program. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to have worked. I just checked the ethnicity statistics for the University of Delaware and they don’t look much different from when I was there.

So, how can we provide the benefits of higher education to traditionally underserved students? As MOOCs grew in popularity over the past several years, I thought they might hold the answer.

MOOCs – Massive Online Open Courses – take the best classes from the best professors and put them online. Anyone with Internet access can take them. There are no entry or residency requirements. Typically, they’re free or very inexpensive. We’re still sorting out how to give credentials for participating in MOOCs but I think we’ll soon iron out the details. Meanwhile, the knowledge is there for the taking.

I teach online courses at the University of Denver. Technically, they’re not MOOCs (we charge tuition) but they’re very similar. I can personally attest that online education can be very effective. It’s different than the classroom but still quite engaging. Based on my experience, I believe that MOOCs can offer many of the benefits of higher education, especially at the graduate level.

So, are MOOCs reaching traditionally underserved students? Are they democratizing access to higher education? Unfortunately, the early results are disappointing. I base this on two recent developments.

The first development is Udacity’s “pivot” away from higher education and toward the corporate training market. Udacity is one of the pioneers of the MOOC movement and its pivot has drawn a great deal of attention. Several articles (here, here, and here) suggest different causes, including poorly designed software, very high attrition rates, and a lack of focus.

For me, the most telling statistic is that successful Udacity students are people who are already quite well educated. The typical person who completes a course already has a Bachelor’s degree and often holds graduate degrees as well. Udacity succeeded in educating the educated, not the uneducated.

The second point comes from the University of Pennsylvania, which surveyed 34,000 students who began at least one of the University’s 24 MOOC classes (based on the Coursera platform, a Udacity competitor). The survey found that most students were “well educated, employed, young, and male.” In other words, not the traditionally underserved.

I suspect that MOOCs may be caught in the hype cycle that’s described by the Gartner Group. We’ve seen the peak of inflated expectations and we’re now entering the trough of disillusionment. Perhaps in a year or two, we’ll get to the slope of enlightenment and ultimately arrive at the plateau of productivity. I personally think that MOOCs have a lot to offer. But we still have a long, strange trip ahead of us.

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