Why MOOCs Didn't Work, in 3 Data Points

MIT researchers document low retention rates, enrollment declines and general affluence of students to explain why massive open online course providers have largely ditched their original model.

January 16, 2019

It has become a platitude by now to say that massive open online courses largely failed to achieve the promise many advocates saw to expand access to high-quality education democratically throughout the world.

But now two researchers have provided the analysis and data to prove it.

In an article in Science entitled "The MOOC Pivot" (subscription required for full article), Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Justin Reich and José A. Ruipérez-Valiente strive to explain why MOOCs largely fell short of their purported mission of transforming education worldwide, leading the top providers of the courses -- including Coursera and edX, which MIT co-founded with Harvard University -- to focus instead on the more traditional role of helping colleges take their academic programs online.

That trend has been well documented in the pages of Inside Higher Ed and "Inside Digital Learning," as evidenced in articles such as this, this and this.

What Reich and Ruipérez-Valiente -- director and a postdoctoral associate, respectively, in MIT's Teaching Systems Lab -- add to our understanding of the MOOC landscape are an analysis of data from all courses taught on edX by MIT and Harvard from 2012 to 2018, which quantitatively back up what a lot of people have suspected. The data cover 5.63 million learners in 12.67 million course registrations.

First, one of the big knocks against MOOCs since their beginning was the low rate at which students completed the courses, even as defenders pointed out that many students took MOOCs for knowledge or edification, rather than for a credential. The critique stuck nonetheless. And Reich and Ruipérez-Valiente show that completion rates in MIT and Harvard MOOCs did not increase -- and in fact fell, for all participants, those with a stated intention to complete and those who paid to take "verified" courses -- from 2013-14 to 2017-18, as shown in the graph below.

Among all MOOC participants, 3.13 percent completed their courses in 2017-18, down from about 4 percent the two previous years and nearly 6 percent in 2014-15. And among the "verified" students, 46 percent completed in 2017-18, compared to 56 percent in 2016-17 and about 50 percent the two previous years.

The fact that course completion rates "barely budged" despite "six years of investment in course development and learning research" is problematic, the researchers argue. "A strategy that depends on bringing new learners into higher education cannot succeed if educational institutions cannot support learners in converting their time and financial investment into completing a course to earn a credential with labor market value," they write.

The edX data released by the MIT researchers also reinforces another critique often leveled against the MOOCs -- that they did not, despite highfalutin rhetoric about democratizing access to higher education, bring high-quality education to all corners of the world.

Data on the geographic dispersion of students in the MIT and Harvard MOOCs show that they overwhelmingly live in highly developed countries. In 2017-18, the latest year for which statistics were available, more than two-thirds of enrolled students (68.7 percent, or 954,426 people) came from those countries categorized as having "very high" human development, and roughly another third combined (15.9 and 14 percent, respectively) for those in the high and medium categories. About 55,000 students, or 1.43 percent of the total, came from countries in the "low" category.

Certainly 55,000 people got access to education they might not otherwise have had. But "rather than creating new pathways at the margins of global higher education," the authors write, "MOOCs are primarily a complementary asset for learners within existing systems."

The third and last major point the study makes is the one on which they most add to our understanding of MOOCs. The data above on the extent to which MOOC students stick with individual courses largely affirms what we already knew -- that most students don't complete.

But Reich and Ruipérez-Valiente also share data showing how irregularly students stick with MOOCs in general. While 1.1 million students took their first massive open course in 2015-16, only 12 percent took a MOOC in the 2016-17 academic year.

And that proportion -- of first-time MOOC users who also enrolled in a MOOC the following year -- has fallen every year since 2012-13, from a high of 38 percent that year to 7 percent in 2016-17.

Reprinted with permission from J Reich et al., Science 383:6423 (2018)

The rest of the paper focuses on how the MOOC providers -- having failed, in the authors' view, to pull off a dramatic transformation of higher education through democratizing access -- are trying new business models in which they resemble more traditional forms of change within higher education.

"The 6-year saga of MOOCs provides a cautionary tale for education policy makers facing whatever will be the next promoted innovation in education technology, be it artificial intelligence or virtual reality or some unexpected new entrant," they write. "New education technologies are rarely disruptive but instead are domesticated by existing cultures and systems. Dramatic expansion of educational opportunities to underserved populations will require political movements that change the focus, funding, and purpose of higher education; they will not be achieved through new technologies alone."


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