(Altaf Qadri/AP ) (Altaf Qadri/AP )

Are MOOCs already over?

It may seem like an odd question given that the Massive Open Online Courses have been touted as the future of higher education, and that it seems like just yesterday that the country’s major universities were rushing to create courses to grab their share of the expected global market.

New data from a University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education study raises big questions about the  future of MOOCs.

The study, which, looked at the MOOC behavior of 1 million people who signed up for courses offered by the university on the Coursera platform from June 2012 to June 2013, found that only 4 percent completed the classes and that “engagement” of students falls dramatically in the first few weeks of a course. Registrants were found to be disproportionately wealthy, male and educated.

Last year, the University of Pennsylvania became a partner with Coursera, an educational technology company, along with other elite schools such as Stanford University, Princeton University, and the University of Michigan. MOOCs were hailed as the future of higher and possibly all education, providing students around the world free courses created by experts in various fields. Some education historians were less sanguine about just how much the technology would transform education; Stanford University’s Larry Cuban called such thinking “irrational exuberance” in several posts about the subject (see here, here and here). In one post, he wrote:

Where the incoherence and mindlessness enter the picture is the current thinking among university officials and digital-minded faculty that delivering a degree or college-level courses to anyone with an Internet connection will revolutionize U.S. higher education institutions. While teaching is clearly an important activity of universities, doing research and publishing studies is the primary function. The structures (e.g., departmental organization, professional schools) and incentives (e.g., tenure, promotion) of top- and middle-tier institutions drive tenure, promotion, and time allocation for faculty. MOOCs will do nothing to alter those structures and incentives. If anything, MOOCs could accelerate and deepen the split between tenure-line faculty and adjuncts with the latter taking on these larger courses for a pittance. To think that such offerings by professors will transform higher education  gives new meaning to the word “flaky.”

The study did not explain why engagement dropped.

MOOCs, to be sure, are still new, and online education is certainly here to stay. But these results should help temper the exuberant claims that they will be the future of higher education.

Emerging findings from the UPenn study can be seen in these charts:

(University of Pennsylvania)

(University of Pennsylvania)


(University of Pennsylvania)