On-Line Courses Not Faring Well—As Expected

A revolutionary means to an education.
A revolutionary means to an education.
Two months back I made the non-joke that MOOC’s—massive off-line open courses—were not new, not “revolutionary”, and were therefore not going to “change the face of education as we know it.”

Note off-line and not on-line.

Libraries (in most places in the West) have been free and open to anybody for centuries. Any person, regardless of circumstance, could walk in, pick up a book on Introductory Latin or The Philosophy of Physics, read it, assimilate its material, and then walk away educated.

Not only that, but they could have done it repeatedly for as long as they had the patience or capacity. There were books on any subject, therefore any subject could have been learned.

Since the libraries were free and ubiquitous, their patronage encouraged almost from the cradle, and their benefits nearly infinite, you would guess, if your thoughts tended towards Utopianism, that we should be surrounded with a highly educated, erudite citizenry.

But if you were a realist, you would have realized that most people don’t want to know much beyond what’s needed for their daily existence. Learning is difficult, is brutal hard work, and the payoff is in most cases not obvious. What makes it worse is that reading, the fastest and most secure way to assimilate knowledge, can be painful and time consuming. It is a solitary, quiet avocation and most of are too gregarious to keep at it for the extended periods necessary to master a topic.

Well, the realists were right. Before television, before even radio, libraries were full and people read; mostly for entertainment, but read they did. Now libraries are sometimes just as full, but with people checking out DVDs or sitting at Internet terminals (as you are doing now). Books are now secondary—at best. They and reading will never disappear, but they will become the habit of only a fraction of us, as was true historically and as is part of our nature.

So it should come as no surprise to hear that the on-line courses aren’t living up the ecstatic hyperbole which accompanied their announcement. According to Politico, they have “high dropout rates and disappointing student performance among those who stick it out.” Completion rates average 10%.

They “found that disadvantaged kids performed particularly poorly and students found the courses confusing.” The same students, that is, who are not heading to the library.

Some expert or other—the kind likely to use words like “Learning-management systems”, “revolutionary impact”, and “Transformational Learning”—was heard to say, “The elephant in the room with online learning has been that these courses don’t equate with the quality in face-to-face courses.”

That’s the kind of thing expected as universities transform from colleges to corporations. What was already known is given more impressive sounding labels.

Skip all that. Scan this: “Some college faculty members don’t trust the courses or actively work against their formation”.

No wonder. What professor wants his material packed into a YouTube video—which makes his presence redundant. At least as far as teaching goes. He’s still needed to solicit money from Leviathan, which in turn is needed to feed the Dean.

Make that seemingly redundant. Professors have always been in the habit of writing books, which distills and concentrates the same material. And these books could have been, but largely were not, read free.

The only difference I can see between off- and on-line “open” courses is that the latter are easier to track and award “credits” for. I.e. they are useful steps toward “degrees”, the thing the vast majority of students and employers desire.

There’s probably a way to do courses on-line, but they’ll mimic the off-line ones. That is, lectures to groups of students which allows back-and-forth questions and answers, homework (reading!), writing, unique exams (and not generic multiple-choice which any college might use for the course of the same name). But there goes most of the cost savings and all of the hype. And out the door go the consultants and “education specialists.”


  1. Scotian

    I tend to agree with you but will make one caveat, which is that if on-line courses do succeed they will not be the ones developed by universities. The revolution, if there is indeed one, will come from the outside and the universities will flounder. Is was ever such.

    “Learning is difficult, is brutal hard work, and the payoff is in most cases not obvious.” And here I thought that I was just lazy.

  2. guyjr

    Yep, the revolution is already happening. Take a look at https://www.khanacademy.org/

    Now… this statement caused the moths to gravitate toward the LED bulb in my noggin: “…most people don’t want to know much beyond what’s needed for their daily existence.”

    That is an intriguing assertion. There is much debate flying around over whether or not human intelligence is even going to survive through the evolutionary process. I reckon that for now educated folk have lots of advantages over non-educated. However, we are vastly outnumbered, and through war / famine / disease, things could quickly equalize in a way that would not provide any advantage. Doubtful any of us will be around when / if that happens (and if we are best get to building that survival bunker pronto!)

  3. From my observations, the online and offline courses suffer directly as a consequence of the “education system” suppressing instinctive autodidactism. Once the students have been convinced that they need to be taught stuff, they will be much less likely to learn freely, propelled by their own curiosity and persistence to try to understand something.

    A school system that doesn’t continuously excite individuals to learn and explore, but insists instead on trammelling students into what they are supposed to learn, cannot prepare those students for independence; either in terms of education or in life.

  4. Dave

    A few comments:

    – I’ve taken several MOOCs, and the 10% completion rate is about right in my experience (although I have finished all of the ones I sign up for)

    – These classes are free, so students are willing to take a chance realizing that there is no financial loss if they decide its not for them.

    – In the first Stanford AI class that was offered online, many students chose to watch the lectures online rather than go to the class because the experience was better. I’ve found this to be true with many of the MOOCs. If the instructors take the time to record writing out their notes and solutions to problems while explaining what they are doing in real time, it works very well. If it’s just video of them giving a lecture to a live class, it’s much worse and easy to lose interest.

    – the comments in this post are why Tyler Cowen is suggesting that the people who will benefit most from these new educational opportunities are the conscientious. Maybe that was true in the past with libraries, but I think MOOCs open up broader opportunities. It’s just easier to learn when there is someone with teaching experience motivating the material for you.

    – They will have a deflationary effect on higher education. Georgia Tech announced that it is offering a $7K masters degress in Computer Science online through Udacity. And its certainly possible that at that price, with enough students, it is more profitable than the on campus students who are paying $100K (or whatever it is). I guess G Tech is technically a non-profit institution, so here “profitable” just means it will be able to fund more stuff.

    – I have not taken any “soft” MOOCs, but I imagine they work much better for subjects where there are right and wrong answers, i.e. programming, math, and (some) science. Otherwise, you would have to rely on multiple choice and true and false (or peer grading) for something like history or english. Also wouldn’t work for courses where you actually create or build (non-software) things.

    – It makes sense that professors won’t want to cannibalize their own jobs with MOOCs. I think professors will eventually license out their MOOCs to protect themselves (and maybe they do this already). Superstar MOOC professors will be able to license their MOOCs to many universities, who would then just provide tutoring and proctors for those courses.

  5. MattS

    “But there goes most of the cost savings and all of the hype.”

    I disagree. How much of the cost of college is professor salaries and who much is tied into the cost of the physical infrastructure of classrooms and dorms and transportation to get everyone together in one room.

    Live video conferencing provides for “There’s probably a way to do courses on-line, but they’ll mimic the off-line ones. That is, lectures to groups of students which allows back-and-forth questions and answers, homework (reading!), writing, unique exams (and not generic multiple-choice which any college might use for the course of the same name).” while still providing significant cost savings in terms of physical infrastructure.

    An pure virtual university done this way would also not have the distraction and cost of an athletics program.

  6. Edward

    I have not taken a MOOC course. But I did complete an M.S. in software engineering through a distance learning program of an old (more than a century) bricks and mortar university in 2012. Most of the grad courses had 12 to 20 students enrolled and there was lively “online” discussion as part of each course.

    I also completed an M.B.A. at an on campus university (a different 100+ year old bricks and mortar university).

    Because of where I lived, I could not have done the M.S. in person as no university in the area offered such a program. Distance programs were my only option and are the only option for a great many potential students.

    Having done both an on campus and an off campus Masters degree, I would rate both as comparable educational experiences. Both had some very tough courses, both required a very large time commitment.

    How many students pursuing MOOCs are not calibrated to the level of work and time commitment required for college education?

    Could I have done the study on my own without a university course? Absolutely. But unfortunately, employers – everyone for that matter – wants your education to have been certified by an external third party and preferably a respected third party. In the IT field, there are now oodles of “certifications” and some go so far as to say degrees are obsolete and we should instead have only third-party certifications for each “skill” developed. Thus, self learning (of which I have done a lot) is great for personal fulfillment but is hard to sell to prospective employers who are busy – they’d rather see that you’ve got the stamp of approval from University XYZ.

    Degrees and certifications have become the quick way to narrow down the prospective applicant list. Sadly, they also weed out a lot of smart people who lack the right credential. (I say that as someone whose neighbor barely finished high school but was also the smartest business person I have ever met.)

  7. Gary

    I fly fish. Occasionally I will tie a few flies rather than purchase them. There are abundant fly-tying videos on the web and I learn much from them. Why are they a successful teaching method? Because they are short, highly visual, focused, taught by people who understand how to communicate their knowledge with this medium. Advanced subjects such as those taught in college fail to meet most of these criteria sufficiently and so are prone to high drop out rates.

  8. Katie

    I’m waiting for day when universities can make holograms of their superstar professors (even after they passed) to conduct classes. Who would pass up a chance to see Carl Sagan or Richard Feynman or Seamus Heaney to hold forth?

  9. Francsois

    From my recent experience with a postgraduate course that had an online component (in addition to face-to-face), I can say that in-person lectures are valuable. Listening to a thoughtful discourse by a prominent and inspiring lecturer gets me fired up! Chatting to fellow students, asking questions of the lecturer etc. is a great way to enthuse one, to light a fire in your heart about a topic of interest. As humans we respond to person-to-person interactions, and it does stuff to you that reading a pdf lecture substitute cannot do.

    Maybe it will happen soon that an effective replacement for face-to-face lectures will appear (holograms etc. as Katie suggested), but until then face-to-face is important, in my estimation.



  10. MattS


    Two words: Video Conferencing.

    On line courses don’t have to be PDFs or prepackaged video lectures.

  11. Francsois

    Hi Matt

    Video conferencing sound like a good idea, I agree. That should have much the same “magic” as face-to-face courses. I have not had a chance to do a course through video cnferencing, I wonder why it is not rolled out more widely.



  12. Milton Hathaway

    Maybe it’s just me, but I’m much more likely to read a book I buy. I did much better in college than high school; high school was ‘free’, college was expensive, and a ‘C’ wasn’t any less expensive than an ‘A’.

    When I want to get rid of an object that’s close to worthless, I’ve learned not to put it out by the road with a sign that says “FREE” – no one will touch it. But if I put it out next to the trash can, it will often disappear before garbage day. And if I make it look like it fell out of the back of a pickup, it’s gone right away.

    There’s a lesson about human nature in there somewhere.

  13. JH

    There are many e-textbooks accompanied by video mini-lectures that students can access anywhere and anytime. In math and stat, online homework is equipped with various wonderful, helpful learning tools that are just a click away.

    I think self-discipline is the key to success in online learning, of course, and on-campus learning. For some students, the set class schedule in on-campus learning is a way to ensure their attendance. For some students, online classes offer them flexible schedule and increased accessibility.

    Registration of a course doesn’t guarantee success.

  14. MattS


    I wonder that myself. Probably because the bean counters are more interested in doing on line courses as cheaply as possible rather than doing them right, so what you end up with is correspondence courses on the internet.

  15. Chronus

    My son surprised me last week when he said he was disappointed that one of his college courses was online. He has a very low opinion of them and prefers to avoid them. To paraphrase his comments, he said they were too easy to take and too easy to cheat on. Lest he be condemned here as a natural born brainiac, his grades in high school and college run the gamut of the teachers alphabet. He did get a B in Intro to Stats to my pleasure and relief.

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