Five years ago, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) were forecast to be on the cusp of disrupting the traditional model of education. Courses from online start-ups would soon rival degrees from august institutions. Soaring tuition fees would be bypassed and the ivy-clad quads would have to open up to anyone who had the talent and the grit to pass their exams – whether they were in Manchester, Manila or Mumbai. No longer would undergraduates need to study at set times and in set places.
Vast sums poured into Edtech start-ups. Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School proclaimed that: “fifteen years from now, more than half the universities in America will be in bankruptcy”. But these wide-eyed predictions have given way to pessimism about MOOCs that is now as equally widely shared.
In practice, many higher education MOOCs have proved disappointing. The University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education found, in a study of a million MOOC participants, only half of those who enrolled in a course ever got as far as watching a lecture. Engagement levels of students waned alarmingly in the first weeks. And – the most damaging criticism of MOOCs – only 4% of those who first registered actually finished the course.
Neither have MOOCs allowed students in developing countries to scale the sandstone walls of the West’s elite universities, as had been predicted. The Penn State graduate school study found that overwhelmingly students who finished MOOCs were well educated and from developed countries. 80% were already graduates.
A MOOC experiment at San Jose University encapsulated the practical limitations of purely online learning. It was designed to improve basic skills in maths and English – for already enrolled students as well as high school graduates who needed to improve to meet the university entrance criteria. Online mentors were hired to encourage students to persist in the difficult first few weeks.
After a year of poor results, it was suspended. The students that performed worse were those who hadn’t yet arrived at the University – and had no means of accessing in-person support from a tutor in a real classroom. In a remedial algebra course, less than one fifth of the non-matriculated students passed.
So, what is it about MOOCs that hasn’t worked? The biggest problem seems to be that students can drift without the sense of community that a real class or seminar brings. Online learning is an impersonal and lonely experience
So, what is it about MOOCs that hasn’t worked? The biggest problem seems to be that students can drift without the sense of community that a real class or seminar brings. Online learning is an impersonal and lonely experience: there is no one to cajole students who are feeling disengaged, no fellow students to meet in the student bar to go over that difficult-to-grasp concept. Even the fear of an upcoming essay deadline seems less forbidding without the certainty that you are going to have to explain your lateness in person to your supervisor.
That’s not to say there isn’t a place for online courses. The complexity of the education system means scalability is difficult, and the advantage of such platforms are that they can be done relatively inexpensively. What’s been missing is the personalised element.
The most successful MOOCs are those that make students feel like they are in class. One of the early adopters of this is a determinedly lo-fi course run by Columbia’s School of Engineering. It uses technology that has been around for decades – a simple video link. Online viewers can simply switch between a camera at the back of the classroom and one at the front.
Edtech companies are now taking this a stage further by accentuating this and truly personalising learning. Rather than leave the student to their own devices (and risk them dropping out), these models continually test the learner’s memory and their level of engagement. One such example is the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, where technology is used to shape the teaching according to the needs of individual learners. Another is the Indian edtech start-up Byjus, which is able to map the competencies of students by using algorithms to adapt the learning experience by providing content tailored to the student’s strengths and weaknesses.
UK-based online education provider Oxademy is teaming up with the education arm of VFS Global, the outsourcer, to offer the first knowledge-driven artificial intelligent (AI) cloud infrastructure which identifies each student’s strengths and weaknesses and generates tailored learning paths based on an individual’s behaviour. This model also provides real-time analysis of their performance data so students feel more engaged and a chat facility so that students can speak to tutors direct.
A more personalised model can also allow online course providers – looking to cut drop-out rates – to better identify those promising students who are worth more time and investment. And, crucially, this can also benefit commercial organisations who might want to take advantage of the low-cost MOOCs model to invest in their workforce. Indeed, some platforms are now gearing themselves much more to ensuring a more ‘work-ready’ graduate.
For example, Udacity has developed a course on Android in partnership with Google and a nanodegree in self-driving cars where Mercedes Benz supply instructors. Oxademy allows MBA students to undertake a ‘virtual work placement’ with a blue-chip organisation as part of the final stage of their studies, which require that they help solve a real-life business problem, allowing students in the Middle East or India to work with a company in the UK via virtual technologies. Such arrangements are often preferred by employers because it means they do not have to find physical space for a work placement student, and also widens the pool from which companies can recruit work placements.
Personal connection, it turns out, is just as important as production values
The first wave of MOOCs failed because they did not understand that education technology cannot succeed if it ignores the human dimension of education – the desire to feel part of a community and part of a class as well as have that personalised factor. Personal connection, it turns out, is just as important as production values.
Syed Shahzad is from VFS-Oxademy, a global learning platform offering internationally-accredited postgraduate and executive education programmes