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Crazy about 'MOOCs': Are online courses the future of learning or overhyped?

Editor's note: This story is one in a series on education issues featured at the 2013 Education Nation summit in New York City on Oct. 6-8. To learn more, please visit EducationNation.com.

After barely a year in business, online learning rivals edX and Coursera have become two of the biggest higher-education organizations in the world, with a combined six million registered users.

And why not? The so-called MOOCs, or massive open online courses, offered by the two behemoths based at MIT and Harvard (edX) and spun off by Stanford in the case of Coursera, combine free classes ranging from genome theory to introductory guitar with the convenience of learning at any time or place.       

It has seemed the perfect marriage, leading to pronouncements by everyone from journalists to bond-rating agencies that MOOCs will mean the end of conventional universities and skyrocketing tuition, and even proposals by state legislators to substitute online courses for the in-person kind at public universities.

But the honeymoon may be coming to an end, with even advocates for MOOCs conceding that expectations have gotten out ahead of them.

What limited research has been done into the effectiveness of online learning has found that it has much higher dropout rates and lower grades than the conventional kind. Proponents of conventional education, who at first seemed unsure of how to respond to the MOOCs craze, now are publicly questioning them at conferences with titles such as, “MOOCs: Revolution or Just Passing Fad?” and “Will MOOCs Pass the Test?” and speakers including prominent education scholars. Employers say they are more likely to hire applicants with traditional rather than online education, according to a new poll.      

Don't like MOOCs? Try a "SPOC"

People have to be more patient, says Anant Agarwal, the president of edX, who acknowledges some of these very shortcomings.

“We need to give it time. There’s still a long way to go,” says Agarwal, whose job has thrust the MIT computer-science professor into the pop-culture limelight with appearances on The Colbert Report, and who likens the evolution of MOOCs to the 25-year span it took to get from early web-search engines to Google.

Even as MOOCs remain wildly popular—enrollment in all online courses is up 29 percent since 2010, during a time when the number of students in conventional university courses has declined according to the Babson Survey Research Group—their purpose remains misunderstood, Agarwal and others say.

While edX and others will continue to offer their immensely popular standalone online courses, the broader idea, they say, is to use them as vast educational laboratories—to find ways of using the technology to improve the quality of teaching on campuses in what’s known as blended learning. They say that’s one of the main reasons MIT and Harvard are investing $60 million in edX.    

“The public perception of MOOCs is that they are courses taken by millions of learners all over the world,” Agarwal says. “But at edX, we’ve been saying all along that we want to take the learning in the large and apply it in the small, on campus.”

This work is in its early stages, with large-scale research just getting under way and professors who teach MOOCs importing some of the technology—archived lectures, for examples, that students can watch, restart, and watch again—into their real-world brick-and-mortar classrooms.

This combination of MOOC-style advances with conventional teaching has an acronym of its own, a geeky inside joke that may become as ubiquitous as “MOOC”: the small private online course, or SPOC.

Work has only just begun to determine whether this will help students learn more. But what real-world experience exists so far is raising doubts.

That’s because online learning requires more self-discipline and motivation than traditional higher education taught in person by professors who can answer questions and hold office hours, says Amin Saberi, cofounder of another Stanford spinoff called NovoEd.

“A lot of the courses coming online are focused on the most boring parts of education: the talking head and multiple-choice questions,” says Saberi, who says that even he has started and dropped out of other people’s MOOCs after losing interest. “Because of this, for the student, they create a very lonely experience.”

In a new twist on MOOCs, NovoEd offers massive online courses but also organizes online and in-person study groups and requires students to work on real-life, hands-on projects or find living, breathing mentors. Some in a technology entrepreneurship course started their own companies, for instance.

“Education is not just transfer of content,” Saberi says. “We need to bring the students in, motivate them, and create an environment where they can go farther.”

"The jury is still out"

Yet most MOOCs “are basically another form of ‘chalk and talk’ teaching, only online and at a distance,” says Thierry Karsenti, a professor of education at the University of Montreal, which organized an international conference about them.

“Can these enormous numbers really be taught all at once? When there is no actual communication with the students, is it still teaching?” Thierry asks.

It’s too early to say, Agarwal insists. He says MOOCs are accomplishing their objectives of widening access to education and allowing educators to do research into how students learn—what times they like to watch the lectures, where they move forward or get stuck, and other precise details the technology can track. As for their third goal, of improving the quality of learning, that will come with time.

“The challenges of education are so large that our entire community has been seeking a solution, and online learning and MOOCs are seen as a potential silver bullet,” Agarwal says. “Everybody really gets excited about it. But the jury is still out in terms of whether and to what extent purely online education is effective.”

And even their critics say MOOCs have accomplished a lot in their short lives.

“MOOCs have started a conversation that, look, we have huge problems in higher education, and about how online technology can help students on and off campus," Saberi said. "That doesn’t mean the current MOOCs can solve these problems. They’re a stepping stone, not a solution.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.