Home / The Industry / MOOCs, Profits, and Student Learning

            A popular topic in the education world these days are Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs are they are commonly known.

         The basic concept of a MOOC is that thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of students can logon and listen to a lecture presented by a world-class professor without even leaving their home or dorm room.  A professor who is in demand and successful at delivering these lectures achieves a type of “rock star” status, and eventually begins to get paid like a rock star.  

          The lectures are offered either for free or for a nominal fee, and they can even be structured with a test at the end so you can certify to your employer or college that you completed the course. 

          A quick look at some course offering shows that MOOCs seem to be available for pretty much any topic, from world history to entrepreneurship and game design. 

          Wall Street and the corporate world have certainly gotten into the act.  Recent articles in Forbes and the Wall Street Journal tout the growth in number of users, number of enrollments, and number of course offerings.  These articles also tout the big investment many venture capitalists and educational service companies are making in the space.

          In a January 2, 2013 article, the Wall Street Journal also noted the course completion rates at several of the large providers.  The reported completion rates range from 4.6% at the low end to 18% at the high end.  That’s right, currently the MOOC course model has a completion rate that doesn’t even reach 20% for any of the providers.

          This same Wall Street Journal article also notes that the MOOC course providers are still searching for that elusive profitable business model.

          If less than 18% of the students complete the course, and the course providers are having difficulty making the numbers work, this begs the question – “What’s missing?”

          I will surmise here that one key element that’s missing is an active, engaging learning model. 

          Watching or listening to a lecture by “rock star” professor has great potential.  The professor has wealth of knowledge, and uses the lecture to present this information to the audience.  If it’s interesting, the audience will retain some of the information that’s been presented. 

          But we also know that much learning occurs not by hearing, but by doing.  Learning occurs when the learner has the opportunity to touch or work with the material being presented, to ask questions, or is challenged to think more deeply about a topic. 

          Learning occurs when there is a connection and conversation between the instructor and the learners.  For the last decade or more, online course providers have struggled to create this connection.  When this connection has been made, the literature indicates an increase in learning outcomes.

          Much of the literature indicates that the instructor needs to be present for the learners in some way, must interact with the learners, engage in Socratic type questioning, and challenge the learner to rise to new heights.  Without this presence, learning suffers.

        Learner engagement is a key effective education, online or traditional.  While MOOCs may be creating rock star presenters, the course completion rates indicate they are falling short in learning outcomes.  The key to profits will accrue to those who take the process to the next level and effectively engage the student.


Bill Hettinger

January 2013




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