MOOCs less successful than original hopes, researchers say

Oct. 16, 2015, 5:13 a.m.

Stanford researchers have concluded that MOOCs (massive open online courses) haven’t quite been the revolutionary change in education for which they had hoped. Completion rates are low, and classes can be too difficult. In addition, instead of providing students in developing countries a path to education, the majority of online students are men from industrialized countries.

Examining how these online students learn and fail, however, has given researchers data on how to improve both online and physical classrooms. The idea of online courses – where anyone with an Internet connection can tap into an abundance of knowledge and change the lives of students in developing countries – has been incredibly attractive to researchers in education.

Professor of computer science John Mitchell ’78, who has taught and done research around MOOCs, noted in an interview with the Stanford News Service that helping people around the world learn “is going to be much harder than simply putting these courses online.”

High-level online courses may end up too difficult for online students without a solid academic background, and since students don’t tend to see these courses to completion, completion rates for MOOCs are low. Researchers noted that MOOCs have in fact frustrated educators by giving them the ability to watch their online students fail.

“We see people struggling, and there really isn’t any mechanism to help them,” Mitchell said.

However, there is data on what activities students are doing in the classes and what approaches are working. Researchers are able to learn what kind of video styles are effective, what grabs students’ attention and where students are stumbling.

“I think that’s what the technology is really valuable for,” said Candace Thille, assistant professor at the Graduate School of Education.

The data demonstrates that most of the activities students do in MOOCs are either too passive – such as just watching a video – or too simple – such as answering multiple choice questions – to be effective.

To combat this, Thille is working with Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck’s research group, Project for Education Research That Scales (PERTS), to embed psychological “interventions” into the online classes that would re-engage the disengaged students through encouragement and reassurance that he or she belongs in the class and can do well.

And despite results thus far, researchers still have hope for MOOCs’ potential.

“I’m not disappointed at all with MOOCs,” said Mitchell Stevens, vice provost for teaching and learning and associate professor of education. “We’re still in the horse-and-buggy stage. The boundaries are blurring between online and face-to-face.”

“We’re looking at a future of lifelong education online,” he added. “Much of that will come at little or no cost to learners. How can that be a bad thing?”


Contact Jeremy Quach at jquach ‘at’

Jeremy Quach is a sophomore Desk Editor for the Student Groups beat and is from Kansas City, Kansas. He can often be found smiling, stuffing his face full of french fries, and mumbling Beatles lyrics to himself. He can be contacted at jquach ‘at’

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