Home > math education, open source tools > MOOCs, their failure, and what is college for anyway?

MOOCs, their failure, and what is college for anyway?

July 24, 2013

Have you read this recent article in Slate about they canceled online courses at San Jose State University after more than half the students failed? The failure rate ranged from 56 to 76 percent for five basic undergrad classes with a student enrollment limit of 100 people.

Personally, I’m impressed that so many people passed them considering how light-weight the connection is in such course experiences. Maybe it’s because they weren’t free – they cost $150.

It all depends on what you were expecting, I guess. It begs the question of what college is for anyway.

I was talking to a business guy about the MOOC potential for disruption, and he mentioned that, as a Yale undergrad himself, he never learned a thing in classes, that in fact he skipped most of his classes to hang out with his buddies. He somehow thought MOOCs would be a fine replacement for that experience. However, when I asked him whether he still knew any of his buddies from college, he acknowledged that he does business with them all the time.

Personally, this confirms my theory that education is more about making connection than education per se, and although I learned a lot of math in college, I also made a friend who helped me get into grad school and even introduced me to my thesis advisor.

  1. rob
    July 24, 2013 at 8:28 am

    Students at the Ivies are already well-prepped and educated. Students from inner-city high schools are often transformatively educated in places like CUNY, exposing them to a broader range of intellectual cultures they might not otherwise have experienced. These are two dfferent worlds, the prepped and nonprepped, both insular and both often unaware of the depth of their own insularity, but in places like CUNY the two meet through learning and through the interactions required of the clasroom and college model, not through connections reinforcing the insularity.


    • July 24, 2013 at 9:23 am

      Having attended a recognized excellent public school, with a long track record of sending many graduates to the most competitive colleges, and having gotten degrees from two big-name universities and one law school, I would be careful to understand what “prepped” means. Looking back, “prepped” largely meant bulding the right dossier to get into one of those competitive schools, whether that included an education was secondary to both purpose and affect.

      The sad fact is that many of the students at the most competitive colleges understand this quite intuitively and simply don’t care. In fact, they don’t know enough to care. Instead, they and the colleges they attend grade themselves as excelling simply by virtue of reputation: The colleges won’t dare flunk any students, since that would imply the school erred in selecting them in the first place; instead gentleman’s and lady’s As and Bs abound (Cs aren’t given, since that would be akin to failing) since the students are really much better than those lesser schools anyway. So, the students coast along building networks (after all, isn’t that what education is really about?) and burnishing their résumés.

      So, yes there are two different worlds. But the difference is much less about education than about money and privilege.


  2. July 24, 2013 at 8:48 am

    Graduation rates are abysmal everywhere, does anyone take college seriously anymore? What the heck?


    • July 24, 2013 at 9:09 am

      I think the problem is largely due to the skyrocketing expense of college, coupled with the stagnation and decline in the median income; students today have to take on huge loans or work many hours (or both) to afford school, which many simply can’t maintain for a four-year degree.


      • KenS
        July 24, 2013 at 9:49 am

        Thank you, moosesnsquirrels, for pointing out what I think so many are ignoring when they talk about the percentage of U.S. students who don’t finish college.


      • Bob The Programmer
        July 24, 2013 at 10:23 pm

        Another factor in low graduation rate is that, at publicly funded colleges at least, many classes fill up and so students have to wait for them to be offered again to finish their degrees.

        Worst place for this seems to be community college certificate and pre-certificate programs, like pre-nursing.


    • Abe Kohen
      August 2, 2013 at 6:20 am

      Perhaps in Liberal Arts you have inflated grades, but not so in STEM, especially in Engineering. This is true of both public and private better universities or colleges.


  3. July 24, 2013 at 9:57 am

    Cathy, I hope you appreciate just how disturbing your post is: Essentially, you’re noting that our “best and brightest” have no effective education after high school. Perhaps this is why our economy and democratic government are on the verge of collapse. Perhaps this is why we are suffering the destruction of our public educational system at the hands of billionaires, Wall Street speculators, and computer tycoons, who peddle MOOCs and computers as substituted for teachers and human contact.

    From my own experience, learning through osmosis or self-study in small groups can be done quite effectively in the sciences and mathematics, since those subjects tend to be self-contained and there are strong cultures, traditions, and intellectual standards, that students have to master in order to advance from college to graduate school to professional research. But in most other academic areas, these conditions simply don’t exist; indeed these subjects often require a large exposure across various academic disciplines that students may not immediately recognize. Frankly, this has been the downfall of economics. Economists, wanting to see themselves as physcists rather than social scientists, have made their discipline almost hermeneutic and devoid of any understanding of history, psychology, sociology or anthropology, in short anything remotely dealing with the human condition. The result is the rise of people like Larry Summers, who are given immense power no matter how foolish or corrupt their actions.

    The truth is that American higher education has always suffered from what you describe. I recommend reading the speeches and articles of Robert Maynard Hutchins, who took the issue of education head on as the president of the University of Chicago in the ’30s and ’40s. Hutchins, along with Mortimer Adler, argued that higher education was little more than a country club for the children of the elite to gather and make social connections while the faculty pursued their research. Adler’s How to Read a Book, in the editions published before 1972, included a lengthy discussion of the failure of higher education to teach the sort of intellectual acumen that was the hallmark of the great medeval universities. The result, both Hutchins and Adler argued, is that all Americans, including those who rise to great power, have a withered intellect and are prone to making foolish and selfish choices becuase they lack the experience of strong critical thinking. They may not realize that, since they are part of social stratum (read: “bubble”) that provide reinforcement of their behavior and hides their failures (Chris Hedges as written and spoken to this quite frequently).

    Obviously, their attempts to set Chicago as a model for providing a true “education”, as opposed to schooling or social indoctrination, failed. But I urge people to read their books and articles. Once you have, I suspect you’ll become very interested in becoming truly educated.


    • Abe Kohen
      August 2, 2013 at 6:35 am

      As I’m about 85% done in a MOOC on Java, I feel that it is a great way to CONTINUE your education, but terrible for earning a degree. Ambiguous instructions are no way for a novice to learn. At least in class, you raise your hand and clarify. Yes, you can send a message, but it’s asynchronous and the novice will either give up or do something else. Youtube snippets are not much different from video recorded devices used almost 30 years ago at Stanford. It sucked then, it sucks now. Technology is not being used in the best way. Code checkers that give you a fail on a correct answer because of simple formatting are just one manifestation of the short cuts taken. A teacher on stage must be an actor. Dynamic and inspiring.


  4. simianme
    July 24, 2013 at 10:07 am

    I’m working on my second degree. I’ve also done about four MOOCs.

    I disagree completely in as far as the “it’s all about networking” argument goes. Yes, perhaps in Ivy League schools. But not in as far as my own brick and mortar school experiences go. I learned and continue to learn a lot in class, through participation in tutorials, and speaking to professors and my fellow students about the course material. I have not made many friends at school, and my professional network grew out of my experience in the workplace.

    MOOCs are understandably weaker on interaction with the faculty than traditional schools are. But, as long as there is a sufficient interactive or practical component such as programming assignments or quizzes, I have found the model to work very well.


  5. KenS
    July 24, 2013 at 10:12 am

    I agree with the premise that college is, to a large extent, about making connections to be exploited once one embarks on a career, and that this is particularly true for those who are privledged enough to attend certain elite schools. What follows is in no way meant to argue with that.

    It makes me shake my head when smart people say things like “I went to X [college][highschool][school system] and I never went to class and I didn’t learn a thing while I was there.” I call B.S.

    First, a minor point, I admit, but did you really keep track of how often you went to class? Put little checkmarks on a calendar? Did you really skip every single meeting of every class, or did you skip at least one meeting of every class you were enrolled in? OK, that’s nit-picking, I know.

    But it’s a very cool thing to say, “I didn’t learn a thing in school.”

    I’m developing a theory that smart people are sometimes the least aware of what learning “feels” like. Learning is not a machine-gun-like series of concious epiphanies. We don’t go through our day, even in school, having moment after moment where we find ourselves thinking, “Ah, OK, just learned yet another thing!” Learning is the mostly unconcious accretion of facts, concepts, patterns, and connections.

    Just because you didn’t struggle to learn most, or even all, of what you watched many of your peers struggling to learn doesn’t mean you weren’t learning.

    Now, if you didn’t choose to extend yourself, to push yourself into some state of cognitive dissonance . . . well, that’s a whole ‘nother rant.


    • July 24, 2013 at 1:08 pm

      KenS, I think your post touches on an important issue that is usually neglected completely in these discussions—What is an “education”?

      I used to believe that education was synonymous with learning; so that attending school (i.e., “getting schooled”) where I learned various things was the same as getting an education. However, I no longer believe that. The view I now have is that education is really the development of one’s intellect, especially those intellectual faculties that we associate with reasoning and critical thinking. Thus, I see “education” as distinct from training and indoctrination, both of which involve “learning”, and both of which are what happens most of the time at all levels of schooling. In short, most college graduates, even those from the most prestigious colleges and professional schools, are often little better than technicians.

      We can learn about lots of subjects in the ways you describe, as well as by more focused work. But the effect is more like training and indoctrination in that we end up knowing various “facts” or summary knowledge about different subjects. The only want to actually learn is by experience, which can only come from concentrated study and action. So, the only way to learn how to think—to develop our intellects—can only come from focused thinking about sujects that force us to use our intellects. The most reilable way to do this was developed in the Middle Ages as the Trivium, the arts of logic, grammar, and rhetoric, and taught using the Socratic method in which one discusses these subjects with another more experienced, and therefore better, thinker. I don’t think there is a better way to develop one’s intellect, and certainly not by textbooks or sitting in front of a computer screen taking standarized tests.


  6. Jon Ziegler
    July 24, 2013 at 11:44 am

    It sounds like you think that many college experiences might best be replaced by some form of “networking camp” with a couple of mentors and a bunch of people with similar interests. I think that might be true, in which case they should cost much, much less. For some, such a camp accompanied by MOOCs (or maybe just access to good books) would be just what they need to become well educated.

    You might be interested that treating the residential, learning community aspect of college is starting to be addressed by such ventures as Black Mountain SOLE (http://blackmountainsole.org). My opinion is that what we’re seeing with MOOCs is properly viewed as the unbundling of the educational experience. Much of what is offered today (and through history) has simply been what is convenient and cost-effective to offer. Those things changed radically with the introduction of today’s technology. They will change more as new technology is introduced, especially cheap virtual reality.

    So MOOCs are just at their beginning. The most exciting thing that I see is that they should force the unbundling of learning, assessment, and credentialing. Once these are separate, learning can proceed without anybody worrying about cheating. That will be transformative in and of itself.


  7. July 24, 2013 at 1:22 pm

    I took the recently-offered Coursera macroeconomics course. The presenter was a highly qualified academic and a good lecturer. I would be surprised to learn that the course resulted in any better than the average 10% completion rate. The problem was primarily that the course relied mostly on the use of the recorded lectures. The only practical way to review the material was to replay the lectures — a huge waste of time given that the content could have easily been been put on line as text which could be indexed and searched.

    Interaction with other students and teaching assistants was offered through on line forums. There was very little guidance of the discussions from qualified assistants. Most of the discussions were dominated by participants who had already achieved a high level of familiarity with the material and clearly were in the game mostly to show off their knowledge of arcane aspects of the subject, often with little relation to the core concepts.

    My impression was that the design and conduct of the course was left in the hands of a group of over-worked grad students with little real experience in any kind of teaching, including the on line variety. I have little doubt that computer-assisted learning could be an important educational resource, but I skeptical that it will emerge from the higher-ed establishment, or from the big MOOC providers who are looking to cash in on the idea.


  8. Kari Doucette
    July 24, 2013 at 10:05 pm

    I think there are two major points to address from your post: what is the value of a traditional college education, and are online courses, such as the MOOCs, equivalent in terms of the benefit received (particularly in relation to the cost).

    The bottom line is, that you get from an education what you put into it, regardless of the setting. This is not to say that different settings are equal. It is more work to teach yourself something than to have it explained to you, and it takes a truly motivated student to keep trying when things are difficult without mentors to encourage and explain, deadlines to maintain forward progress, and peers with whom one can work through the difficulties. So while it is entirely possible to learn most subjects from a text, from an online course, or many other sources of information, I think a good college or university setting provides a learning environment with peers, mentors, experts in one’s field, that could not be duplicated elsewhere.

    So a motivated student will receive a better education in terms of not just information, but knowledge, where he/she is challenged, pushed, and engaged by the environment. Everyone that I knew at my Ivy league university worked hard. (I didn’t hang out with slackers.) I’m sure it is possible to slide through, but I don’t think that is the norm–regardless of economic and educational background, those that end up at the top colleges have generally worked hard in addition to having a genetic and economic leg up, and I think they tend to continue to work in some way. (You can debate whether the way they are working is education, or social networking, but they are working at something!) And the environment and those around them are a huge part of what they get from college.

    Online learning without the physical presence of other students cannot substitute for the dialog that real learning entails. (I don’t think chat rooms can ever duplicate this.) I agree with those that have advocated that lectures be presented online, and the time in the classroom be spent in discussion, problem sets, or other forms of active learning. I am currently finishing the first of the three MOOCs that I have signed up for–when they are free, it is easy to try them for a session or two and decide that they are not really what one wanted. And this one is a review of material that I have learned before and wanted to refresh.

    The MOOC is wonderful if one does not have the resources, the time, or the inclination to devote several years to a full-time, residential education, but I don’t think it can come close to the experience on can obtain from truly engaging with peers in an environment where the goal is learning.


  9. RG
    July 24, 2013 at 11:16 pm

    1. I wonder how Khan Academy fits into these observations. I think the reason it’s popular is that there seems to be a well-defined national math curriculum at the high school level. Similarly for physics, chemistry or a language. One class may focus on different vocabulary in different semesters, but by and large you’re going to learn pronunciation, grammar, and bits of culture. I’d be more reluctant to learn, e.g. economics, from a MOOC because the class I need credit for may have very different emphasis. Or worse, it may have subtly different emphasis depending on a professor’s beliefs, and it may be much harder to indoctrinate yourself to the required viewpoints if you have another set of ideas floating around. And a semester in theater or poetry may have no intersection with what another teacher chooses. It’s not that you wouldn’t learn something valuable in a MOOC on theater, and that exposure will make your required coursework easier, but it might double the amount of work you’d have to do.

    2. The actuarial exam system may be another applicable analogy. I don’t know the statistics, but I’d guess that less than half of the actuarial students sitting for exams take traditional classes. I met a fair number of students who passed university classes but didn’t pass the official exams (though my sample may not be typical). For the large part, students pass using a mix of textbook, study guides, practice tests, and summary seminars lasting between 3-5 days. Pass rates were in 50% range last time I checked, but one exam might cover 2-3 semester courses and most people are working full time jobs.

    3. Plus, learning for fun doesn’t really work in semester-size chunks. I’ve learned a fair bit about classical music as an adult by attending concerts and reading the informational notes and talking to people. It might be interesting to take a MOOC on that now that I have broad exposure and could connect the dots to my experiences.


  10. Bobito
    July 25, 2013 at 3:24 am

    Real students, who study and learn something, are a small minority, almost, though not completely, restricted to engineering and sciences, and even in those disciplines a definite minority. They are not well served by the current organization of universities in the US and that in part reflects the decadence of our culture.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. A. Wells
    July 25, 2013 at 11:44 am

    A lot of people end up with debt that would pay for their starter home when they finally get their Bachelor degree from a nondescript university. As MOOCs progress, fill and complete their curricula, they can learn all that for free. A model where they pay only for the additional tutoring [delivered interactively online] and proctored exams could give them the same quality credentials for next to nothing. You can still have the traditional universities for the affluent and for the extremely gifted. But for the other 90% there would not be any visible difference. Only someone with vested interest in the growth of the academic industry would call MOOCs a failure.


  12. July 26, 2013 at 7:01 am

    At my university (Ivy) one of the deans who was responsible for student outreach and recruitment essentially said that the purpose of a college like ours was to (paraphrase) “sell students like us to each other”. Obviously, this was formally done in a place of learning where you *could* take a lot of courses and do many different activities. But the main reason why an Ivy rather than a more economical approach was the networking and connections. (Of course, for *really* fortunate kids that starts in daycare, elementary school, prep school …)


  13. Jon Ziegler
    July 27, 2013 at 2:57 pm

    Some interesting information on the SJSU Udacity courses and their high failure rate here:
    Note that the courses were free for the students, not $150. Also, I’m not sure that remedial courses for people many of whom don’t even know elementary school math (“Among the frequently heard questions: How to divide two numbers? How can you subtract a bigger number from a smaller one?”) is a good way to evaluate the promise of MOOCs.


    • Abe Kohen
      August 2, 2013 at 6:43 am

      Preparing an online course takes (or should take) as much effort as producing a TV show of similar length. It’s not an easy endeavor and I doubt the professors are paid enough for prep time. My last university teaching assignment was for a private university in NYC as an adjunct, and frankly I cannot afford to repeat that experiment, not at the rate I was paid for teaching and prep time. I’m curious if the MOOC professors are paid fairly.


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