Why MOOCs Failed To Unleash The Online Education Revolution And Why New Ed-Tech Platforms May Succeed

by Arihant Pawariya - Jan 10, 2022 11:23 AM +05:30 IST
Why MOOCs Failed To Unleash The Online Education Revolution And Why New Ed-Tech Platforms May SucceedVanya Bisht using the Internet on an LCD desktop. (Sattish Bate/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
  • The positive aspects of MOOCs — that they were massive, open for all and exclusively online — also proved to be the reasons for their failure.

    But new ed-tech platforms that have learned from the past have good chances of succeeding.

Imagine someone promising to bring you lectures and courses from the academicians and professors teaching at the world’s best universities absolutely free of cost, and which can be accessed from the comforts of your home. It wouldn’t be a million or a billion dollar idea but one worth trillions of dollars. Certainly, in a country like the United States where the craze for higher education degree is high and student debt one of the biggest burden for youth and their families, such a proposition would be lapped up left, right and centre.

In fact, it would be an instant hit across the world, especially in developing and poor countries who would hope to reap most benefits from this idea of democratisation of education.

That’s exactly what MOOCs or massive open online courses promised. But almost a decade after they arrived on the scene with much fanfare, they have proved to be duds and have made little impact. Just to be sure, it’s not one’s case that they haven’t helped anyone. In fact, tens of thousands of students have improved their learning levels and honed skills using these free courses but the overall results are nowhere close to what these sought out to achieve.

Interestingly, first three words of expansion of the acronym MOOCs also happen to be chief reasons for their failure. The courses are massive, enrolling thousands of students, even more if the lecturer is famous and lecture is more in demand, say technical courses or those that impart skill which helps in improving one’s chances of getting a job or getting ahead in career.

The drawbacks of large traditional classrooms are known to most. Now, multiply that by 10 to 100 and imagine the consequences. The brighter students can still manage but the vast majority feels out of place and struggles to catch up. Lack of personal attention and care is bad enough, and there is no sense of community, no peer pressure to do well, excel or complete assignments on time and no structured exams to regularly test and give feedback.

Simply making knowledge accessible is clearly not good enough. We have seen in India how in the past one decade, seemingly good intentioned steps such as diluting Class X board exams by replacing marks with grades and mandatory promotion of students irrespective of one’s performance in exams has exacerbated the problem of already poor learning outcomes. In MOOCs, there is also no monitoring by parents. All in all, MOOCs are pure education with no associated pressures that we have come to demonise over the time but as evidence shows us they actually do more good than harm.

Massive in itself is a massive problem. What makes matters worse is that these are open too. It’s no wonder then that most of the students who sign up for a course don’t even end up finishing it. In fact, a big chunk doesn’t even go beyond signing up. Essentially, window-shopping of educational content, if you will. When something is available for free, we tend to not value it. There is no skin in the game.

Education is often romanticised as a charity, at least in India and commercialisation in this sector is frowned upon. But failure of MOOCs is in fact a great example which prove that free education can be a lose-lose proposition because students don’t benefit as they don’t value anything that is free, and those who are investing huge amount of time and resources in developing these courses are not getting much out of it either. In fact, the opposite is true: an education which comes at a cost not only helps the provider but also the receiver and hence is a win-win proposition.

MOOCs are not only massive and open but they are also exclusively online which aggravates the aforementioned problems. Ten years ago when the fad for MOOCs was at its peak, people weren’t chastened by the drawbacks of online-only education. But in 2022, with two years of world-wide forced online education that every child and adult has been subjected to, thanks to Covid-19 pandemic, people are certainly wiser, and more than the benefits, one is likely to hear the downside associated with exclusive online learning. Even the earlier enthusiasts for it are now accepting that hybrid model that blends both online and offline modes would be better and is the realistic way forward.

The ed-tech platforms that have risen in last few years and turned unicorns raising billions of dollars across the world during the pandemic seem to have internalised some of the reasons for failure of MOOCs. They are trying to be massive but only in terms of scale of audience not in traditional MOOC way of one lecture/lecturer catering to tens of thousands. Many platforms are facilitating live lectures with opportunity for students to not only interact among themselves but also directly with tutors. The feedback loop is strong with regular test modules and reports sent to parents.

They are certainly not open for all. They charge subscription fee for courses. So, those who enrol already have a motivation to go through the lectures. It’s not a frivolous exercise or window-shopping anymore. There is skin in the game. This is bound to have positive impact on learning outcomes.

The new ed-tech may still be online-only but they are only trying to be fillers (think of extra tuition classes after school) rather than unleash a new system that will replace the schools and colleges which MOOCs enthusiasts once envisioned and boasted that universities will go bankrupt and student debt problem will be over. In fact, during the pandemic when Ivy League students had to take classes online for a semester, they were mighty disappointed even though the same professors were giving same lectures online that they would’ve given offline. That was a good illustration of the fact that education is much more than just about acquiring knowledge.

The insane rise of ed-tech and their unicorn+ valuations certainly show that some of the issues associated with online learning are being tackled successfully. However, the true picture can emerge only after the pandemic is over. Only then, we will really know how much of the change we are witnessing is due to compulsion and how much of it is due to choice.

Arihant Pawariya is Senior Editor, Swarajya.
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