Steve Taffee
Do MOOCs live up to the hype? Yes

Ask tens of thousands of people around the world, and they'll tell you that, for their needs, the " "hype" " over MOOCs has been fulfilled.

Hype fulfilled

For the students who gain new knowledge and skills via a MOOC, such classes are a worthwhile supplement to their daily instructional diet. Likewise for the educators who have enhanced their careers by reaching an international class of students, for homeschoolers who have watched their children blossom through interaction with renowned scholars, for cash-strapped school districts that are able to offer classes that would have otherwise been canceled, and for even more students in desperate need of credit recovery or exploration of advanced topics.

Few schools can compete with a course offered by the likes of those offered by the Harvard-MIT collaborative project, edX, which opened 26 courses to high school students in September 2014. Other online MOOC companies, such as Coursera, Instructure (makers of Canvas) and Udacity, also have courses aimed at high school students. Most of these are Advanced Placement and entry-level college classes, which may otherwise be expensive for traditional schools to offer, and which might divert its most gifted faculty from working with the students who would benefit most from their expertise and in-class presence.

While they may not be MOOCs per se, a number of online options are available to assist students with credit recovery as well. Virtual high schools exist throughout the world, some sponsored by state departments of education (such as Florida Virtual High School and Michigan Virtual School), colleges and universities (such as Stanford University Online High School and the University of Missouri High School) or private enterprises (such as Ed2Go and K12.com).

Low course completion rates — so what?

Much has been made of the low percentage of enrolled students who complete MOOCs, estimated to be about 5-10 percent. But what exactly does this metric reveal?

Assume that a MOOC enrolls 10,000 students, and 9,500 do not complete the course. This means that 500 do complete the course without any money or time lost on the part of the provider.
 
Enrolling in a MOOC is not the same as enrolling in a traditional course, and course completion rates may not be the best metric by which to measure success. More than their analog counterparts, MOOCs encourage exploration, trial and error, and intellectual taste testing. Most MOOCs are also free and therefore have no financial penalty for noncompletion. The distance learning software company Software Secure claims that when you include students who have seriously interacted with MOOC course materials, the numbers for course completion are much higher.

Hype is a process

According to the consulting firm Gartner, hype is part of an emerging technologies process that includes five phases:

  1. Technology trigger
  2. Peak of inflated expectations
  3. Trough of disillusionment
  4. Slope of enlightenment
  5. Plateau of productivity

hype cycle

I would argue that MOOCs are somewhere between phases 3 and 4 right now. Some educators are disillusioned that the online courses have not led to revolutionary changes in education, while others have moved on to an understanding that MOOCs are evolutionary and an important aspect of the larger picture of how digital technologies are impacting instruction.

If we have learned anything about education, it should be that in the last 100 years, no single technology, curriculum practice, legislation or innovation has proven to be disruptive. But what we can see from MOOCs is that vast numbers of students and teachers are benefiting from the incremental changes that this new type of instruction offers.

A former educational software developer and private school director of technology, Steve Taffee is currently a consultant with Educational Collaborators.