MOOCs Success: Still a Long Road to Go

You may have heard from many sources about how unsuccessful Moocs are. Since they became part of the higher education panorama in the beginning of the 2010’s, they all faced a high dropout and a very low completion rate. This is fairly acknowledged by many actors, including Harvard, the Wired magazine, or the website. The initial intention is definitely noble: give access more easily to knowledge across the entire globe, raise the global level of education all over the planet. Many people are interested in the available topics and offered paths. But the commitment of the learners decreases very quickly over time, and a very small number actually reach the final degree offered.

If several reasons can be provided to explain this situation, my geek background naturally brought a specific idea to the top of my mind. I’ve been coding and involved in technologies for more than 35 years. I’m fascinated by how much the ICT landscape has changed over the past two decades. With a step back, I tried to analyze these changes, and consider how they impacted the education landscape.

A split in two major periods of time

First, in the 80s’ and the 90s’, ICT was introduced in companies as an automation system. Instead of exchanging information with tons of paper files from one desk to another, one office to another, we started to use computers, and exchange floppy disks or using network cables. Bye-bye old typewriters, welcome connected printers and automatic fusions between a letter template and a list of customers. This brought a huge increase in performance and efficiency. But the way to make money, the internal chain of added value, they both remain the same in the company. The individual roles, responsibilities, and global processes are not changed.

Then came the Internet revolution, and the mobility revolution. In the first ten years of the 2000, the access to the Internet was expanded from specialists to a global public audience. The first smartphones came up, along with a good wireless connectivity indoor and outdoor. For the past 5 years, mobile access to the internet has bypassed the regular desktop computer. You can now find an app for anything. Choose your model of shirt, pick up the color, and the logo to be printed in the back, two weeks later you got it at home in your mailbox. Digital transformation is not about automation anymore. It is now a powerful and strategic tool that can have a huge impact on your business model. It completely changes the relationship you have with your customers, and also with your suppliers through various extranet. The ways you create money and make added value to your products or services are now completely different.

With this two-steps vision of digital transformation through the last 40 years, in all sectors of the economy and the society, I asked myself how this has been applied in education. Computers slowly appeared in classrooms, sometimes to show some websites or videos, bringing information usually not present in books. Autonomous research from children is almost always prohibited. Serious games are a real niche. ICT is just here to support the classical approach of education, to ease the usual way. We face here the first step of digital transformation: automation without changing the usual ways and principles. When the very first MOOCs appeared, they were basically a series of traditional lectures, in video. With sometimes a few pointers to books and several exercises, and available on standard streaming platforms, they were following the success of the first online tutorials about everything and anything. Again, the MOOCs were only an automation of the classic way of teaching. But a two-hours long lecture video is definitely less attractive than a ten minutes tutorial. A higher self motivation is needed.

The next step for MOOCs

It is now time to dive into the second step of digital transformation, and consider a different use of ICT, but also a different way to “make business”. And in education, this means opening up to different educational paradigms, new pedagogical approaches, and changing the usual relationship between the learners and the teachers. Today, hopefully, the MOOCs have evolved in this direction. The top-down approach is more and more often considered as less effective. Many studies demonstrate the quick drop out of attention during a one hour lecture. Without the constraints of a physical classroom and the rules of your school or institution, it can only be worse. At home there are many other points of interest that make you lose your focus on your lecture video. So nowadays, MOOCs embed a more interactive approach to engage the learner. Small videos followed by small practice labs, social interactions. Some of them also offer flexibility and mobility, to learn on your daily train or at your pace in your free time.

Yet the success rate is not highly increasing. The general population is not ready for such a kind of education. The COVID 19 pandemic did reveal this situation clearly: during lockdowns in many countries, a lot of initiatives have been taken to ensure continuity of education with the learners at home. From primary school to higher education, online sessions, chat discussions, exercises through email or dedicated LMS…, many actions were put in motion to keep the children and students learning. Unfortunately, the drop out and the educational loss were important, the lack of proper technical configuration, the difficulty for parents working from home to supervise their children, the isolation of many students, all led to a strong decrease of motivation and progress. The partial reopening of schools and institutions, with restrictions, social distance, masks, and often blended learning, still had an impact on the speed of progression in the curriculum. With unsatisfying results over an entire population during a crisis, we can’t really expect better adequation with MOOCs under regular times.

Today, our educational systems do not prepare for this kind of learning context and methods, and do not lead learners towards enough mind flexibility so they can quickly adapt in front of a sudden crisis. Only more mature people who already have developed appropriate skills (self organization, agile state of mind, strong goal and motivation) can take advantage of MOOCs, but not the kid next door just out of high school. Hopefully, the pandemic may make the policy makers realize that we need globally to open to new learning trends and practices, and also that the standard K-12 path lacks interesting skills for a modern citizen of the world. There is still a long path for MOOCs and for society to finally cross roads.

Written for OEB Global 2022 by Olivier Crouzet.

Olivier will be speaking at the OEB Conference this year with his session ’42: A Digital Transformation in Education’.

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