The week of August 23, 2015

The MOOC revolution that wasn’t

By Audrey Watters

What happened to the MOOC revolution?

Just a few short years after promising higher education for anyone with an Internet connection, MOOCs have scaled back their ambitions, content to become job training for the tech sector and for students who already have college degrees.

At what was arguably the peak of the hype about massive open online courses, the New York Times crowned 2012 as “The Year of the MOOC.” That was the year computer science professor Sebastian Thrun announced that, after an experiment teaching an online course that attracted 100,000 enrollees, he could no longer teach at Stanford; he was founding an online education startup, Udacity. That same year, his colleagues in the department, Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, founded a competing MOOC startup, Coursera. Harvard and MIT also launched their own (nonprofit) MOOC initiative, edX. And universities around the world scrambled to partner with one or more of these organizations, amidst claims from investors, entrepreneurs, and pundits that MOOCs were poised to bring about the end of the university as we know it.

“In 50 years,” Thrun told Wired, “there will be only 10 institutions in the world delivering higher education and Udacity has a shot at being one of them.”

Three years later, Thrun and the other MOOC startup founders are now telling a different story. The latest tagline used by Thrun to describe his company: “Uber for Education.”

The average completion rate still hovers around 15 percent, a level that would be unacceptable for a traditional face-to-face college class.

Although MOOCs were hardly new in 2012—the term had been coined four years earlier by Canadian educators to describe their experiments with “connected,” open online learning—MOOCs became wildly popular (and wildly hyped) in no small part because their appearance in the popular press coincided with several key trends in higher education, most notably the rising cost of tuition, growing levels of student loan debt, and pressure for everyone to have some post-secondary education.

MOOC startups Udacity, Coursera, and edX all promised that their free online courses with massive enrollment figures would “democratize education.” In Daphne Koller’s 2012 TED Talk, for example, she argued that “the best courses from the best instructors at the best universities,” available for free for anyone with an Internet connection, would address both the high costs and the high demand globally for post-secondary education. She spoke of a stampede of students desperate for their chance at enrollment at the University of Johannesburg, something MOOCs would end thanks to online course offerings. Her proclamations about new levels of access to education were echoed by other MOOC proponents: There were now learners in Afghanistan, Mongolia, war zones, and refugee camps, according to these tales—all able to pursue a college education for the very first time.

Yet despite these well-rehearsed and triumphant stories of MOOCs’ global outreach, the notion that MOOCs could provide higher education to everyone quickly proved flawed. The success stories were the exception, rather than the rule. MOOCs were lambasted for having a high dropout rate; the average completion rate still hovers around 15 percent, a level that would be unacceptable for a traditional face-to-face college class. And when the demographics of “successful” MOOC students were scrutinized in one University of Pennsylvania study, it was discovered that 80 percent already had college degrees. Rather than providing opportunities for the educational “have-nots,” MOOCs seem just as likely to further the opportunities of the educational “have-alreadys.”

Rather than education for all, MOOCs now promise education for employability.

MOOCs will “allow people who lack access to world-class learning—because of financial, geographic or time constraints—to have an opportunity to make a better life for themselves and their families,” Koller told the New York Times‘ Thomas Friedman in 2012. But the blue-sky promises made in the “Year of the MOOC” have not borne fruit. As such, their rebranding is hardly surprising, as Udacity and Coursera in particular now tout themselves as providers of job training.

This training could be seen as simply a continuation of some of the first classes that Coursera and Udacity offered: that is, computer science courses. Early on, Udacity made it clear that it was partnering with tech companies to formulate its curriculum—teaming up with Hadoop distributor Cloudera, for example, to offer big data classes. Udacity also partnered with AT&T and Georgia Tech to offer a master’s degree in computer science—a program in which about a fifth of those enrolled were AT&T employees.

But with such courses not widely accepted for credit within the traditional university system, MOOC providers have instead trumpeted certification for and with employers themselves. It’s a particularly appealing tack within the tech industry, with its purportedly cavalier attitude toward degrees. Employer certification is likely an appealing sell to venture capitalists too, who have been investing heavily in “learn-to-code” startups.

Arguably, the bar for what constitutes “good teaching” is lower there, and in fact, “good teaching” is hardly the point. Students in such startups are expected to be self-directed, self-motivated learners with little need for care and support, who are often also expected to know a bit of programming already. In short, they’re already near-model students.

This gulf between the autodidacts and everyone else is readily apparent in MOOC philosophy and design. The consequences of those abstract decisions became evident in one of the most spectacular MOOC failures, the 2013 partnership between Udacity and San Jose State University. Udacity had agreed to create a remedial math course, an algebra course, and a statistics course to be offered to SJSU students for $150 per course, approximately the same cost as one at a California community college. The pilot program specifically targeted underserved groups including, according to the official announcement, “high school students who will earn college credit, waitlisted students at California Community Colleges who would otherwise face out-of-state or private options, and members of the armed forces and veterans.” But Udacity’s program was hastily assembled, and the students did not fare well. While the pass rate in a traditional, face-to-face SJSU class is 74 percent, “no more than 51 percent of Udacity students passed any of the three classes,” Inside Higher Ed reported. The partnership between SJSU and Udacity was scrapped.

We need more diverse students in computer science. But the track record of MOOCs in supporting all students’ needs should give us pause.

It’s worth noting that San Jose State University has one of the most ethnically diverse campuses in the U.S.: It’s near Silicon Valley but is decidedly not Stanford and not Cal Berkeley. But Thrun claimed in a Fast Company intervie w that the SJSU students weren’t the “right kind” for his grand MOOC experiment:

For Thrun, who had been wrestling over who Udacity’s ideal students should be, the results were not a failure; they were clarifying. “We were initially torn between collaborating with universities and working outside the world of college,” Thrun tells [the interviewer]. The San Jose State pilot offered the answer. “These were students from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives,” he says. “It’s a group for which this medium is not a good fit.”

Who is the “ideal student” then? Is it not someone who might require the math remediation classes that Udacity was supposed to offer via San Jose State? And who is the “ideal student” now that MOOCs have positioned themselves as providers of job training for the tech sector?

There are plenty of complaints—indeed, a whole “STEM shortage” narrative—about our current education system’s failure to train enough people to fill the “jobs of the future.” But what exactly are those jobs? Are they the six-figure ones—the salary for entry-level programming jobs in Silicon Valley? Or are we actually talking about lower-paying technical jobs—“spec work,” contract work—outsourced elsewhere? Certainly that’s what the analogy “Uber for Education” conjures: It’s piecemeal work; it’s contingent and low-paid and unreliable work.

As Washington State University’s Mike Caulfield has argued, the MOOCs’ pivot to job training may simply reinscribe an education pipeline that already filters out rather than opening access and supporting more people. “High failure rates and dropouts are features, not bugs,” Caulfield suggests, “because they represent a way to thin pools of applicants for potential employers.” We need more diverse students in computer science. But the track record of MOOCs in supporting all students’ needs should give us pause.

“High failure rates and dropouts are features, not bugs, because they represent a way to thin pools of applicants for potential employers.”

“The hard problem isn’t democratizing access to education,” Caulfield told me via email. “It’s democratizing access to the perceived benefits of education. That’s a crucial difference. The first is only valuable as a way of getting at the second. There are ways to implement higher education in this country that are not zero-sum, ways that could raise the quality of life of everybody. Programs focused on feeding Silicon Valley a cheaper set of programmers are not one of those ways.”

“At the end of the day, the true value proposition of education is employment,” Thrun told Fast Company, crystallizing the new MOOC rhetoric. Rather than education for all, MOOCs now merely promise education for employability. This new narrative, according to George Siemens, one of the originators of the MOOC concept, casts education as simply skills training—a far cry from President Lyndon Johnson’s description, 40 years ago, of higher education as “a way to deeper personal fulfillment, greater personal productivity, and increased personal reward.”

Thrun has abandoned his prediction that there will only be 10 universities in the future. What he’s retained is a story in which the only reason for post-secondary education is to fulfill the needs of employers—something colleges, he claims, do not do well. In a recent interview with MIT Technology Review, Thrun said:

“Colleges are very focused on the ages from 17 to maybe 24, but people live 70 to 80 years now in many countries. For people in their 30s, their 40s, military people coming back [to civilian work], women raising children who want to re-enter the workforce, all huge factors in the workforce—for those people there’s no educational venues that I know of that work in this country.”

But this is more spin than truth. In fact, an increasing number of college students in the U.S. are “nontraditional,” something other than the picture that comes so readily to mind when talking about higher education: the 18-24 year-old full-time student living on campus. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, almost 40% of those enrolled in undergraduate and graduate programs are over age 25; far from being neglected by the education system, these students attend two- and four-year programs at public, private, and for-profit institutions. Indeed, much of the history of higher education in the 20th century involved efforts to serve precisely that “nontraditional” population: the GI Bill, Pell Grants, and the Higher Education Act. The roots of online and distance education, decades before “The Year of the MOOC,” also involved serving these students—those for whom work schedules or parenting responsibilities, for example, made attending classes on a campus next to impossible.

But Thrun and other MOOC founders seem less than concerned about living up to their earlier, lofty rhetoric or continuing that tradition of bringing education to an underserved population. True, they haven’t entirely abandoned their rhetoric about equal access to educational opportunities. But they’ve shifted to what’s becoming a more familiar Silicon Valley narrative about the future of employability: a cheap and precarious labor force. That’s the unfortunate reality of “Uber for Education.”


Audrey Watters is a writer who focuses on education technology—the relationship between politics, pedagogy, business, culture, and ed-tech. Her work can be found at Hack Education.

Illustration by J. Longo