Despite ongoing debate about the benefits of massively open online courses (MOOCs), such courses have been greeted with unabated enthusiasm by administrators at financially strapped public universities. The State University of New York, the Georgia Institute of Technology, San Jose State University (SJSU), and many others have signed agreements with the for-profit start-ups Udacity and Coursera, and the non-profit edX, to offer MOOCs through their systems. State legislators have also jumped on board, proposing bills in Florida and California that encourage public universities to use MOOCs as part of their curriculum. But problems with these high-enrollment online courses have come to light. Last week, SJSU announced that it was putting its experimental MOOC program on hold, after the first term of such courses resulted in a low pass rate. On the national stage, some administrators are voicing concerns about the hasty adoption of this new and a largely untested system.
While MOOCs can benefit some students, the way in which they are implemented and delivered in public universities is problematic in several ways. Research on online education suggests that unlike well-prepared students, who are likely to be successful in online-only courses, underprepared students struggle without the support and encouragement that are part of face-to-face instruction. At SJSU, only 29% of students received a grade of C or better in the developmental math course offered through Udacity; the pass rate in the equivalent face-to-face course is 80%. Yet state universities are looking to MOOCs as a solution for the overcrowded general education courses most students take during their first or second years, a time when the guidance and support of faculty members is crucial for many students' academic success. In addition to mastering increasingly complex material, new students must also develop study habits and acclimate to the college environment. Without the help of dedicated faculty, many students find these challenges insurmountable.
When MOOCs first appeared on the scene a few years ago, they hoped to serve as an open and democratic alternative to traditional college education. The structure of the courses allows for virtually unlimited enrollment, and MOOCs seemed like they might promise of free and universal higher education. While the three major companies — Udacity, Coursera, and edX — continue to offer free courses through their websites, the recent deals they struck with public universities reflect a business strategy that has little concern for the accessibility of education. Both Udacity and Coursera were founded at Stanford University by Silicone Valley-based technology entrepreneurs, and have received large investments of finance capital. Just this year, Coursera raised $43 million, between education technology funds, the World Bank, and a private backer. While Coursera receives some revenue from its Signature service, which provides students with formal certifications for course completion, both Coursera and Udacity are searching for a business model that would boost their profits.
For university administrators, MOOCs seem like an appealingly low-cost alternative to traditional education. When taught as online-only courses, MOOCs seem to require no classroom space and require little to no instructional labor. Even in a "blended" course, where online components are combined with face-to-face instruction, MOOCs allow administrators to raise enrollment without opening new course sections, because in-person instruction is held in increasingly large lecture classes where students have little contact with the lead instructor. In this model, more students will be taught by teaching assistants and contingent faculty, and even fewer tenure-track positions will be filled.
As troubling as these changes would be for students and faculty, there is also some evidence that MOOCs are not as cost effective as they purport to be. At San Jose State, faculty spent 400 hours building each of the courses offered. And according to a contract addendum the university signed with Udacity in April, the university would have received only $40 out of the $150 each student paid in tuition to the college. In a recent essay, UC Santa Barbara professor Christopher Newfield raises doubts that the deal Udacity struck with Georgia Tech will generates savings for the college. The fact that Partnerships with MOOC providers were often formed behind closed doors with little to no input from faculty, and the fact that startups were offered no-bid contracts should both raise red flags for anyone concerned about the future of higher education.
Most colleges and universities already offer online courses through learning management systems (LMS) such as Moodle, and have been doing so for quite some time. As such, the rationale behind the rush to adopt the untested MOOC model remains unclear. It appears that the only parties benefiting from the administrators' enthusiasm are Coursera and Udacity; any "profit-sharing" scheme with a per-student fee results in a substantial windfall for the companies, especially if courses are implemented across large state university systems. Students from low-income and immigrant families stand to lose the most, as they are often most in need of face-to-face instruction and a reasonable student to faculty ratio. Interestingly, the elite universities in which the three MOOC companies originated have not announced any intent to replace their first-year curriculum with such online courses. One hopes that administrators will heed the lessons of the failed Udacity experiment at San Jose State, and invest scarce taxpayer and tuition dollars in quality instruction, not hyped-up tech innovations.