Has the MOOC bubble already popped?

9 07 2013

As a public service, I thought I’d explain this story, which you’ve probably already seen:

It was big news last fall when Colorado State University-Global Campus became the first college in the United States to grant credit to students who passed a MOOC, or massive open online course.

For students, it meant a chance to get college credit on the cheap: $89, the cost of the required proctored exam, compared with the $1,050 that Colorado State charges for a comparable three-credit course.

That is a big discount.

Yet almost a year after Global Campus made the announcement, officials are still waiting for their first credit bargain-hunters.

Not one student has taken the university up on its offer.

As longtime readers well know, I don’t like MOOCs. While I teach at Colorado State University – Pueblo, I have no direct affiliation with Colorado State University – Global. Indeed, many of my colleagues here and at Fort Collins are convinced that Global is sapping our enrollments. Therefore, this story should make me happy. It doesn’t, and that has nothing to do with my loyalty to the system that employs me because this story is not a sign that the MOOC bubble has already popped.

Let’s go back to the original announcement to explain why:

“In order to receive credit, students will need to have completed the final exam and received Udacity’s Certification of Accomplishment; they will also have to take a proctored Pearson exam, offered by Udacity through Pearson VUE’s secure testing center. CSU-Global accepts transfer students who have more than 12 collegiate credit hours for Bachelor’s degree completion. Udacity students who fulfill the requirements will receive three credit hours towards their elective credit requirements for their Bachelor’s degree upon admission to the university.”

[emphasis added]

The key word there is “transfer.” It’s not that nobody wants to attend CSU-Global. I heard it made $7 million last year. The problem is that nobody who completed that MOOC wants an all online college degree. Indeed, as that original Chronicle story suggests, most people who enroll in MOOCs (and probably almost everybody who succeeds at MOOCs) already have college degrees. In other words, it’s not the MOOC itself that’s failed. Using MOOCs as a loss leader to attract new students has failed.

So why has this story attracted so much attention? According to the MOOC pioneer George Siemens (one of those very nice Canadians who started at all) has written:

“Critiquing MOOCs is now more fashionable than advocating for them.”

So look for MOOC critics to suggest that the MOOC bubble has already popped. I will not be one of them. I’m sticking with my earlier prediction of a slow, painful end for MOOCs rather than a rapid one.

One reason for that is the residual effects of the apex of the hype cycle. Consider the recent reappearance of Clay Shirky writing on this subject:

MOOCs are not the future of higher education—that future will be far more various and surprising than we can see now—but they do expand the horizon of the visible. One of the things we can see in that expanded landscape is that the demand for complex knowledge far outstrips our ability to provide it via current colleges and universities.

So MOOCs can satiate the thirst of people stranded in knowledge deserts. Awesome. But how much will those people pay for that privilege? MOOC providers still have no business model except for permanent austerity. Close down the community colleges. Let student loan interest rates double. Move higher education online whether students want it there or not, and people will have no choice but to accept MOOCs. But here’s the thing: I’m guessing that if left with a choice between MOOCs and nothing, most students, particularly college-age students, will pick nothing because nobody wants to pay thousands of dollars in order to be treated like a number.

In short, the MOOC bubble can pop now and spare American higher education a lot of pointless damage or pop later and take whole colleges that go big into MOOCs down with them. I guess I’m a pessimist because I still predict the latter, but maybe now that it’s hip to be anti-MOOC this bandwagon will grow big enough that I’ll be pleasantly surprised.


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5 responses

9 07 2013
Contingent Cassandra

Additional sign of something (what, I’m not quite sure): one of my (online) students just proposed to write a paper (a Review of the Literature) on “open access education”/”Education 3.0.” When the undergraduates start taking notice, that either means a trend is really hot, or it’s jumped the shark. He’ll need to adjust his topic a bit, however, because, not surprisingly, all the not-quite-scholarly literature he’s been able to find on the subject is highly speculative. There are lots of people with Ph.D.s predicting what will happen, or even claiming some connection between their nascent programs and some grand future, but there seem to be very few rigorous, carefully-controlled studies testing even small existing components of these projected grand schemes.

I’m not surprised, but it may take a few more message go-rounds before the student understands why, despite all the Ph.D.s writing about it, this isn’t really a subject that has been addressed in scholarly studies.

10 07 2013
tom abeles

Two quick points:
a) a number of years ago Gartner, the tech consulting company, developed what is commonly known as the “Hype Cycle” which basically points out that with a new tech/idea there is a rapid bubble which bursts leading to a very negative drop as the initial idea catches its breath and finally follows the normal sigmoid curve forward. Scale may bury that effect when mapping

b) Clay’s point, quoted above, is well taken. Those in the Ivory Tower may shake-up their classes a bit, but there is little to be seen that his points are being addressed at the cognitive levels. It’s still old wine in not so new bottles for good reasons and conservative ones, especially at the undergrad levels. The cost of textbook knowledge is asymptotically approaching zero no matter how good a professor is in brick or click space.

And… as many colleges are finding with other programs than just MOOC’s. Getting a free or low cost set of transfer credits to a 3rd tier college by matriculating is worse than buying a Happy Meal just to get the collectable (the meals often end up in the recycle bin after extraction of the prize.)

10 07 2013
Sporch Ezza

Snobbery aside, the market is signaling that a MOOC for credit is not worth even $89. There may be a place for MOOCs as educational outreach, like Cooperative Extension, especially from institutions with more resources than some small countries; however, if undergraduate students will not sign up for them, MOOCs cannot replace undergraduate courses.

10 07 2013
Arun

Somebody did not hear about the bursting bubble.

May 14, 2013
http://www.gatech.edu/newsroom/release.html?nid=212951

The Georgia Institute of Technology College of Computing announced today that it will offer the first professional Online Master of Science degree in computer science (OMS CS) that can be earned completely through the “massive online” format. The degree will be provided in collaboration with online education leader Udacity Inc. and AT&T.

29 07 2013
“Video killed the radio star.” | More or Less Bunk

[…] still think this is more an indictment of online education in general than MOOCs in particular, but […]

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