There’s no question that the internet is a boon to learning. It’s a rare day when I do not pop open a browser and look up information that helps me solve a problem or move a project along. Compared with life before so much knowledge was available there’s also no question about which reality I prefer, even allowing for the inevitable costs and tech headaches that accompany such momentous change.
Given that others seem to share that preference it’s not surprising that there are widespread efforts underway to turn the internet toward education in a more directed fashion. From online courses that can be taken for continuing-education credit to the explosion of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC’s) and even the appearance of online-only ‘universities’ offering full degrees, there seems to be a genuine hunger for virtual academics, and why wouldn’t there be? Instead of having to alter or uproot your life to go where the knowledge is you can now simply log on and learn.
It’s probably also not surprising that some of the jazziest online schools and programs are for-profit. While making an honest living is a laudable goal in life, some of these for-profit online schools — like their for-profit brick-and-mortarboard kin — are nothing more than a skimming operation aimed at federal student-loan dollars. Couple premeditated leeching with administrative efforts to heap for-profit debt onto students at abusive interest rates and the worst of these schools are little more than a gussied-up Craigslist scam looking for student suckers.
Standing in opposition to the for-profit paradigm are fully accredited non-profit and governmental schools offering free MOOC’s. While academically laudable, it’s also true that some of these staid institutions are getting into MOOC’s for branding and marketing reasons, some are using MOOC’s to up-sell students on fee-based courses, and a few are acting as incubators in order to spin off for-profit start-ups that will eventually help enrich already bulging endowment coffers. Still, cynicism aside, a free course is a free course, and if a MOOC gives far-flung students a chance to learn at a distance I think that’s a good thing.
Unfortunately, even if we narrow our attention to free MOOC’s and impute only golden motives to institutions hosting them, there’s a problem with this most benevolent form of online education. And as a recent New Yorker article points out, it’s a big problem:
An average of only four per cent of registered users finished their MOOCs in a recent University of Pennsylvania study, and half of those enrolled did not view even a single lecture. EdX, a MOOC collaboration between Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has shown results that are a little more encouraging, but not much. And a celebrated partnership between San Jose State and Udacity, the company co-founded by Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford professor turned MOOC magnate, also failed, when students in the online pilot courses consistently fared worse than their counterparts in the equivalent courses on campus.