The Rise and Fall of MOOCs (and What It Means for Workplace Training)

The Massive Open Online Course (or "MOOC") has arguably been the hottest subject in education over the past two years. The New York Times proclaimed 2012 as "the year of the MOOC." Some particularly massive MOOCs enrolled over 100,000 students across the globe to listen to a single lecture. A slew of "ed-tech" start-ups arose, amassing tens of millions of dollars in venture funding to build MOOC platforms. There were more than a few passionate proclamations that MOOCs would soon change education forever.

But as of December 1st, 2013, the "age of the MOOC" has officially ended. A single interview with an ex-Google creative mastermind and now the MOOC is old news, deemed a "lousy product."

When the MOOC was on the upward trajectory, many were hopeful that the MOOC could change education as we know it -- opening the closed gates of the ivy league universities to eager students around the world. This mission has failed (at least for now) as most of the students who enroll in MOOCs are already highly-educated and fewer than 5% of enrollees ever complete and pass the class.

What is the significance of the meteoric rise and fall of the MOOC? What lessons can we learn?

One takeaway is that it takes more than enrolling students and turning on computer monitors to have a successful online learning experience. A key downfall of the MOOC is that massive open online courses generally fail to accomplish three essential components to a good learning experience: 1) skill practice, 2) interaction, and 3) accountability.

Online learning tends to be both efficient and effective at transferring knowledge. But lecturing the facts is only a small part of the learning equation. Learning how to apply those facts (what we at Vital Learning call "skill transfer") is a critical component and tricky to accomplish in an online-only environment. You may gather some useful facts by sitting in on a massive MOOC joined by 100,000 peers, but it's unlikely you will engrain any skills that have day-to-day application.

This lack of skill application also ties into a lack of engagement. Successful classrooms, whether in person or online, should include interactions with the facilitator, the content, and with other students. These interactions need not be face-to-face or even in real time, but it's certainly difficult for students to stay engaged with an hour-long pre-recorded video lecture. Vital Learning's "blended learning" has proven to be a successful format, since it combines eLearning knowledge transfer with in-person classroom interaction and skill practice.

Likewise, students taking a MOOC have no accountability. That may be why the completion rate for MOOCs is so low. It's free to sign up (so you might as well), but there's no cost for failing to complete the class. There's no encouraging nudge to keep you coming back to learn. Why would a student in an MOOC stay involved?

There's quite a bit to think about MOOCs and how we can apply these lessons to the workplace training industry. What are some additional shortcomings of MOOCs? What's good about MOOCs? I imagine the discussion is far from over.

Todd Macey, Product Manager @ Vital Learning

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