A comprehensive study released today by the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education looked at a million users of MOOCs—"venture capital's massive, terrible idea" to democratize education—and found that roughly half the students who registered for one of those online courses ever saw a lecture. What's more, only about 4 percent completed the course.
Today's report about "very high attrition rates" follows San Jose State University's decision to suspend a failed pilot program with Udacity in July. The Silicon Valley startup, which has raised $20 million, got a lot of publicity in January when the program to offer three low-cost intro courses for college credit launched with the blessing of Governor Jerry Brown. Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford artificial-intelligence professor and project lead at Google Glass, was "unhappy with the low completion rates in free MOOCs," and hired online mentors, reports the New York Times. But Udacity students did worse than those who took the class on campus. In the algebra class, fewer than a quarter of students earned a passing grade.
MOOCs were sold to the public as a way to educate "students in poor countries with little access to higher education." Nevermind the survey that showed that 80 percent of people who took the University of Pennsylvania MOOCs "had already earned a degree of some kind."
Given that the wave of publicity about MOOCs began with Mr. Thrun's artificial-intelligence course, it is fitting that he has become emblematic of a reset in the thinking about MOOCs, after a profile in Fast Company magazine that described him as moving away from college classes in favor of vocational training in partnerships with corporations that would pay a fee.
Many educators saw the move as an admission of defeat for the idea that online courses would democratize higher education — and confirmation that, at its core, Udacity, a company funded with venture capital, was more interested in profits than in helping to educate underserved students.
"I care about education for everyone, not just the elite," he said in an interview. "We want to bring high-quality education to everyone, and set up everyone for success. My commitment is unchanged."
While he said he was "super-excited" about working with corporations to improve job skills, Mr. Thrun said he was working with San Jose State to revamp the software so that future students could have more time to work through the courses.
"To all those people who declared our experiment a failure, you have to understand how innovation works," he wrote on his blog. "Few ideas work on the first try. Iteration is key to innovation. We are seeing significant improvement in learning outcomes and student engagement."
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