Are MOOCs really a failure?

That’s what The New York Times suggested today, drawing on new research from the University of Pennsylvania. But as the Times also acknowledged, in some ways MOOCs (short for massive open online courses) show great promise, Forbes reports.

According to the research, conducted by Penn’s Graduate School of Education, only about half of the people who register for MOOCs even look at a single lecture, and an average of just 4% of enrollees complete the courses. In some classes, just 2% of students finish. The Penn research tracked 1 million students of 16 MOOCs offered by Penn professors through a for-profit company called Coursera.

When MOOCs first started, their proponents, like Stanford artificial-intelligence professor Sebastian Thrun, expressed grand hopes. My colleague George Anders wrote a wonderful cover story about Thrun a year and a half ago, describing how Thrun saw MOOCs as the start of a teaching revolution where the world’s best professors would run interactive online classes that would reach hundreds of thousands of students around the world. To attract students, Thrun wanted the earliest classes to be offered for free.

His company, Udacity, would make money down the line by charging small fees. He and other MOOC pioneers saw the courses as a democratizing force in higher education, possibly offering, say, a master’s degree for as little as $100. MOOCs would break down economic, geographic, racial and gender barriers to higher education.

… But more Penn research, published in the journal Nature last month, shows that some 80% of MOOC users around the world already have an advanced degree, casting some doubt on the democratizing notion.

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