MOOCs: Inflated expectations, early disappointments

Massive open online courses–online platforms offering courses and educational materials to very large numbers of people–captured our imagination in the Fall of 2011 when, unexpectedly, a free online course in artificial intelligence given by two Stanford University professors attracted 160,000 students. The NY Times called 2012 The Year of the MOOC.

Three major MOOC platforms were launched that year, the for-profit, VC-backed Udacity and Coursera, which were each started by Stanford faculty members; and the not-for-profit edX, a collaborative venture of MIT and Harvard University.

They established partnerships with a number of universities which offer their own online courses on the platforms.  Other institutions around the world have also launched their own MOOCs.

Looking at all this activity, an October 2012 Time cover story asked an important question: “Can a new breed of online megacourses finally offer a college education to more people for less money?”  MOOCs seemed to be the answer.

A higher education, whether from four-year colleges or vocational schools, is more important than ever for most well-paying jobs. Yet, the costs of obtaining such an education have been rapidly rising in the U.S. and other advanced economies, and are beyond the reach of most young people in emerging economies.

But, as is generally the case with major disruptive innovations, realizing the promise takes hard work, considerable experimentation and quite a bit longer than originally expected. Several months ago we started seeing articles with titles like Are We Mooc’d Out?, which asked if along with being The Year of the MOOC, 2012 may also be the year when MOOCs reached the zenith of the hype cycle that emerging technologies inevitable go through.

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