Here’s why MOOCs don’t work (and how they can be fixed)

MOOCs’ lack structure

By this I mean a meaningful and formal relationship that is deep, broad and fully networked within an institutional context where the student has a personal commitment to individuals and to a culture that supports learning. Here are two instructive examples:

At one extreme:

Take Harvard, where the rising elite chart their paths within well-designed parameters: the college offers a bachelor’s degree in 48 academic fields only to full-time, residential students, who must also fulfill carefully articulated general education requirements. Their first-year experience unfolds under the supervision of an entire team—a freshman adviser, a resident dean of freshmen, a proctor, and a peer-advising fellow. Residential house tutors and faculty advisers lend support later.

And at the other, community colleges with huge dropout rates:

Students there choose from upwards of 70 full-time or part-time associate’s degree or certificate programs, in more than 60 fields, then figure out their ideal course load, and how to best mix online and in-person classes. As to plotting a course of study and then staying on it, community-college students are largely on their own. Student-adviser ratios in the two-year sector are abysmal in many schools: they can run as high as 1,500-to-1.

This is the invisible structure that makes learning possible: the hidden superstructure that students require. When it is missing or defective, it will not be be induced or imposed by the students themselves. How could it be otherwise?

Sebastian Thrun is quoted in the same Atlantic piece as follows: “To be successful, we need people on the ground to do things, to provide educational services.”

Lack learners who have learned how to learn as a generalizable skill: a key skill acquired in the course of learning is learning how to learn. This takes years of practice, and needs institutional support.