The MOOC stumble: Lessons from Napster

I have been a long time proponent of online education and have been offering webcasts of my classes since 2001. However, I was a little skeptical about the news stories that appeared a couple of years ago about massive open online courses (MOOCs) being the next “big thing” in education.

If a class were only about delivering content, a MOOC may do the job, but a good class should be (though it often is not) more than that.

mooc-lessons-napsterIt has to foster hands-on experience, interaction, excitement and “aha'” moments, and MOOCs (including mine) have not paid enough attention to these pieces.

Thus, as the initial buzz about MOOCs has faded, we are discovering the Achilles heels of online classes: high drop out rates and poor retention of knowledge. It is therefore not a surprise to read stories like this one about the failures of and financial troubles faced by MOOCs.

As is often the case, some journalists and analysts are over reacting to these news stories to conclude that online education is a failed venture.

Some of the more reactionary university administrators and faculty are gleeful and are ready to go back to what they have done for decades: take students for granted and cater to the other interest groups that feed at the higher education trough.

That would be a mistake, analogous to music companies reacting to the demise of Napster more than a decade ago by going back to their old modes of business (selling CDs through music stores), only to be swept away by Apple iTunes a few years later. The MOOC model represented the first serious foray of online entities into education and like Napster, it failed because it not only came with flaws but because it’s promoters failed to fully understand the business it was trying to disrupt.It is also worth noting that the failure of MOOCs really rests on your definition of the word “fail.”

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