Symposium Entry

Unpacking the claims about MOOCs

January 14th, 2015

Who actually gets access to MOOCs? And what are they getting access to?

021414MOOCClaims about increasing access to higher education are at the heart of arguments for MOOCs, and rightly so; expanded access and greater equity in educational opportunity must be at the heart of any discussion about the future of higher education.

But access is a complex, even slippery, term. It means much more than the mere opportunity to enroll in a course just as access to the middle-class dream of home ownership meant much more than the opportunity to get a loan and move in for a while.

For access to be meaningful—and not just an empty advertising slogan—students must have a real chance, if they work hard, to succeed in getting a quality education.

How MOOCs measure up to their access claims can only be assessed by asking specific questions about the access they provide: Who is getting access to higher education through MOOCs? And to what?

It is in a close consideration of these questions that we find our best starting place for a more meaningful conversation about the value of MOOCs and the claims so often made about them.

Access for whom?

At its most basic, the question of who gains access to higher education through MOOCs involves questions about access to the necessary hardware and IT infrastructure to take advantage of online education in any form.

Will the “masses” of less privileged students in this country and abroad who are the poster children for the MOOC movement have the first-rate computers and reliable high-speed internet access required to take these courses successfully? Or will this expanded “access” mean that low-income and working-class students will have yet one more task to cram into in a schedule already overbooked with work and family responsibilities—namely, finding a good computer with reliable internet access often enough to keep up with course videos and the online discussion boards in their MOOC?

The digital divide is real in higher education—bandwidth is unequally distributed in communities and high data rates can mean unmanageable costs for poorer students; but this serious problem is almost invisible and rarely discussed by MOOC promoters.16 Talking about the wonders of MOOCs for expanding access without acknowledging these fundamental economic and technological disparities will not help the students who most need access in the first place.

Assuming a student has the hardware and infrastructure for meaningful access through a MOOC, another question to ask is whether that format offers her/him a reasonable chance at success.

The existing evidence to date reveals that MOOCs do not do so. Although they are rarely mentioned by MOOC supporters, drop-out rates in these courses hover at about 90 percent. Fewer than 10 percent of those who enroll in these courses complete them successfully. For example, in Duke University’s “Bioelectricity” MOOC, which enrolled a whopping 12,000 students, only 313 achieved even a basic pass.

Equally telling are the demographics of the small percentages of students who successfully complete MOOCs. Overwhelmingly, they are academically well-prepared.

In one study of a variety of MOOCs, 85 percent of the successful students had a BA or a BS degree.18 In a study of another MOOC, 80 percent of respondents who passed the course said they had taken a comparable course in a regular university before enrolling in the MOOC.

As the reporter detailing these results opined, “One way to read the finding is to say that although [this MOOC] was open to anyone, anybody who had not already paid for traditional education would be ill-equipped to succeed in the course.”

David Wiley, a leader in the open education movement and an expert in instructional technology, has been outspoken in critiquing the current propensity to push MOOCs for any and all students.

“MOOCs are another tool in the box,” Wiley says. “If we start swinging them, hammer-like, at everything, we will do so to the detriment of students. We should be honest about the situations they may be appropriately used in, and make heavy use of them there. We shouldn’t make inappropriate claims about broader applicability.”

It is a bitter irony that MOOCs are being used in precisely the ways Wiley decries and are being promoted as a boon for students least likely to succeed in them.

(Next page: Access to what?)