Are massive open online courses (MOOCs) more like an ATM or an American Express Centurian card? The former provides a service to everyone with a bank account. The latter serves a smaller niche of the prosperous few.

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MOOCs aren’t reaching their target audience, according to a recent study.

Like an ATM, MOOCs are automated dispensers providing accessible, on-demand service to thousands of users. They faithfully output course material, input student performance, and churn out a receipt of transaction at the end.

MOOCs share another trait with ATMs: a sluggishness to capture significant market share. Automated teller machines, now a standard feature in drug stores and on street corners, initially faced suspicion.

Could they replicate the human teller in reliability and accuracy? Could you be sure, after inserting your cash,  that the money really wound up in your bank account? What if your account number and identifying information got hacked?

MOOCs face similar skepticism. Can they replace classroom professors in delivering high quality education to individual students who have distinct needs and varying backgrounds? Will automated grading adequately assess student work? What about anti-cheating measures to verify the student’s identity?

Perhaps it sounds odd to speak of lethargic public response to MOOCs. In the two brief years since they were conjured up by a handful of Stanford computer scientists, MOOCs have attracted scores of universities eager to give away their course content and millions of students eager to take it.

But while MOOCs have benefited from administrative agitation over the internet’s potential to reinvent higher ed, and from media hype declaring “The Year of the MOOC” or “The Campus Tsunami,” MOOCs have accomplished few of their inventors’ initial goals.

Drop-out rates are sky high, and MOOC usage is densely concentrated among college degreed professionals–not the underprivileged demographic that MOOCs intended to reach, and not the typical college students that MOOCs hoped to siphon off from the academic establishment.  These days the better analogy is the AmEx card.


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