What Disruption? Online Education and the Status Quo

19 May

Students taking a class on a laptop computer.

By William Fenton

Despite grandiloquent claims about changing education—or the world—today’s most popular online courses largely reinforce the status quo of higher education.

This isn’t to say that online courses aren’t useful for many learners. As I have stressed in my reviews of edX, CourseraKhan Academy, Udemy, and Udacity (free, 3 stars), online courses provide the tools with which adult learners, particularly tech-savvy self-starters, can pursue continuing education at little or no cost. However, I also notice a discomforting disconnect between platforms’ democratic mantras and their course catalogs.

Emphasis on the “MO”
When I say “online courses,” I’m really speaking about “massive open online courses,” or MOOCs for short. MOOCs invite unlimited participation over the Web. That open invitation sounds great—it means that all sorts of non-traditional students with different perspectives can participate—but it also means that instructors can take few competencies for granted. In an ideal scenario, students would support one another through well-regulated discussion forums. In reality, they get discouraged and drop out. A recent study from the Community College Research Center found that “online courses may exacerbate already persistent achievement gaps between student subgroups,” a point underscored by eyebrow-raising attrition rates.

Because of the scale of courses, there’s also little structural variation. Learners can expect discussion forums; machine-graded multiple-choice assessments; self- and peer-assessments; and video lectures. I alternatively found myself bored during lectures (I suffered lecture fatigue during a Coursera class), disappointed with peer feedback (I received numeric scores with monosyllabic comments in an edX class), and downright lonely on discussion forums (some Udemy classes had literally no threads). Certainly, some courses make better use of core components. Thanks to an open framework and massive bank of automated and continuous assessments, Khan Academy actually required some note-taking, and a timed class on Coursera cultivated lively discussions by requiring both students and administrators to post regularly.

[ Full article available at PC Magazine:,2817,2484354,00.asp ]


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