By Derek Newton
Back in 2013, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote that MOOCs—massive open online courses—were about to change everything:
Nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty—by providing them an affordable education to get a job or improve in the job they have. Nothing has more potential to unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems. And nothing has more potential to enable us to reimagine higher education …
MOOCs have since lost their hype, undergoing flameouts and suffering from poor participation and competency rates. A University of Pennsylvania study of 1 million MOOC users who participated in 16 of the school’s Coursera classes, for example, found that only about half of the registrants viewed even a single online lecture and that the average completion rate was just 4 percent.
Even so, it may not be time to write them off. An unexplained phenomenon in early MOOC data, now illuminated by another recent study (this one from Harvard and MIT), could help the courses live up to the education-reform hype after all—but with a somewhat ironic twist. Perhaps one of the overlooked values in MOOCs is not in sharing Ivy League wisdom with the masses, but in teaching educators—and, in turn, improving traditional K-12 schools.
From the outset, analyses of MOOC students showed that enrollees were already overwhelmingly educated. According to various MOOC enrollment data, including that contained in the UPenn study, a majority of those registering for the free classes (between 70 and 80 percent) already had college degrees. That’s about double the rate of the U.S. population at large. And in other parts of the world—where free online college classes were envisioned as tools of social mobility—the portion of already-educated students was even more dramatic. Last year, a piece of commentary that ran in The Times cited a study showing that in countries such as Brazil, China, India, Russia, and South Africa—where just 5 percent of residents have college degrees—more than 80 percent of MOOC students had one.
Although there wasn’t a lot of hard research to support it, many analysts pegged the high percentage of already-degreed students in MOOCs to an interest in freshening up job skills. Meanwhile, some MOOC backers attributed the lack of degree-seekers in the free courses to limited broadband access among lower-income populations.
[ Full article available at The Atlantic: http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/06/the-secret-power-of-moocs/396608/ ]