"I'd aspired to give people a profound education--to teach them something substantial," Professor Sebastian Thrun tells me when I visit his company, Udacity, in its Mountain View, California, headquarters this past October. "But the data was at odds with this idea."I am one of the 90% who signed up and did not make it to the finish line. I like the class. I just
As Thrun was being praised by Friedman, and pretty much everyone else, for having attracted a stunning number of students--1.6 million to date--he was obsessing over a data point that was rarely mentioned in the breathless accounts about the power of new forms of free online education: the shockingly low number of students who actually finish the classes, which is fewer than 10%. Not all of those people received a passing grade, either, meaning that for every 100 pupils who enrolled in a free course, something like five actually learned the topic. If this was an education revolution, it was a disturbingly uneven one.
Did I learn something substantial? Yes, but I do not have the paper (or email) to prove it. I have signed up way more courses from Coursera. Some I finished with a certificate, most I just watched the video, or just downloaded the video. Did I learn more substantially from those courses that I finished with a certificate? Not necessarily. I did not finish, maybe I missed a quiz due to my personal schedule. I got some certificates, maybe because the online grading system is not too hard to game with. The point is that as a professional I don't need to prove anyone, the instructors included, that I have learned something substantial. I bet I am not alone.
So, the finish line may not be the right measure of whether someone learned something substantial. Also, when you have a free check-in. Many who signed up are not serious to begin with. ( I am one of those too.) I signed up some courses, without intention to finish. I watched one of many videos available, learned something interesting, and that is it. It is not much different than a TED talk sometimes. Did I learn enough in the subject area? No. Is it worthwhile? To me, yes.
The finish percentage is less important when the denominator is not a good measure of who actually start.
Another angle many already have covered is that the materials are available to anyone with internet access. That is huge already. When I was in college in China, my way of learning English is to turn on the short-wave radio searching BBC and VOA for anything they were talking about. As a student, I would have been thrilled if I can listen to a professor talking about a topic I was interested for 5 minutes. Today, whole course of almost everything at your fingertip! They love it, and they learn from it.
MOOC is changing and will change the picture of higher education, not the way Mr. Thrun had in mind originally though.