Start with the student population that was using the Udacity courses; many of them were high school students or in the military. These people were not substituting a MOOC for sitting in a college classroom; they were substituting them for not taking the class at all. Even if only 12 percent of students passed one of the classes, that represents a substantial number of people who might otherwise never have learned the material at all.
But possibly even more important is that MOOCs can change the whole approach to learning. In a traditional college classroom, you put a small number of kids in a room and the professor attempts to herd every one of them past the finish line of a passing grade. (Then they mostly forget almost everything they’ve learned.) It’s an intensive approach with a very low failure rate.
MOOCs will always have a very high failure rate. But that’s OK, as long as the cost of trying is low. Don’t have time for class right now? Drop out and come back when you have more time. Didn’t master Taylor Polynomials this time around? Do the course again.
As I’ll talk about in my forthcoming book, failure is often the best way to learn. More tries and more failures are almost always better than fewer tries and a lower failure rate. Letting people try a bunch of stuff, and fail at a lot of it, and then try again, is what makes the U.S. so innovative. We should welcome the ability to try this approach in education.
And it’s not just cost that makes software a particularly effective way to harness the learning power of failure. Software is very good at targeting exactly where a student is going wrong. Unlike a lecturer, or a teaching assistant, software can identify exactly what fundamental concepts a student hasn’t grasped, and let them practice over and over again until they master that concept. And practice, of course, makes perfect.