Maybe online course aren’t going to remake the face of higher education after all.
After a fast start, reality seems to be closing in on the world of the massive, open, online courses that were supposed to replace traditional lectures and recitations and make free, or at least very cheap, higher education available to everyone. San Jose State University has slowed down a move to deliver introductory undergraduate courses through MOOC provider Udacity.
Udacity itself, one of several MOOC providers that have sprung up in the last couple of years, is refocusing its activities on corporate training. Sebastian Thrun, Stanford computer scienctist and founder of Udacity, told Fast Company, “We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don’t educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product. It was a painful moment.”
No surprise. I’m not surprised. I’ve been a skeptical enthusiast for online education since MIT started its Open Courseware initiative a few years back, and over the last year or so, I have enrolled in several offerings, mostly from Coursera, like Udacity, a for-profit provider of open courses. My experience has been a very mixed bag, but one that has taught me a lot about where the approach does and doesn’t work. A couple of general observations. First, the technology has a long way to go and on one seems to have figured out a completely effective way to deliver lectures on video. I’ve seen a number of approaches, from video recording regular blackboard lectures, to slide-based presentations in which the instructor only occasionally appears, to a course that used cartoony “virtual students” to asked questions in computer synthesized voices. None worked completely, though the last was the most annoying. Online lectures today remind me of the earliest days of television, when shows were “radio with pictures.” No one has quite cracked the medium yet.