Sebastian Thrun, one of the founders of the online education outfit Udacity, gave this interview with the MIT Technology Review about the state of MOOCs and online education. He claims the following progress has been made:
We’ve evolved the MOOC concept into one that really helps people throughout the course to complete the course. The most recent completion rates in pilots we’ve been running have been 85 percent, as opposed to 5 percent or 4 percent, which is common in MOOC-land.That's pretty extraordinary and, when you hear how they accomplished such improvement, it all makes sense:
We mostly did this by two ingredients. One is to really add notable value to the certificates [students receive], and the value proposition we’ve chosen is core college credits slash degrees, which you won’t get unless you complete....Yes, it turns out the secret to online education is to make the courses worth something towards a degree and to have human experts available who help you out with guidance along the way. Sounds a lot like "teaching" to me.
The second component would be we also provide fairly extensive student services now. We have people on the ground that help you along the way. It turns out, if you’re not just left alone to a computer system, if there are people talking to you online, that makes for much better completion rates.
Don't get me wrong... I don't want to come off as too flip or acerbic. I've represented my skepticism of MOOCs before, but if this model is how online education can move forward and it can help far more people acquire essential academic or professional skills, I'm all for it. I just think it's worth pointing out that the sine qua non of good education is, in fact, human guidance and communication. This seems especially pertinent in the area of the humanities, and Thrun understands (at least, now he does) that evaluations of writing are unlike quantitative assessments:
Compare this to critical dialogue in philosophy, discourse in philosophy. There, it’s really the subtlety of their language that makes all the difference and more—it’s not just about assessment, it’s not about grading, it’s also about feedback. When someone writes an essay, you want to give meaningful feedback so they can improve. I’ve seen good progress on the assessment of essays; I’ve seen almost no progress on qualified feedback. And that’s where you have a very simple opinion—you just have people do it. Our classes right now require essay writing, and those essays are being graded by people and it’s just fine, in my opinion. Why not?Quite right... why not?