Not even five years ago, the hottest trend in higher education was free and had a funny name.
It was the MOOC, short for massive open online course. The idea was that the elites of academia would put their knowledge and lectures on the Internet, where they could be accessed around the world at no cost.
This would lead to a revolution, so the thinking went. No longer would higher education be the province of the wealthy or the sap willing to go $50,000 in debt for a diploma. MOOCs would democratize advanced learning and shake the well-endowed foundations of the modern university.
The New York Times proclaimed 2012 The Year of the MOOC. Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford University computer science professor, left his prestigous job for a MOOC startup, Udacity. “In 50 years,” he boldly told the publication Wired, “there will be only 10 institutions in the world delivering higher education and Udacity has a shot at being one of them.”
There were some questions, of course. How long would academics give away their content for free? What was the incentive for students to stick with the courses when most of them didn’t offer credit? How were the companies that produced the courses going to make money?
Still, if a revolution is coming, it’s best to jump on the wave, or at least not speak ill of it. Colleges and universities cautiously began experimenting with putting academic content on line for free.
Fort Hays State University, the innovative public university in western Kansas, was one of the early schools to look at developing a model for granting college credits to students who completed certain MOOCs.
But when I asked Fort Hays’ President Mirta M. Martin this week how the experiment was going, she looked perplexed. Martin became the university’s president last year, and clearly the MOOC trial hadn’t survived the transition.
Martin, who was visiting the Kansas City area, said MOOCs were doomed by their impersonal nature.
“It was just an information dump,” she said. “Even with online courses, students still want to feel like they’re part of something.”
A distinction must be drawn between MOOCs and online college courses, which are booming. But the best of those create off-campus communities of students working toward the same goal and in close contact with a professor. They feature milestones, accountability and, most important, credits.
MOOCs are still around. Some have shifted to vocational training, especially in computer science. Educators value the chance to see great teachers at work and to gain new material for their own students. And learners around the globe still go online to feed their hunger for knowledge in subjects ranging from art history to biology.
But reported completion rates for the courses range from 4 percent to 15 percent. And a frequently cited University of Pennsylvania study found that 80 percent of those who take the courses already have college degrees.
Whatever MOOCs aim to evolve into, they are not at this point a great equalizing force in higher education, or even a threat to traditional campus learning.
The problem here was the hype, the baseless predictions that something offered for free could somehow prove sustainable, and the idea that a single phenomenon could change a hidebound institution.
Higher education does demand radical change. It needs to be more accessible, more tailored to the modern workforce and much less costly. But that will take many steps, some of which are in progress at schools like Fort Hays State, which offers some of the most affordable online and on-campus programs in the nation.
Long live the revolution. Beware the hype.