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Many Enroll, Few Finish, Moocs March On: How Online Courses Are Changing Higher Ed

March 30, 2015
by Sabine Bergmann

When Damilare Oladapo looks back at his undergraduate years at UC Berkeley, he says that when it comes to his education, he only made one mistake. “I really wanted to focus on graduating,” says the Nigerian-born English major. “I saw school as a short-distance race instead of a marathon.”

Oladapo still loves literature and considers a writing career to be one of his “dream jobs”—but while at Cal he never gave himself much time to explore beyond the English department. And after graduation, as he struggled to start his career, Oladapo realized that he needed more marketable skills.

Oladapo wasn’t going to get another shot at a Berkeley education. But luckily for him, he graduated in the midst of an educational revolution, one in which he could continue to take college classes without being enrolled in college. Like everyone else in the world with Internet access, Oladapo could tap into courses from the world’s most prestigious universities—for free.

It started in 2008 when two professors at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, offered a virtual college course online at no cost. A few years later, three Stanford professors followed suit—and caused a sensation in the academic world. Their classes triggered a wave of sign-ups: More than 350,000 people registered for three courses—roughly 13 times the number of undergraduates currently attending Berkeley. Today such offerings are commonplace, known as MOOCs: massive, open online courses.

“It’s the beginning of higher education for everybody,” Sebastian Thrun, one of the first MOOC professors, told CNN in 2012 (later declared “the year of the MOOC” by The New York Times). Thrun, a researcher at Stanford, cofounded Udacity, a for-profit platform for MOOC distribution.

His colleagues launched a competing company, Coursera, which was showered with $85 million in venture capital, despite the company’s lack of a revenue stream—MOOCs are still offered free of charge, and although participants can choose to buy a certificate, not even 1 percent do.

When MIT and Harvard partnered to launch another MOOC provider, EdX, they founded it as a nonprofit, taking an open-source approach that allows other MOOC platforms to build from EdX. In 2012, UC Berkeley joined EdX and began offering MOOCs as “BerkeleyX.”

“The high­er-ed busi­ness is in for a lot of pain as a new era of cre­at­ive de­struc­tion pro­duces a mer­ci­less shakeout of those in­sti­tu­tions that ad­apt and prosper from those that stall and die.”

The Big Three MOOC providers—Udacity, Coursera, and EdX—have together provided courses to more than 15 million people. About 650,000 of those, from countries all over the world, have signed up for at least one course on BerkeleyX. Though not technically Berkeley students, BerkeleyX participants take courses taught by Berkeley faculty, watch lectures filmed at Berkeley, and complete assignments and exams designed and graded at Berkeley.

Not everyone thinks this bodes well for the future of academe. Writing in The American Interest, author Nathan Harden declared MOOCs “The End of the University as We Know It,” predicting that half the colleges and universities in the United States would be gone within a few decades. Pointing to other business sectors done in by the rise of online competitors—traditional stock brokerages, for example—Harden warned that “The higher-ed business is in for a lot of pain as a new era of creative destruction produces a merciless shakeout of those institutions that adapt and prosper from those that stall and die.” He added that “students themselves are in for a golden age, characterized by near-universal access to the highest quality teaching and scholarship at a minimal cost.”

Damilare Oladapo has certainly benefited from the MOOC revolution. Studying between work shifts, Oladapo completed online coursework in data science and programming and found he was just as passionate about computer science as he was about English. “Programming is just like any language,” he says. “You understand the basics of it, and then you manipulate it.”

By the fall of 2014, Oladapo was essentially a full-time student again, enrolled in seven MOOCs concurrently. Without accruing a penny of student debt, he taught himself four coding languages with the help of online courses by Code Academy, and now dreams of a job where he can apply his programming skills to the analysis of soccer games. It’s a career he never could have imagined with just a degree in English. MOOCs, he says, gave him a “second chance.”

Although stories like Oladapo’s attest to the benefits of a free and self-directed online education, the Berkeley alum is very much an exception to the norm. Consider the most popular BerkeleyX course so far, The Science of Happiness. More than 113,000 students signed up for the course last fall. And it’s easy to see the appeal. The class, co-taught by two of the directors of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, focuses on positive psychology and includes weekly “emotion check-ins.” Meditation is assigned as homework. The problem: Fewer than 5 percent of those who enrolled in the course actually completed it.

The high dropout rate is a standard trait of MOOCs, and again it’s easy to see why. Studying is hard work and, since MOOCs are free, there’s little or no downside to quitting.

The utopian vision of MOOCs is of poor kids in developing countries tapping into the resources of the world’s best universities, pursuing their degrees, and spreading knowledge to the benighted corners of the globe. Perhaps that is the future. But for now, as Jeffrey Selingo notes in his book MOOC U: Who Is Getting the Most Out of Online Education and Why, “The average MOOC student is a young, white, employed American man with a bachelor’s degree.”

A study by the University of Pennsylvania found that nearly 80 percent of the roughly 35,000 MOOC participants surveyed had a college degree already, and 44 percent had at least attended graduate school. That proportion holds not just in the United States, but also for MOOC participants in Brazil, China, India, Russia, and South Africa—countries where only 5 percent of the general population have a college degree.

If 2012 was the year of the MOOC, 2013 may have been the year of the MOOC backlash. In December of that year, in response to high dropout rates, The Washington Post published a blog item entitled, “Are MOOCs already over?” And even Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun was quick to jump from the “education for everybody” bandwagon to admitting that MOOCs were “a lousy product.”

MOOCs are not over, however; they are evolving. And as they do, they are also changing the way courses are taught on campus. Anant Agarwal, MIT professor and CEO of EdX, likes to talk about “unbundling” the components of education, including content. He notes that most professors have long been comfortable teaching from textbooks written by other scholars. So why not use another’s lectures and slides? A MOOC, says Agarwal, can be seen as a “new-age textbook.” Other educators talk about using MOOCs to “flip the classroom”; that is, leaving lectures to the virtual experience, thereby freeing up precious classroom time for discussion, debate, and one-on-one interactions.

Professor Armando Fox is the faculty advisor for Berkeley’s MOOCLab, part of the Berkeley Resource Center for Online Education. He says that although a lot of attention has been paid to the usefulness of recorded lectures, an even more promising effect of MOOC technology is advancement in automated grading.

“When most people hear that, they think, ‘Oh, you mean, like multiple choice SCANTRON sheets.’ But that’s the most primitive and trivial form of auto-grading.”

Fox says MOOCs, with their massive enrollments, have necessitated more advanced forms of auto-grading involving artificial intelligence engines, among other changes. It’s technology that professors in Berkeley’s computer science department are now also using in their physical classrooms. Fox says it makes sense. “If I have to design something that works at the scale of 100,000, it actually turns out to work really well at the scale of two or three hundred.”

The benefits for students are twofold. First, they can get immediate feedback. Second, auto-grading reduces the amount of time instructors and their assistants spend on the laborious task of hand-grading, freeing them up to teach instead. “It doesn’t replace what I do,” says Fox, himself a member of the EECS faculty, “On the contrary; it makes me, as an instructor, much more effective.”

No one is giv­ing away a Berke­ley edu­ca­tion. MOOCs pro­viders do not con­fer de­grees, and the cam­pus and its cul­ture are unique—those are things you can’t put in a box or load onto a serv­er.

As Armando Fox works to integrate MOOC technologies into Berkeley’s classrooms, China is working to introduce classrooms to Berkeley’s MOOCs.

Currently, most MOOCs transfer information from professors to students, with no intermediary. What if MOOCs were targeted at instructors instead? It’s an idea that has been embraced by XuetangX, a MOOC provider in China, which is physically shipping MOOCs to rural teachers at hundreds of colleges, many of which can’t provide students with Internet access.

The process is simple: All the components of a MOOC, from the lecture videos to the automatic grading program, are pre-loaded onto a server—a computer that then becomes the central software hub for other computers. These servers can be packaged and shipped all over China. When a box arrives, an instructor can open it, plug a computer into the server, and voila! They have full access to the MOOC and can help their students work through the material. It’s literally “a course in a box.”

At Berkeley, such instructor-focused MOOCs are called SPOCs (small, private online courses). When Fox and his computer science colleague David Patterson teamed up to develop a SPOC, they made full, bundled copies of the course materials available to instructors at other universities—using the SPOC as a technology for transferring the curriculum.

“I think of it as the next form of collaboration,” Fox says. “We always talk about sharing course material. But in my experience, having been teaching for 15 years now, this is the first time it’s actually worked.”

Fox stresses that no one is giving away a Berkeley education. For one thing, MOOCs providers do not confer degrees. But even more important is that the campus and its culture are unique; those are things you can’t put in a box or load onto a server. “If it [were] a Berkeley course, it would be at Berkeley,” Fox insists.

“When somebody is a Berkeley graduate, it’s not just that they took all these courses and got good grades; it’s that they’ve been in this culture for three to four years…. The students who are in my MOOC, smart though they may be, haven’t had that experience.”

That is something no MOOC could replace. 

Sabine Bergmann, a former California intern, is a freelance writer based in Berkeley. You can read more of her work at

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