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Soon after, Coursera, Udacity and others promised free access to valuable content, supposedly delivering a disruptive solution that would solve massive student debt and a struggling economy. Since then, over 8 million students have enrolled in their courses.
This year, that revolution fizzled. Only half of those who signed up watched even one lecture, and only 4 percent stayed long enough to complete a course. Further, the audience for MOOCs already had college degrees so the promise of disrupting higher education failed to materialize. The MOOC providers argue that completion of free courses is the wrong measure of success, but even a controlled experiment run by San Jose State with paying students found the courses less effective than their old-school counterparts.
This shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Online learning long ago solved the access problem: Between the 8 million people who have signed up for MOOCs, and the more than 1 billion downloads from Apple’s iTunesU (Apple is quietly a larger force in online education than any upstart), we already know people want to take online courses. What we don’t know is whether they can be as effective, or more effective, than sitting in a classroom. It’s time to focus on that harder problem: engagement.
As an online learner myself it’s hard to stay engaged: when I get home after a full day at work, the noble goal of learning new skills often is put aside with Netflix only a click away. Online learning needs to pass that test: it needs to be not only good for you, but enjoyable in its own right. Startups, big companies, and universities are finally focused on the true promise of online education: driving substantial learning at an affordable price. There are three areas that have shown promise towards that goal: mentorship, retention marketing, and new forms of learn-by-doing.