ASU and MOOCs: six months later, I might actually still be right

I noticed this morning an old post of mine had gotten a couple of hits, this post from back in late April, “ASU’s edX MOOC deal: Lots of links and a few thoughts.” This was when Arizona State University announced this big plan with edX to offer a freshman year of college via something they called the “Global Freshman Academy.” This came shortly after a widely publicized deal with Starbucks to offer its employees ASU online courses.  Back then, I quoted Matt “Confessions of a Community College Dean” Reed’s post “What Problem are ASU and EdX Solving?” at some length; among other things, he argued that this ASU deal doesn’t make a lot of sense since community colleges are simply a better deal. Besides agreeing with Reed, I also argued:

  • MOOCs haven’t proven themselves to “work” well for the kind of general education courses part of this initiative;
  • As we’ve seen with other online initiatives, students tend to take online courses fairly locally; and (and this was my main argument),
  • This is an example of how MOOC providers are focusing on the wrong goal and the wrong audience. To quote myself: “students pick colleges first based on academics, second on job prospects,  and then (roughly tied for third/fourth/fifth place) on scholarship opportunities, cost of attendance, and social activities. And as I’ve also blogged about before, all the data suggests that most MOOC takers/students already have a college degree, don’t need or want the credit, and are taking the course for personal enrichment/’edutainment.'”

This ASU deal was big, was supposed to be a game-changer. I’ve interviewed a bunch of people for my (still on-going, not getting done fast enough) MOOC book project, and I can recall at least one interview where this came up as an example of where MOOCs were heading. When I was at that conference in Italy, this deal was brought up a couple of times as something to watch closely.

Well, six-ish months later, I’m still right. 


As was in The Chronicle back in September, the Starbucks enrollment has been kind of so-so:

Enrollment projections were high: Michael M. Crow, president of Arizona State, said he expected as many as 15,000 new students.

In the year since, nearly 3,700 Starbucks employees have enrolled in the program.

“Going back to school is a daunting task, even with tuition covered,” says Leah Lommel, chief operating officer at ASU Online. “It’s a big life change, and you have to be willing to put in time to go back to school. So I think it’s OK. I think we’re happy with how it’s grown.”

Those numbers are a stunning success compared to the Global Freshman Academy. As Inside Higher Ed reported right before Christmas, “Less Than 1%” (that is, 323 out of just over 34,000 enrolled) are eligible for credit from their ASU MOOCs:

The initiative launched this fall with three credit-bearing MOOCs — Human Origins, Introduction to Solar Systems Astronomy, and Western Civilization: Ancient and Medieval Europe — drawing a total of 34,086 registrants. Despite the added incentive of credit for completers, each MOOC saw only about 1,100 learners remain active in the course throughout its seven-week duration. Of those learners, 323 now have the option of paying ASU an additional fee to receive credit, the enrollment numbers show.

The number of learners who opt for credit may be even smaller. To be eligible, learners first have to pay $49 for an identity-verified certificate and earn a grade of C or better. Because of how the MOOCs are structured, learners can complete all the lessons and assignments and view their final grade before deciding whether to pay for a transcript from ASU. Learners have a year to make up their minds.

Note that bit about eligible and how the number of learners who take ASU up on this might be even smaller.

Now, this is not to say that those numbers might not go up beyond that 1%, and maybe once this program gets established in the next year or so, things will improve. Still, that’s a pretty piss-poor performance, especially relative to the hype. Reed wasted no time in pointing out that he too was correct in his original prediction in the blog post “Mystery Solved?”  Here’s a quote:

To the extent that folks watched MOOCs in the same way that they watch, say, TED talks, I don’t see the harm in it. But to the extent that the partnership was supposed to be about opening pathways to bachelor’s degrees, it doesn’t come close to comparing to the already-established route of starting at a community college — in this case, I used the tuition rate of Maricopa Community College, the largest feeder to ASU — and transferring.

The program didn’t even follow the usual “script” for “disruptive innovations.” It came in at a higher cost than a respected, existing alternative. That’s not how disruption is supposed to work. I have to wonder at the implied invisibility of the single largest sector of American higher education, but that’s another discussion.

That point about community colleges (Reed is a dean at one, after all) is important because one of the many things that is frustrating about the hype of MOOCs is the way that places like community colleges and “opportunity granting” universities like my own have been ignored by the Courseras and EdXs of the world, as if students would naturally think it was a “better deal” to take an online video class with some “famous” Harvard professor rather than to take a local and in person class with a not so famous but physically present teacher.

But again, I go back to the mismatch of audience and purpose here. This Global Freshman Academy was trying to attract an audience of first year college students (those in their late teens/early twenties and also returning “adult” learners) who wanted to earn college credit they could apply toward an ASU degree or that could be transferred. However, the actual audience for MOOCs tends to be interested in something short of a degree and/or “edutainment,” in large part because a large percentage of MOOC participants already have college degrees.

Further, as is mentioned in this IHE article and this New York Times article, there was a study in Science called “Democratizing education? Examining access and usage patterns in massive open online courses” which suggested that MOOCs attract U.S. participants who “live in more-affluent and better-educated neighborhoods than the average U.S. resident,” and those students tend to be more likely to succeed in MOOCs. As the last sentence of the abstract puts it, “Our findings raise concerns that MOOCs and similar approaches to online learning can exacerbate rather than reduce disparities in educational outcomes related to socioeconomic status.” In that sense, MOOCs are unfortunately all too similar to the traditional systems of higher education they are trying to replicate: students from more affluent backgrounds tend to do better than students from less affluent ones.

None of this is to say that MOOCs aren’t useful for anything; it’s just that they’re not a viable alternative to an undergraduate degree.


5 thoughts on “ASU and MOOCs: six months later, I might actually still be right”

  1. If the MOOC suddenly became the only access route to higher ed in Arizona, I’d buy that it’s exacerbating inequality. However, in its current status as only one optional access route, not so much.

    Further, while I at one time found the completion rates shockingly low, I’m substantially less bothered by them now. The low completion rates are due to low engagement. In other words, a lot of people wandering into the course may just be window shopping. That said, the completion rates are still low. What would increase them? A few thoughts:

    Is the marketing targeted at the right demographic?
    Is the UX broken?
    Some combination of the two? Something else?

    With all of this said, I still think MOOCS will remain the pathway for the super diligent. They’ll also likely be most effective in low level skill acquisition. I currently use them as such in courses I teach.

    1. I’m not a marketing expert of course, and there are probably things that the folks at EdX know about their strategies that I couldn’t even begin to imagine. But basically, I think this is really part of a repeating pattern, one that arguably goes back to correspondence schools in the early 20th century, where there is a mismatch between the hopes and dreams of the the educators/MOOC providers and potential customers/students.

      I don’t know if this is a good analogy or not, but I’ll give it a try: It’s like the MOOC providers are a restaurant that makes snack food– and let’s even go ahead and call it really good snack food, too. They’re trying to attract eaters who are going to pay for this snack food, maybe in lieu of actually eating dinner. But two problems. First, the people they really want — that is, the people who are willing to pay good money for a dinner of potato chips– just know that they’re going to be a lot better off with a balanced meal of a protein and vegetables, even if that meal comes from a local and not very well known in the big scheme of things restaurant. Second, the people who are snacking on this snack food a) already ate (e.g., already have a degree), and b) aren’t that interested in paying for snacks they can get for free.

      Or here’s another analogy that might hit a little closer to home: let’s say EMU created a major in aardvark studies. They brought in the best aardvark scholars from around the world to come up with a fantastic curriculum, etc., etc., they advertised it like crazy, got the MSM to believe that EMU’s aardvark studies program was “the next big thing,” and they decided to offer the program to would-be students for super-cheap. But they still didn’t get students. Why? Because would-be students looked at that program and said “there’s no employer out there who is going to want to hire me with my degree in aardvark studies, so I think I’ll major in English instead.”

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