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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.
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And I'm Robert Siegel. We've got a report card now on a big trend in higher education - MOOCs. That's short for massive open online courses. The idea really took off last year when the New York Times famously dubbed 2012 the year of the MOOC. Well, with 2013 came a reality check. Faculty at several institutions rebelled against full-throttled expansion of online learning. And the largest MOOC providers have announced changes in how they plan to deliver online education in 2014. NPR's Eric Westervelt has our story.
ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Many saw the rapid expansion of MOOCs over the last two years as a higher education revolution that would help address two long-vexing problems: cost and access for underserved students. In theory, students saddled by rising debt and unable to tap into the best schools could take classes for free from rock star professors at elite schools via Udacity, edX, Coursera and other massive open online course platforms.
GOVERNOR JERRY BROWN: We've got to invest in learning, in teaching, in education.
WESTERVELT: Earlier this year, California's San Jose State University partnered with Udacity to offer several types of MOOC classes for credit at low cost, including a remedial math course. It was announced in January with lots of enthusiastic publicity, including a plug from California's technophilic governor, Jerry Brown. He said MOOC experiments are central to democratizing education.
BROWN: We do that not by just the way we did it 100 years ago. We keep changing.
WESTERVELT: But the San Jose experiment, by all accounts, was a bust. Completion rates and grades were worse than for those who took traditional campus-style classes. And the students who did best were not the underserved students San Jose most wanted to reach. And it wasn't really proving to be cheaper, says Professor Peter Hadreas, who chairs San Jose's philosophy department.
PETER HADREAS: The people that do well in these kind of courses are people who are already studious. Or they are people who are taking courses for their own enrichment after they've graduated. But you see that wasn't what was being talked about a year and a half ago when people thought this was going to solve the problems with higher education because people would be able to be educated for less money. That's not the way it's worked out.
WESTERVELT: Now, San Jose State is scaling back its relationship with Udacity. The university taking more direct control of the courses it offers through the company and the school is rethinking its commitment to MOOCs. Other schools are hitting the pause button as well. Revolution interrupted. A recent University of Pennsylvania study confirmed a massive problem: MOOCs have painfully few active users. About half who registered for a class ever viewed a lecture, and completion rates averaged just 4 percent across all courses. Udacity co-founder, Sebastian Thrun, a prime mover in MOOCs, recently told Fast Company magazine - quote - "We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don't educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product" - end quote. Do you regret that quote?
SEBASTIAN THRUN: Not at all. I think that's just honest, and I think we should have an honest discourse about what we do.
WESTERVELT: Udacity CEO Sebastian Thrun.
THRUN: Online education that leaves almost everybody behind except for highly motivated students, to me, can't be a viable path to education. We look back at our early work and realize it wasn't quite as good as it should have been. We had so many moments for improvement.
WESTERVELT: That the former Stanford professor and inventor, whose online artificial intelligence course helped kick off the MOOC frenzy, was fundamentally rethinking its viability shook the higher-ed world. What was missing, many students complained, was a human connection beyond the streamed lecture. That's what Tracy Wheeler found lacking. This year she immersed herself in five MOOCs from two providers, from a course on statistics to one on global poverty.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It's about both understanding why the poor make the choices they make, what are the consequence that they face in their everyday life and what...
WESTERVELT: Wheeler completed three of the classes, including the one on global poverty. She'd read the professor's book and was excited and upbeat. I had that back-to-school feeling, she says.
TRACY WHEELER: I thought I'd go in deeper, you know, and come out wanting to move to India and help her with one of her experiments.
WESTERVELT: Instead, the 52-year-old education consultant says she hated being chained to the computer screen, and she found the entire MOOC experience mechanistic, dreary and ineffectual.
WHEELER: I'm a very social person. There was nothing to grasp on to. You know, there were no people, there was no professor. In a sense you're just learning in this void. I think I kept saying it was like soul sucking. I would come away from my computer just kind of despondent and feeling really reduced somehow.
WESTERVELT: For Wheeler anyway, the courses' online forums - the key support structure for many MOOCs - were isolating and largely absent of meaningful back-and-forth - or joy.
WHEELER: It was like going up and scrawling your name on a graffiti wall. You know, there was no sense of community.
WESTERVELT: In class, you can make a comment, you can flirt, you can...
WHEELER: Yeah, you can pass a note.
WESTERVELT: ...roll your eyes, you can pass a note, so.
WHEELER: You can have fun.
WESTERVELT: This is just one anecdote out of hundreds of thousands of MOOC takers. Many others praise the online courses as brilliant, time-saving and cost efficient. But the providers are responding to criticisms like Wheeler's. Enter MOOC 2.0. Udacity and other leading MOOC providers now realize that a more expansive, human-centered support structure is key to helping students retain information, stick with the course and finish the class. Udacity's Sebastian Thrun.
THRUN: Yeah, and the human mentors. We have people almost 24/7 that help you when you get stuck. We also added a lot of projects that require human feedback and human grading. And that human element, surprise, surprise, makes a huge difference in the student experience and the learning outcomes.
WESTERVELT: Like Udacity, MOOC pioneer Coursera is also changing. The company's creating learning hubs at U.S. consulates around the world that will include a weekly in-person instructor to foster discussion. Some critics believe the changes underway amount to a full-scale MOOC retreat and lay bare online education's flaws. But Thrun says those critics simply don't get the nature of tech innovation: You closely evaluate failures, think forward, adjust and use the word iterate. A lot.
THRUN: It's certainly an iteration. And the truth is, look, this is Silicon Valley. We try things out, we look at the data, and we learn from it.
SAM: Hi, I'm Sam.
ANDY: And I'm Andy.
SAM: And we literally just got done filming this class.
ANDY: And the way we...
WESTERVELT: Udacity is now refocusing - or iterating - on its product. In 2014, the company will put more emphasis on employee job training classes for corporations, including Google, Facebook and others. Classes will include Intro to Big Data Analysis and Mobile App Development.
ANDY: And after working for really only a few hours, I feel like I can actually build apps now. I am totally hooked, and you might be too. So, does this sound like interesting to you? You should take the class.
SAM: Let's build an app.
WESTERVELT: Eric Westervelt, NPR News, San Francisco.
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