In the summer of 2011, Sebastian Thrun lit a fire under colleges around the world. The Stanford professor and a colleague filmed themselves lecturing for their course on artificial intelligence and put the videos online so that anyone could join. Roughly 160,000 students from around the world took them up on the offer. And even Stanford students found the videos more compelling than going to the class itself.
The runaway success of the "Stanford AI Course" touched off a wave of excitement over Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). They offer a model for delivering classes online to any person who wants to enroll, with no limit on attendance.
It's hard to overstate the hype that followed Stanford's Al course. To date, venture capitalists have poured more than $100 million into MOOC companies like Coursera and Udacity. Mr. Thrun himself told a reporter that in 50 years, there will only be 10 universities, and Udacity could be one of them.
Scarcely two years later, the bloom is off the rose. MOOCs so far have failed to deliver on every over-inflated promise made for them. Their dirty secret is that almost nothing about MOOCs is new — and what is new and exciting about them has been largely ignored in the rush to cash in on upending higher education.
MOOCs were supposed to make higher education better by putting the world's best professors in front the camera. Never mind that we already have that: It's called The Great Courses, a set of college-level courses on DVDs by famous scholars starting at $49.95. But many MOOCs have been rush jobs, turning great lecturers into mediocre filmmakers. Coursera couldn't even get a MOOC on how to make MOOCs right; it had to cancel its course on the "Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application" due to weak fundamentals and poor planning.
MOOCs were supposed to make higher education more accessible by opening university courses to the world. That's a great goal, but it's not new. Every major communications technology has been adapted to deliver education beyond the classroom. The University of London first offered degrees by correspondence as early as 1858. A century later, CBS television broadcast lectures from NYU professors every morning in the "Sunrise Semester." Dozens of countries have used radio to reach and teach people in rural areas. You hardly need the Internet to share human knowledge — there are also things called "books."
So far, the evidence on MOOCs isn't good. San Jose State University tried using Udacity courses to reach at-risk students taking foundational courses. But for these students, often the ones most in need of low-cost education, the results were ugly. Students in the online Udacity versions of the courses gave up or failed at much higher rates than students in the regular versions. San Jose State has put the partnership on "pause;" meanwhile, Udacity is "pivoting" to charging students for vocational training courses sponsored by companies.
That's a shame, because it means the MOOC companies are starting to turn their backs on the most worthwhile part of the experiment: free access for everyone, everywhere. For students at Stanford, the difference between watching Sebastian Thrun in person and watching him online wasn't worth the effort of walking across campus. But students in Azerbaijan don't have the option of watching him in person. Putting his course online to reach them, too, was a great gift from Stanford to the world.
The gold rush surrounding MOOCs has a dark side. Opening up courses so that money and geography are no obstacle to learning is the kind of outreach that universities should be excited about. But the venture capitalists who have flocked to MOOC companies have been more concerned with "disrupting" American higher education, drawing students away from non-profit, public-serving universities to for-profit MOOCs. Disruption for disruption's sake is hardly a good thing. The Syrian civil war is disruptive, too.
The Stanford AI course showed how much hunger there is around the world for knowledge and how easy it can be to satisfy that hunger when we step back from tuition and business models and use the Internet to share knowledge freely. If they can focus more on students and less on getting rich quick, MOOCs still have a lot to offer. The goal of knowledge for all is well worth pursuing.