Why Massive Open Learning Does Not Work

Peyton Helm, the president of Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA, wrote a column in the Philadelphia Inquirer last week discussing why he does not think Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) work.

He uses the example of a Tibetan yak herder he read about who is taking an online course offered by Yale, and points out that this individual is an autodidact—someone who is so motivated to learn that they do not require any push to do so.

Students like this, he says, are the best candidates to take MOOCs, and the MOOCs have certainly been successful in bringing students in the doors; some courses have pulled enrollments of over 100,000 students and Coursera recently announced they had surpassed 1 million enrolled students. However, Helm points out, the finishing rate would suggest many of these students are in fact not autodidacts. Some estimates, he says, place the completion rates of MOOCs between 2.5 to 12 percent.

Despite the challenging business model of modern-day traditional-style institutions, Helm feels higher education providers must stay true to their missions and how the market perceives their brand. Colleges and universities do more than simply provide information to students, but they also train students how “to think, analyze, and learn; distinguish fact from opinion; articulate a strong argument or a tear apart a weak one.”

This, according to Helm, is what characterizes active learning, and in order to be an active learner Helm feels one cannot do their learning by themselves. Colleges “develop values, nurture leadership skills and model engaged citizenship”, they do not just transfer ideas from point A to point B.

And that is why Peyton Helm feels MOOCs and other online programming is not suited to higher education.

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