For Best Results, Pair MOOCs With In-Person Support
Massive open online courses (MOOCs) transfixed higher education in the early 2010s, so much so that The New York Times dubbed 2012 “The Year of the MOOC.” That year, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology launched edX, a joint effort to provide interactive, enriching MOOCs to a global audience and make world-class information accessible to all. According to the Times, the first edX online courses had a staggering 370,000 registrants.
At the time, many thought MOOCs might become a replacement for both classroom instruction and ingrained models of learning. It’s easy to see why. MOOCs don’t require students to sit in a classroom at a fixed time; students can take MOOCs when and where they want. Some MOOCs are eligible to be taken for credit, but most don’t have any penalties for incomplete assignments or half-watched videos. MOOCs allow students to efficiently and inexpensively select the content and activities that interest them, dipping in and out of instruction at their leisure and disregarding other portions of the course. All of these features stand in stark contrast to traditional courses, where students are expected to attend local lectures, complete all assignments, and attain a passing grade.
Seven years later, contrary to predictions, MOOCs have not replaced traditional education. Yet MOOCs have proven to be a tremendous success as a vehicle for sharing knowledge. In our opinion, MOOCs can have the greatest impact when they combine the advantages of online education—the ability to watch lectures from anywhere and connection to a global network—with an in-person networking component that offers guidance, discussion and engagement.
This became abundantly clear after one of us (Michael Goldberg) offered a MOOC on entrepreneurial ecosystems, “Beyond Silicon Valley: Growing Entrepreneurship in Transitioning Economies,” through Case Western Reserve University in 2014. The first two cohorts of the course drew nearly 37,000 people. (To date, more than 175,000 students have enrolled.) Enrollees hailed from 190 countries and were highly educated: Over half had earned a master’s degree or a PhD, while one third held at least a bachelor’s degree.
Many inspiring and inspired students participated in the course. One of the most successful enrollees was Yvette Mazariegos, a serial entrepreneur from Belize who has juggled a paper-converting business—which involves cutting large rolls of paper into smaller sizes that can then be resold—with a steadier and more lucrative endeavor selling medical supplies to the government of Belize.
The entrepreneurial ecosystem in Belize isn’t as advanced as in other countries of its size, so Mazariegos has embraced any learning and leadership opportunities that have come her way. One of these was “Beyond Silicon Valley,” which she viewed as a spark for her growth as a business owner. In fact, Mazariegos said the MOOC showed her “many different things I can aspire to reach or attain” in the future. Unsurprisingly, she was one of the more than 3,000 students that completed the course that first year.
Mazariegos had several advantages on her side that kept her motivated, including the fact she took the MOOC with friends. That meant she had a robust local support system encouraging her to keep up with lectures and assignments. As we found in a 2014 research project examining the impact of the MOOC, developing this kind of external support was something successful attendees such as Mazariegos tended to do. In fact, about 37 percent of students that completed the course met with other local entrepreneurs as a part of the course assignments, and 11 percent teamed up with fellow students outside of the MOOC.
It’s easy to see how the personality traits that lead to success in traditional higher education—being a proactive learner and independent worker—would also translate to success in online courses. That was the case with Mazariegos, who was also deeply motivated to participate in the MOOC because it resonated with her interests.
“I had already decided that it was relevant for me,” she said. The class also gave her a sense of belonging. “I liked the idea of the platform for meeting a lot of people all over the world,” she said, adding that she felt “part of a brotherhood or a sisterhood of people” out there working to grow their businesses.
Not every student is as dedicated or invested in a MOOC as Mazariegos proved to be, a fact that became clear in a new study published in the January 2019 issue of Science. Researchers Justin Reich and José Ruipérez-Valiente examined six years of data culled from Harvard and MIT’s edX initiative and found sub-par MOOC retention and completion rates. “After promising a reordering of higher education, we see the field instead coalescing around a different, much older business model: helping universities outsource their online master’s degrees for professionals,” the pair concluded.
These findings echoed our 2014 study. Although nearly 12,000 students in the first two cohorts of the MOOC interacted with some aspect of the course content, only slightly more than 25 percent of enrolled students watched the first video of the course—and only 8 percent of enrolled students watched the videos from all five modules of the course. Yet our study also found that those who did dive into the videos had positive outcomes—especially if they also engaged with others in the course through online forums. In fact, watching all of the videos and participating in all of the written discussions were most closely associated with a student’s engagement in the course and the final course grade. Technological empowerment, when paired with robust personal interaction, produced deep knowledge engagement.
Mazariegos came up with her own way to interact with the MOOC videos. She watched each one twice: once independently, and then another time at a local university with others taking the class. (This screening was organized by the U.S. Embassy in Belize.) The in-person viewing spurred business-related conversation with local peers that she found enormously helpful to her own situation.
“You can toss around ideas,” she said. “And then I realized that I’m not the only one out there with challenges—there are many of us.”
For Mazariegos, watching the videos twice also helped the lessons sink in for her. In fact, she even described her double viewing of MOOC videos as resembling a traditional college experience. “It’s like when you go to university, or go to school, and you do your own homework at home,” she says. “You have your own little world, your own mind. Then when you go to class, then you start to hear how everybody else thinks. You start to see similarities between my company and other people’s companies—and their challenges.”
Even more important, our data revealed how much focusing on improving a MOOC’s retention rate matters—and why the interactive experience Mazariegos had can be considered such a useful model to improve outcomes. People who finished the course had much better career prospects. Specifically, those who completed the course were greater than a third more likely to found a new company than those people who enrolled but did not complete the course. This difference extended beyond direct startup activity into community support and networking. Those who completed the course were also significantly more engaged in their local entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Mazariegos certainly fits this profile. She went to the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Kenya in 2015, and she has also served as president of the The U.S. Embassy-Belize Alumni Association, a global group of people who have taken courses at the U.S. Embassy in Belmopan. In 2017, she was one of 50 women sent to the U.S. for an International Visitor Leadership Program for women in entrepreneurship sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. And because Beyond Silicon Valley encouraged her to broaden her reach and think globally about her business, Mazariegos also connected with suppliers in China, Malaysia and India.
These days we’ve moved past the idea of MOOCs as a one-size-fits-all solution for revamping higher education. But colleges are still struggling where these large-scale courses fit in. Our work indicates that the best results happen when students can take advantage of the free or low-cost online resources with in-person networks and support, and that they can be used to bring high-quality education to a broader audience around the world.