(Image via Shutterstock)
(Image via Shutterstock)

Not too surprisingly, Boston has become one of the epicenters of the next would-be education revolution: Online learning. Spearheaded by EdX, which gained backing from Harvard and MIT, the city that hosts some hundred institutions of higher education is also trying to reform it. Harman Singh, the founder and chief executive of WizIQ, shares where he sees the field stumbling.

As technology advances, we have more access to information. One technology, Massive Open Online Courses (better known as MOOCs) is beginning to change the way we look at education. These online courses are free and filled with information on just about anything you want to learn — from project management skills to learning a new language. And because MOOCs are free, access is open to anyone with a computer.

Just as learners have open access to MOOCs, instructors from schools and universities to a variety of education providers, and practically anyone with a skill to share, can host a MOOC. The emergence of MOOCs has the potential to inevitably change the way we receive our education.

Just how prevalent are MOOCs? There are hundreds of MOOCs globally, some from even established universities such as Harvard and Stanford. MOOCs fill a void for learners who lack the time — and/or dollars — to physically attend a course featuring high-quality content. Needless to say, MOOCs are regarded as a game-changer in online education.

But are they really changing the game in learning?

Why MOOCs Aren’t Working Right Now

In the future, MOOCs have the potential to completely transform education. However, as of right now, don’t expect to see universities shutting down as a result, as some experts have begun projecting. Despite the recent rapid rise in MOOCs, this format continues to be an evolving model, and one that isn’t quite established yet.

Despite the seemingly unlimited access to free information through MOOCs, a 2012-2013 study conducted by MIT and Harvard revealed an overwhelming 95 percent of students dropped their online courses before completion, a rate substantially higher than traditional education’s dropout rates. While some students have expressed satisfaction taking MOOCs, others give various reasons for dropping them. Among the most common reason cited behind this dropout rate: there is no live teacher engagement.

Currently, just 10 percent of MOOC registrants complete their courses. Why — if all the materials are free and available with the click of a mouse? MOOCs are structured using a series of pre-recorded video-based, self-paced classes offered to students for free. There are no live instructors to help facilitate the classes, lectures, or content. There is also no straight-and-narrow path from beginning-to-end and the format does not encourage the exchange of different thoughts and ideas among learners. The lack of live instructor involvement also means no follow-up with the student, or any assurance along the way that the student’s learning trajectory is heading in the right direction. At the course’s conclusion, only the learner can determine if he or she was successful.

The modern MOOC — without live and interactive teacher engagement — is essentially an Internet version of a book. That said, there is tremendous potential for the MOOC to evolve in a major way. To reduce dropout rates, the MOOC must be structured around live teacher engagement.

Some online learning platforms are now taking notice of this need for student-teacher engagement. At WizIQ, for example, our platform is an open marketplace where anyone can offer a MOOC, but we are integrating actual teacher engagement into the MOOC, filling a need within the online education sector.

Still Plenty of Room – and Time – For Growth

With the potential evolution for more online courses to include live instructor interaction, MOOCs can have a significant impact in higher education. Economics alone provides a huge advantage for MOOCs. According to a Deloitte study: “Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs): Not Disrupted Yet, But The Future Looks Bright,” in 2003, the total amount of student debt in the U.S. had reached more than $200 billion. Just nine years later, that debt ballooned to $1 trillion. In that same study, since 2000, the tuition cost in colleges has increased by 72 percent, whereas earnings for people ages 25-30 have decreased by 15 percent. Looking at this information, it’s obvious that economics are on the side of MOOCs.

Some colleges have partnered with companies to develop programs and pipelines that meet the student’s current and future needs. This type of partnership could also help students enter the workforce fresh out of graduation.

If, somehow, MOOCs are able to establish similar partnerships with companies and provide better opportunities for students to find work, there is a real incentive for people not to go to college and just register for MOOCs. This shift will not occur anytime soon, however, because the social pressure to go to college and get a degree still exists. Such pressure results in the ongoing issue of student debt in our country. When this pressure no longer exists, and when economics play a larger role in determining how students receive their education, it is at that point when MOOCs could potentially replace higher education as we know it.

In addition to its potential in higher education, MOOCs that feature instructor engagement will also benefit those taking courses to enrich their lives. Classes focused on learning an instrument, a foreign language, or how to cook would be enhanced by the presence of a live instructor, who can exchange feedback with the student on whether or not the assignments are being done properly. Programming courses on WizIQ, for example, allow students access to remote, virtual labs with live lab instructors to run programs practicing real world scenarios. This method is far more efficient than learning from a video-based course, or trying to understand course lessons on YouTube.

Where Will MOOCs Be Just Two Years From Now?

Within the next two years, MOOCs will quickly evolve from lacking teacher engagement to having a lot of teacher engagement. Right now, it’s essentially a model where computers are teaching students. This model is simply not sustainable in the long run without live student-teacher engagement. Teachers are the key that unlocks learning in these courses. They help students resolve issues and problems.

Will the biggest change in online education moving forward be putting live teachers at the center of the MOOC (not just on video)? We will know the answer very soon.

Harman Singh is the founder and chief executive of online learning platform WizIQ.

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