On November 7, 1872, the American ship Mary Celeste left New York Harbor en route to Genoa, Italy. On December 5, 1872, a British brig discovered that vessel drifting in turbulent seas about 400 miles east of the Azores. Its cargo of industrial alcohol was intact, but not a soul was aboard. No trace of its ten crew members was ever found, making their fate one of the most enduring mysteries in maritime history.
Of course, there are still plenty of people interested in producing and taking MOOCs, but the founders of the American companies that create them have lately become about as scarce as the crew of the Mary Celeste. In 2014, Coursera founder Andrew Ng left day-to-day activities that company to join the Chinese search engine firm Baidu (although he remains Coursera’s Chairman of the Board). Earlier this year, Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity, departed that company earlier this year perhaps frustrated by what he once famously called its “lousy product.” Last week, Coursera’s other co-founder, Daphne Koller, exited in order to join a subsidiary of Google.
Besides MOOC leaders, some of the courses they commissioned during the early years of MOOC-Mania are disappearing too. Coursera, for instance, just changed platforms in order to make it easier for students to take classes “on demand.” As a result, “a few dozen” MOOCs became completely unavailable, and those students who do enroll in the new courses might be taking them without the benefit of thousands of colleagues taking them simultaneously like the first MOOC students did. Some superprofessors, like the Princeton sociologist Mitchell Duneier, have suspended their MOOCs on their own accord.
The most obvious reason why everyone from the founders of MOOC companies to students who sign up for such course are abandoning MOOCs is because these kinds of courses have not lived up to their initial hype. MOOCs were supposed to transform education as we know it, but traditional education with its inefficiency derived from the close proximity between professors and their students has proved more resilient than its wannabe disruptors ever imagined. Yes, there are still plenty of MOOCs available for people who want to take them, but it now seems safe to conclude that Sebastian Thrun’s 2012 prediction that there will only be ten institutions of higher learning in fifty years will be off by a large order of magnitude.
Why aren’t MOOCs more popular? “Many MOOCs are ill–structured, and it takes a lot of onus on the student to do a lot of the work,” explained Dennis Charsky of Ithaca College earlier this year. “It leaves for a lot of exploratory learning, which many students don’t like and can’t persist with.” While plenty of lifelong learners might be willing to consider this kind of experience as long as it remains free, every attempt to monetize the many eyeballs that MOOCs can attract has so far come up short. With MOOC production costs as high as $325,000 for a single course, profitability is almost certainly the main obstacle to keeping MOOCs viable for the long term.
This problem has been obvious to industry observers since the early days of MOOC Mania. “Coursera has simply never had a coherent plan to generate revenue,” explained Alex Usher of Higher Education Strategy Associates all the way back in 2013. “Allegedly, they were going to try to make money on a bunch of other things, like being scouts for businesses on the lookout for bright young talent, but there have been no announcements of revenue from these sources. Given how the tech news industry works, it’s a safe bet that means the figure is close to zero.” Daphne Koller’s recent decision to exit Coursera strongly suggests that this revenue problem has yet to be solved.
While companies like Coursera may still have lots of venture capital money to burn, the passing of this industry’s pioneers from the scene is as good a time as any to recognize that the profitability problem of MOOC providers is a problem that will never be solved. To make an often-used comparison in tech circles, compare education to the music industry. Most recording artists are now getting fractions of cents when consumers stream their songs because replicating digital copies of their work costs almost nothing. To make up for that problem, many bands have come to depend on touring to earn themselves revenue.
Colleges and universities, however, are already charging students an awful lot of money to see live performances by their professorial talent. Moreover, recording those lectures and distributing them for free over the Internet is a noticeably inferior experience to being on campus almost by definition. We professors do much more than talk at you during their live performances. Living, breathing faculty answer your questions, grade your papers and will even chat you up if you visit them during their office hours. MOOC providers will never be able to close this gap in educational quality.
Of course, Coursera and its ilk aren’t really trying to do so for economic reasons. If teaching were like most activities, it might be capable of being automated and scaled. But unfortunately for the MOOC providers, teaching isn’t like most activities. Every dedicated professor – even those of us who do not meet the MOOC provider’s definition of “superstar” faculty – can provide a learning experience that’s superior to watching pre-recorded lectures alongside tens of thousands of people from around the globe.
Even then, like the Mary Celeste, online courses without a live crew manning them can be very lonely experiences. A good education is an active experience, meaning that your professor can see you and adjust their teaching to the reactions of their audience and the students can respond to their professors in real time. Watching professors “on demand” on your computer, alone in your room, might make good business sense for Coursera, but it makes poor educational sense for anyone with access to an on-campus alternative. That’s why not enough people will ever fork over enough of their money to keep Coursera afloat for the long-term.
Even if Daphne Koller and company are not yet willing to admit this fact publicly, with all that MOOC hype fading quickly into the rear-view mirror their actions speak louder than their previous once ever-so-optimistic words. MOOCs and other forms of automated online education may persist as long as there’s a surplus of money in Silicon Valley anxious to disrupt higher education for the sake of capital rather than students. That ship may sail on indefinitely, but compared to the inflated rhetoric that once blew through their sails, MOOCs are destined to remain ghost ships floating on the open ocean, without the lost crew that had such high hopes to transform education forever at the start of their long journeys.