No, it’s not a the pejorative term (that’s ‘mook’, I feel dirty just typing it). Far from it. MOOC stands for ‘massive open online course’. They are free courses offered online. Offered through websites like Khan Academy and Code Academy, anyone can enroll in these courses. These programs have received a lot of hype, namely because they claim to offer people opportunities to expand their knowledge about a wealth of subjects (biology, finance, language, history…). Question is: do they work?

It depends on the person. In fall 2012, Duke University offered a course called ‘Bioelectricity’. 12,725 students enrolled, but a small percentage of those people ever actively participated in the course. Only 7,761 of those enrolled ever watched a video, and 3,658 attempted a quiz. By the end of the semester, barely anyone that had enrolled in the course was still participating. 345 people attempted the final exam, of which 313 passed. That’s a course completion rate of 2.5%. That’s miserable. A researcher for Columbia University found that 32% of those enrolled in MOOC’s withdrew from the courses before their completion, compared with 19% for equivalent classroom classes.

There is a great deal of trust with MOOCs. You have to trust the students to be truthful and not cheat, which is easier than ever when you can just open a tab and Google the answers. You have to trust them to be motivated enough to complete the course. That isn’t a lot to ask, but many people are selfish, lazy, incompetent and unmotivated. The people that would benefit the most from these courses (financially insecure people) are the people least likely to complete the courses. They don’t have the time, motivation, or energy to go through with it. It’s unfortunate.

MOOCs work, but only for some people. It worked for the 2.5% of Duke students that managed to complete the course, but it didn’t work for the 97.5% of students that failed to do so. MOOCs have great potential, but people need to be sufficiently motivated in order for that potential to be realized.