As massively open online courses (MOOCs) become more and more popular, the din from doubters and naysayers has also grown increasingly loud. There’s no shortage of opinions: “They’ll disrupt education!” or, “They’re just a passing fad!” or, worse still, “They’re ineffective!” Although the dust hasn’t yet settled, these points are worth digging into. What little research data there is about MOOCs, or online courses, reveals a couple of red flags – including that there’s an at-risk demographic. But who makes up this demographic? And more importantly, can MOOCs evolve to identify and help those at-risk?

A new study that compares the effectiveness of online and in-person classes has revealed something very interesting: students who struggle in the classroom will perform even worse in online classes. In a recent Seattle Times article, writer Katherine Long describes the study (conducted by the Community College Research Center at Teachers College at Columbia University): researchers reviewed over half a million classes (both online and in-person), and the students who took them, over a four-year period. It looked specifically at community college classes and students, both of which have been obscured amid the buzz surrounding the partnerships between highly ranked four-year universities and MOOC providers.

In her article, Long quotes Shanna Smith Jaggars, one of the study’s co-authors (the other being Di Xu), as saying, “Many previous studies comparing online and in-class course success have been limited in scope, usually only comparing the results of a single course taught in-person at a four-year college to the same course taught online. Those studies often show that online is just as good as in-person.”

But the Jaggars/Xu study did not come to the same conclusion. Students who were less likely to succeed in a bricks and mortar classroom (“males, black students and students with lower levels of academic preparation”) performed even worse in their online courses. This result gave voice to a red flag in the study: “This is troubling from an equity perspective: If this pattern holds true across other states and educational sectors, it would imply that the continued expansion of online learning could strengthen, rather than ameliorate, educational inequity.”

If online courses do indeed exacerbate existing educational inequalities, then it exposes an unseen crack that could bring the MOOC ship down if providers don’t consider the disparate skill levels among the users they are targeting. Coursera, the largest MOOC provider at the moment, declares on its web site that it wants to educate millions of students around the world. Udacity’s website states the goal of “democratizing education.” It’s one thing to have millions of users, but if a large slice of those users are failing or not completing courses, then what does that say about MOOCs desire to create revenue streams with repeat customers? If MOOCs are to survive and thrive amongst a broad spectrum of students, should MOOC providers be responsible for vetting prospective students – not leaving it up to the students themselves – to ensure they have the right skills for a class? And should they strive to identify students who are struggling to pass or complete a course?

In Long’s article, she quotes Connie Broughton, from the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, on some suppositions for why less prepared students performed worse in virtual classes: “Maybe working online calls out those skills that these students don’t have yet. It may be reading – they may read slow. Or keyboarding.” Ironically, there may be some potential for MOOCs to help students build foundational skills at their own pace, before diving into more advanced material. As the study brings up, enrollment has increased significantly at two-year colleges and online courses, where “a large proportion of the population is nontraditional students” who may need more time making the basics stick.

Washington state community colleges have come up with a way to increase the odds that students will successfully complete online courses: they limit online enrollment to 30 students. That way, instructors have time to thoroughly assess all their students – and provide additional help as needed. But the enrollment limitation goes against the incredible scalability MOOC providers believe they are capable of delivering. So what are some other ways to address a skills shortage among MOOC students?

The study’s authors have four recommendations for colleges that MOOC providers might want to pay attention to if they want to be more than a passing fad and truly impact a large number of global students. The first is “screening,” in which schools “redefine online learning as a privilege, rather than a right.” Jaggers and Xu suggest that schools consider pre-qualifying students to determine that they have the skills to adapt successfully to an online learning environment, as well as putting a cap on the number of students allowed to enroll so they don’t get lost in the virtual crowd.

The second recommendation is called “scaffolding,” which means incorporating online learning skills into the curriculum for foundational courses (the authors give the example of “English composition”) so that students learn how to learn online, along with a new subject.

The third suggestion is to embed an “early warning system” into a class that would detect students who don’t “show up,” or fail to turn in assignments (if MOOCs ever offer credit towards a degree, this could be a critical step). This would require the school offering the course (or MOOC provider) to contact seemingly non-participatory students to determine if a skills shortage is involved, and form a plan to help them complete courses, along with some additional resources.

The fourth and final recommendation, “improvement”, isn’t so much tactical as it is strategic: create courses that that aim to achieve the same results as “face-to-face” classes, irrespective of the divergence in skill level among students. But the authors admit “substantial new investments in course design, faculty professional development, learner and instructor support, and systematic course evaluations” would be vital to truly innovating the online learning experience. That’s no small feat. But as any successful, competitive company knows, survival depends on making changes to retain current customers and attract new ones. MOOCs, although young, face a clear challenge: evolve or die.

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