Massive online course model adapts to fight sluggish completion rates

Matt Richmond
August 13, 2014

Not too long ago, free online courses offered by elite universities were touted as a major part of the future of higher education. The trend fizzled quickly, as students faired poorly in the courses and there was little or no interaction with professors. But as Matt Richmond reports, one Columbia University professor has ideas about how to fix those problems.

“Alright so welcome to the fourth of our live discussions in the summer session on special relativity…”

Brian Greene is a professor at Columbia, a theoretical physicist and author of popular science books like "The Elegant Universe" and "The Fabric of the Cosmos."

This summer, he can be found in an upstairs room at the library at SUNY Delhi, teaching an online course about Einstein’s theory of special relativity.

“Imagine that we’ve got two spaceships that are connected by a thread, a real delicate thread…”

Greene sits surrounded by a laptop, a web camera and a larger monitor, using all the powers of explanation that have made him about as famous as a physicist can be these days, to take students step-by-step through Einstein’s famous theory.

“Will the string connecting them break or not break? That’s the puzzle…”

Greene is teaching his version of a massive online open course, or MOOC. The free courses were met with great fanfare after they began in 2011. Quickly, just about every Ivy League university was offering MOOCs. A headline writer at the New York Times declared 2012 “The Year of the MOOC”.

The excitement quickly waned. Greene says the early courses were going about it all wrong.

“Why just have a new delivery vehicle for old-style education?”

The idea’s creator, Sebastian Thrun, an innovator of the driverless car, told the magazine Fast Company that at one point he realized his company, Udacity, was offering a "lousy product."

Their completion rate was about 10 percent. And even fewer students actually passed the course. They’ve since switched to more interactive courses offered as training seminars to businesses for a fee.

Greene says he is doing it for education, to get high school students who are ready to go beyond what’s available in their science class. He says his organization, World Science U, has enrolled 130,000 or so students since it launched in March. But, they’re not yet sure how to measure what students are getting out of it when the course is completed.