“It’s not that face-to-face classroom is low, it’s that these others have risen to the top,” Hartman said.
At Florida International University, history professor Brian Peterson teaches both online and traditional classes. In his face-to-face classes, he also uses the online teaching platform — Peterson might give a 15-minute lecture and then break up the students into research teams, or they may evaluate each other’s written papers online.
“What we’re doing in class is interacting ... It’s making face-to-face classes better,” Peterson said.
Still, Peterson has mixed emotions about the rise of fully online classes. He said he has noticed that students in his online classes seem less engaged (with less-frequent attendance, for example) and that they often sign up for online classes assuming the course will be easier in that format.
The course does end up being easier online, Peterson said, if only because he can’t push these unmotivated students as far.
“You have to set the bar lower online if you want to keep an acceptable number of students,” Peterson said. “Yeah, it bothers me, but I think that my job is to do the best I can with the circumstances that I have.”
Another issue is whether online education is the right fit for all types of students. Some research has suggested that community college students — who are often unprepared for college-level work when they enroll — are particularly ill-suited for online courses.
A 2011 Columbia University study found that community college students had an 82 percent chance of completing an online course — compared to 90 percent for face-to-face courses. In remedial classes, the gap grew even larger, with 85 percent of face-to-face students succeeding, but only 74 percent of online students completing the course.
Ruth Ann Balla, who heads Miami Dade College’s Virtual College, said online students are about 5 percent more likely to either fail or drop out of an MDC course. To help students succeed online, the college caps its classes at 30 students, and MDC designs its classes to keep students engaged: There are lots of discussion groups and group projects, and assignments are due every week instead of only at the end of the semester. The college will also call students who are not regularly logging in.
“We, by intention, are very aware and really track what’s happening in the online classes,” Balla said. About 10,000 MDC students are taking online courses each semester, and the college offers 16 different online degree or certificate programs.
But MDC isn’t offering any MOOCs, Balla said, in part because of concerns that its students would struggle in a class that has little to no interaction with faculty. Balla also isn’t sold on the whole MOOC concept in general.
“I have to question why do you have 1,000 or 5,000 or 50,000 people in a course when fewer than 10 percent are finishing?” she asked. “What’s the point?”
Investors are clearly more bullish on the future of MOOCs. The massive courses have generated considerable Silicon Valley buzz, and Coursera — the MOOC provider that partners with UF as well as more than 80 other schools — has had no trouble raising money, even though the firm has yet to turn a profit. In a span of about 15 months, Coursera has raised roughly $65 million.
MOOC users in some instances rave about the experience. The website Coursetalk allows the public to search for MOOCs based on subject area or student reviews. There are several other similar websites, such as Course Buffet and Class Central — all of them aiming to become the “Yelp” of the MOOC universe.
Of the hundreds of courses listed on Coursetalk, the top-rated MOOC is “An Introduction to Interactive Programming in Python” at Rice University.
Closer to home, South Miami-Dade student Max Goldberg is quite satisfied with the UM MOOC he took in AP Calculus. Max, 17, also took the AP course in person at his high school, Belen Jesuit, but he credits the UM course with helping him brush up on the topic before sitting for the actual AP test.
Thanks in part to the UM course, Max scored a 3 on the exam — enough to earn him college credit at some schools.
In keeping with its university philosophy of smaller classes, UM’s MOOCs are somewhat smaller than what you’ll find at other colleges. Max’s class, for example, had hundreds, not thousands, of students.
Although Max praised the UM class as interesting and engaging (with an instructor who answered questions and even gave out his phone number), the teen still favors a traditional classroom. When taking classes online, he said, it’s too easy to lose focus and start wasting time surfing the Web.
“I’m more of a fan of face-to-face,” he said. Looking ahead to college, Max said, online classes “would not be my first option.”