Massive open online courses may not be living up to their names.
These days, providers of the courses are teaming up with universities to alter the experience – taking it at least partly offline.
Universities are increasingly announcing plans to offer MOOCs to their own students. Some institutions are using classes as remediation tools to help students who aren't quite ready for college, while others, short on dollars and class space, rely on MOOCs to alleviate class shortages.
The MOOCs that most people think of – the free courses open to thousands of students – aren't necessarily geared toward students who want to take a course for credit, experts say.
Often people sign up because they are curious about a topic or looking to acquire certain skills – not because they have any intention to do homework. The average completion rate for massive open online courses is less than 7 percent, according to one research project.
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Universities, working with MOOC providers such as edX, Coursera and Udacity, are exploring ways of adapting the courses to reverse that trend. By combining in-person instruction with online learning, they hope to personalize the education experience and encourage student engagement.
"We're trying new things," says Dean Tsouvalas, editor-in-chief at MOOC Advisor, a free service for students exploring MOOCs. "We're not at a place where we have a solution yet. We have a ways to go."
San Jose State University is one of several institutions embracing the arrival of MOOCs.
Earlier this year San Jose partnered with edX, a research-based nonprofit, to offer a for-credit blended learning engineering course. Students watched videos and consumed other content online, but also came to a physical classroom where they worked with instructors to help master the course material.
The pass rate was higher in the hybrid course than in the university's regular course. And San Jose officials, pleased with the results, announced plans to offer several more blended courses in the future.
Howard Lurie, vice president of external affairs at edX, says the pilot program at San Jose gave him hope that MOOCs could be used to address problems posed by over-enrollment and students unprepared for college.
"It liberates faculty to focus on remediation work," he says. "It enhances the experience."
San Jose State has also partnered with Udacity, a for-profit MOOC provider with a focus on the hard sciences, to provide several for-credit courses. Students have access to mentors seven days a week to help with concepts and questions. San Jose instructors work with Udacity to create videos and interactive, online exercises for the classes.
"We see this as the evolution of MOOCs," Clarissa Shen, vice president of strategic business and marketing at Udacity, said in an email. "We have brought much more human interaction back into play in order to help students throughout their learning process and giving them that much more access to their instructors."
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Earlier this spring, Coursera, the largest of the MOOC providers, announced it would be working with the State University of New York system, the University of Colorado system and eight other university systems and public schools to explore ways of using MOOC technology and content to improve course completion rates, bolster quality and increase access to higher education.
Under the agreement, professors will be free to experiment with and improve upon the blended learning model, which the company says has been proven to enhance classroom participation.
Andrew Ng, cofounder of Coursera, says the company is constantly tweaking its courses to encourage student engagement.
Through collecting data from their many customers, the company has learned that it's the little things, such as sending a homework reminder with a positive spin or allowing students to complete course work in the order they choose, that leads to higher completion rates. Students are also more apt to complete a course they paid for, he says.
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Although MOOCs with an on-campus component are becoming more interactive, the more traditional MOOCs – the courses open to thousands of students – are still struggling with student engagement.
Frank Mulgrew, president of Post University's Online Education Institute, took two MOOCs from well-known providers within the last year to learn more about the courses.
While he enjoyed the classes, he says he was shocked by the lack of any interaction with the professor and teaching assistants. Students posted to a discussion board, he says, but there were so many unregulated comments that it was hard to carry on a meaningful conversation.
"MOOCs are certainly welcome to the online education landscape," he says. "But they have their limitations. For most students, and especially for adult learners, there is a lot of need for that interaction with faculty and engagement with other students."
Ideally, the MOOC software could help personalize instruction for students, tailoring lessons to suit a person's strengths and weaknesses.
But the technology isn't quite there yet, says Jeff Borden, vice president of instruction and academic strategy for Pearson, an education services provider.
"I believe it will happen in a decade," he says. "We're not there yet."
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