The average completion rate of Online Open Course (MOOC) certification programs is abysmally low. A report published in 2016 by researchers at Harvard and MIT based on 4 years of data indicated an average certification completion rate of just 5.5%. This does not discredit MOOCs to be a good source of quality education content for those looking for good information to improve their understanding for a particular subject; however, the depressing statistics underlines a deeper concern with the ineffectiveness of using a college curriculum to steer people’s professional development.

This article was inspired by a Medium article on the 100DaysOfCode challenge and based on my response to that article.

With free access to top notch college education to all with a computer and internet connection, MOOCs present a beacon of hope for those who are unable to pursue a brick-and-mortar college education to improve their career prospects. Carefully curated learning material, and thoughtful curriculum prepared by professors at top universities are the primary selling points for MOOCs.

The MOOCs phenomenon demonstrates the underlying issue with the higher education system taken to the extreme.

The Value of Formal Education

Both Universities and MOOCs deliver the same learning content. The learning material and course work are created and sanctioned by professors at universities. Whether you get the learning content from a MOOC platform online or a lecture hall, the quality of the educational product is the same.

But being able to consume content and regurgitate it is not really a valued skill or should be a goal of learning. Project-oriented courses provide more value because they are designed to have the students to take the steering wheel and be an active participant in their learning. Through completing projects like they would at a real job, they hone essential skills like time management, ability to leverage resources, application of fundamental knowledge and working through the bugs in solving real world problems.

There are courses like this offered as MOOCs but brick-and-mortar colleges outshines MOOCs in offering students feedback, individual support / coaching, and a community of other students to learn with. That’s essentially what people are paying for because you can get the same information online or at a public library.

However, brick-and-mortar colleges in America are becoming increasingly unaffordable. Significantly more people (Americans) sign up for MOOCs than to be a student at a four year education. The barrier to entry is low and there are no financial burden or social ramifications if you dropped out of an online class. Financial burden aside, I think people are dropping out of MOOCs for the same reason they drop out of a brick-and-mortar college - they don’t see a return on investment for this education

There’s an opportunity cost for being a student. When you are studying, you are not working so you lose potentially 4 years of earning and time that you could be spending learning useful skills through on-the-job training.

However, people are dropping out of MOOCs more often than college because college dropout carries more of a stigma than MOOC-dropouts and access to student loans are easy.

Formal Education Worth The Time?

What MOOCs and most colleges offer are purely learning content and direction on what to work on. Access to learning content doesn’t guarantee a successful learning outcome. Similarly, a successful learning outcome doesn’t guarantee a successful final outcome for why many people are signing up in droves to get into a lifetime of debt.

The idea of getting a degree from the best college you can get into so you can get a high paying job was hammered into our heads by our parents. Thinking about education as this abstract concept is a pitfall. This is demonstrated by growing trend of unemployment and underemployment experienced by recent college grads. Distinguishing between different degrees and majors is still not addressing the underlying question: Why do we need to know any of this stuff at all?

Professors develop the curriculum based on their experience. Their experience is primarily in academia. It’s that surprising for professors to develop their curriculum around theories. Universities have came a long way since its inception as a place for scholars and a place for learning-for-the-sake-of-learning. It has taken the role of a traditional vocational training school. Professors do their best to offer the most relevant coursework, but there’s still a big gap between what professors think future employers need and what future employers actually need.

This gap is especially prevalent in the high tech (software, IT) industry where technology is evolving so fast, the stuff they teach you in college when you are a freshman becomes obsolete by the time you become a junior. When I was a freshman, they taught me Java and Object Oriented Programming design. By the time I was a junior in college, they taught the freshmen python. By the time I left college, functional programming became popularized which wasn’t taught as a computer science 101 topic but is now. It’s understandable why many college courses focus on theories because theories don’t change that fast.

Need-Driven On-the-job Learning

I think the most authentic and effective learning is primarily driven by a need to obtain necessary information to support the accomplishment of a job. Establishing a reason to learn prior to committing to a program to earn a certificate or degree will produce a more successful learning outcome.

Most of the need-driven learning come from on-the-job training. Your job requires certain tasks to be accomplished and you can’t accomplish these tasks without closing some knowledge and skills gap. On-the-job learning is generally associated with training for new hires. New technologies frequently require specific new skills that schools don’t teach and that labor markets don’t supply. Information technologies have radically changed much work over the last couple of decades, employers have had persistent difficulty finding workers who can make the most of these new technologies.

A number of high-tech companies report difficulties in finding qualified workers but many do offer unpaid internship opportunities for a prospective employee. It simply doesn’t make economic sense for employers to pay someone who requires a lot of training before becoming capable of contributing useful work. Unpaid internship is consistent with the apprenticeship model since technical training was provided in return for the labor given.

On-the-job training is a form of apprenticeship that have consistently produced skilled workers who powered the economies of many civilizations throughout the ages. To develop a skilled workforce, we need people to develop skills that are valued and in demand. Young people used to be able to enter into an apprenticeship to be a certain tradesman (e.g., blacksmith, baker) and learn on the job by shadowing and helping out an experienced tradesman. The apprentices learned on the job and get the coaching and mentorship they need to obtain the necessary skills to become a tradesman.

It wasn’t until the industrial age that the education system as we know now come to be. The goal of the education system in the industrial age was to train an obedient factory workers who are not required to have specialized skills but just need to be capable of following directions to a tee.

But the apprenticeship model for education is still practiced in many developed countries in today. Germany, for instances, provide its school-age population the option of entering different types schools that provide a fast track for a vocation (e.g., technicians) with emphasis on practical knowledge and apprenticeship or an academically rigorous track a career to enter a field that requires a university education (e.g., lawyers, teachers, doctors) and are based more or less in theoretical knowledge.

American youths cannot rely on state-sponsored apprenticeship programs or expect employers to pay them to be an unskilled workers trying hard to close those skills gap. What the future workforce need is not an education in theories (unless they plan to work in academia) but rather more on-the-job training opportunities. With most college grads buried in debt, it’s unclear how they can afford to take an unpaid internship when they have to make monthly debt payments and afford the rising cost of living and the stagnating wages.