OK, just to get it out of the way: Curious.com is not a MOOC (as you think of them) and is not competitive with MOOCs. We have lessons on crocheting a chunky cowl (I learned what that is!), bike repair, how to bluff in poker, and even more stuff than you can shake a stick at (if you’re into shaking sticks at things).

An article just came out describing the struggles the MOOCs you know about (Coursera, Udacity, etc.) are having getting students to successfully complete their courses. Very (in)famously, a pilot program between San Jose State and Udacity spectacularly crashed and burned.

So what’s all the anxiety about? I think it’s two things: a lack of imagination and some unrealistic expectations.

A lack of imagination

You see, the first courses on these sites were direct translations of college courses onto the web. It started with a camcorder on a tripod in a lecture hall, and assignments uploaded to the server. I get the thinking: “We have an articulate professor! And a camera! Let’s go!”

The problem is the standard 10-12 week college course (1-2 hours of lecture a week, some assignments and office hours) probably isn’t even the optimal way to teach on a college campus, let alone online. At a college, you have a captive audience of people who have years of I-must-go-to-college on their brains and $10,000s of skin in the game. Online, you have the competing distraction of exploding coffee creamer.

Seriously, you gotta check that video out. I’ll wait. (I originally had the note to check out the video in a parenthetical, but it’s so important, it got its own paragraph.)

Since then, the video production has improved dramatically and online assignments are better, but there’s a LONG way to go before you can make 100 hours (10 weeks x 10-12 hours/week) of Computational Methods for Data Analysis palatable to most people online.

Someone’s gonna figure it out. There’s enough buzz and momentum around MOOCs that someone’s going to figure it out, but we’re going to have to be patient.

But this difference between the standard in-college student and the online student is why we have…

Unrealistic expectations

Did people really think we’d have even remotely similar successful completion rates online? The article says 4% of users who registered completed their course. Let’s see: 4% of online users who registered for a free possibly-100-hour course completed it? That’s actually incredible by online standards.

This is an industry where if you can get 10% of your visitors to give you an email address, you’re doing really well.


I don’t think MOOCs are doing that poorly, really. It’s really early and the companies, investors, and media are still trying to figure out what it’s all about. Ultimately, I’m bullish on the whole thing. College courses are way too expensive and inaccessible; the current system is unsustainable. Eventually, product innovation will improve registration and completion rates, and all the hype will be replaced by reasonable expectations of what will probably still be a really large online industry.

And after that, it’ll be all rainbows, unicorns, and lollipops. Just in time for me to not have to sell my organs to educate my kids.