In much of the public discussion about the future of online education, journalists, myself included, spend a lot of time looking a “trends” in education technology and talking to “experts” who predict what might happen. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), free online courses designed for thousands of students at a time, are the latest big technology trend.

But it doesn’t appear most education journalists have actually tried to, well, take a MOOC.

Justin Pope over at the Associated Press actually did. It’s worth reading his entire article here but some points he makes are pretty interesting:

About 39,600 signed up for “The Challenges of Global Poverty” and I was among 4,600 who finished. I passed, if not exactly with flying colors, and was emailed a PDF of the “certificate of mastery” to prove it – my very own quasi-credential from MIT. The experience was enlightening, both on the subject matter and the potential for MOOCs generally. I learned more than I expected, and worked harder than I expected. I took a course for free from two leading experts in a field that’s of great personal interest – a remarkable opportunity. For millions around the world who lack access to quality teaching, the MOOC-backers are right: This is a revolution.

How was the course?

Technologically, the experience was fairly simple and elegant. An online “dashboard” gives you access to videos, quizzes and other resources. You quickly fall into a routine: a video lecture segment by one of the professors (filmed in MIT’s on-campus version of the course), typically lasting 5 to 15 minutes, followed by exercises to make sure you got the key points, plus a longer homework assignment after each week.

But MOOCs appear to have certain serious structural disadvantages.

MOOCs generally operate on a cohort model – the group starts together, and generally advances at the same speed, regardless of ability. Unlike some online courses, which offer self-paced options, MOOCs generally stick to this model. I found this frustrating, as did others in the class. One week I had a work trip and couldn’t complete the assignments, so took a couple zeroes. But there was no option to work ahead one week, or catch up after. If the point is to have convenient access to the material, why the tightly constrained schedule?

And then there was this:

I’m also more aware of just how incomplete an education would be if based entirely on MOOCs. Here’s one big thing I never did in this course: I never made an argument. I was graded almost entirely on multiple-choice questions (sometimes we were asked for a number). I never went through that process of examining disparate evidence, weighing it, synthesizing and articulating an argument that to my mind should be part of any college course, even in economics.

Perhaps the most interesting point he makes has to do with the notoriously low completion rate for such courses:

The first thing I learned is why so few who start MOOCs finish them: They’re hard. When a class is free and doesn’t generally produce a credential it takes real self-discipline (or a promise to your editor to write about the experience) to make yourself keep up. These MOOCs simulate a full course at a top-tier university, which means a minimum of 2-3 hours per week of lectures, plus quizzes, homework and reading. Most difficult of all, you have to keep up for 12 to 15 weeks, which is a lot harder for people like me, with a toddler at home and a day job, than it was when I was a full-time college student.

Just because online courses are open-access doesn’t mean they’re easy. They’re actually harder than real ones. That’s probably because there’s no personal interaction. That also explains the 88 percent dropout rate. Part of the reason people succeed in real colleges, the good ones at least, is that college is actually kind of fun.

It seems reasonable to wonder if we should expect high completion from MOOCs. When you take most of the enjoyment out of college (and I don’t just mean keg stands; I also mean class discussions and academic projects), it’s sensible to expect most people just won’t stick around.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer