Massively Overhyped Online Courses?
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Sure, a few free, open, online courses have generated eye-popping registration numbers, upwards of 200,000 in some cases. However the average enrollment for MOOCs is more like 30,000 to 50,000. The real problem, though, is that more than 90% of these would-be learners don’t finish. Many don’t even start the courses for which they are registered. And a lot of those who finish don’t take another one. That means the number of people actually learning anything substantial is much less massive than the PR suggests.
Examining the Numbers
Later articles examined the numbers in more detail thanks to new data from exhaustive studies—such as those carried out by HarvardX. The data showed how important "student intent" was to the drop-out story.
Personally, I found I had a tendency to enroll on several courses at once, sample the content, then stick with those that I found the most interesting. But invariably, I wouldn't unenroll from a course, even though I knew I wouldn't complete it. This is what HarvardX calls either "browsing" or "auditing" a course. Delineating this behavior from "dropping out" has a dramatic effect on the statistics.
To ascertain student intentions, the HarvardX pre-course survey asked the following question: "People register for HarvardX courses for different reasons. Which of the following best describes you?"
- Here to browse the materials, but not planning on completing any course activities. [coded as Browse]
- Planning on completing some course activities, but not planning on earning a certificate. [coded as Audit]
- Planning on completing enough course activities to earn a certificate. [coded as Complete]
- Have not decided whether I will complete any course activities. [coded as Unsure]
Another factor to consider in drop-out rates is potentially thousands of students who absorb the material but don't feel the need to complete the tests and assignments. Is the certificate of completion a big enough incentive to finish the course? If there were a higher perceived value to certificates, completion rates might rise. For example, what if students could earn college credit for completing MOOCs? What if there were more published stories about how MOOCs helped students achieve career advancement or win job interviews?
In this Wired Magazine article, Harman Singh—CEO of WizIQ, a MOOC provider—argues that lack of teacher engagement is a critical factor contributing to the high drop-out rates.
The lack of live instructor involvement also means no follow-up with the student, or any assurance along the way that the student’s learning trajectory is heading in the right direction. At the course’s conclusion, only the learner can determine if he or she was successful.
My personal experience is that I felt more motivated and engaged when MOOC lecturers were actively involved in forums. During the Content Strategy for Professionals MOOC on Coursera in 2014, lecturer John Levine of Northwestern University set interesting challenges inside the forum in real-time. Spending quality online time with Professor Levine made a big difference. He was able to guide students to deepen their understanding of how visual messages are important to organizational storytelling. I enjoyed it so much, I was sad when it ended. That's powerful.
Another example of teacher engagement that had a positive impact on my enjoyment was Introduction to Journalism on FutureLearn. Active participation in forums by several lecturers added significant value to the course because students could ask questions that were outside of the course curriculum. Lecturers drew from their personal experience when they were professional journalists in the field.
WizIQ's Harman Singh posits that MOOCs will evolve to having more teacher involvement.
Teachers are the key that unlocks learning in these courses. They help students resolve issues and problems.
Talk of MOOC "intent" or "teacher engagement" seems to target yesterday's problem, i.e. how to make MOOCs work as part of the current education system. MOOCs have forged a technology-driven revolution for online education. But another revolution is underway—self-directed, accelerated learning.
Learning is changing from a teacher-centric model to student-centric. Technology is enabling a transfer of ownership of the learning experience from the teacher to the student. Over the last few years, we have seen the rise of several prominent pioneers in the art of accelerated learning—experimenters in high-efficiency learning like Tim Ferris and Josh Kaufman. Then there are the MOOC-centered self-learners like Laurie Pickard and Jonathan Haber.
Are we seeing a fork in the road for MOOCs, with one path for traditional higher education and another for self-directed, accelerated learning as part of an overall process of Lifelong Learning?
Here's what some members of our Facebook Group are saying about MOOCs:
I am definitely in the area of praise for MOOCs. For me the biggest benefit was the MOOCs that went outside my comfort zone or normal area of study. I also think a MOOC can reach beyond the MOOC itself. I extended my network to other innovative and creative people with whom I am still in contact to share ideas with.
—Jurgens Pieterse, Capetown, S. Africa.
I appreciate the flexibility to learn when I can and at the pace that I set. With so many others on board, there is always someone to share an idea with.
—David J. Youngman, Perth, Australia.
MOOC's give you exactly what you put into them.
—Mary McGuirk, WA, USA.
It is massive, it is open, it is online, but it is not reaching learning mass, it is not close to the learners way or approach, it is not inline with most of the educational systems of the world.....
—V. Krishna Moorthy, New Delhi, India.
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