Why be surprised about MOOC retention?

Insider Higher Ed reports that MOOC providers are shocked – shocked! – that 90% of the tens of thousands of folks who register for a Massive Open Online Course are no longer there on the last day – just 10% finish the course.  They just don’t understand their product.

MOOC: A way to go to Harvard / Stanford / Yale for free


Coursera (Photo credit: AJC1)

The MOOC providers translated some of their most interesting and innovative classes into an online format. Assignments were re-designed and rubrics developed so that 60,000 could use peer review to grade each other.  Coursera and EdX evolved: course structure is more clear, and a discussion forum design lets students answer each others’ questions — which at least some seem eager to do.  Administrators at smaller schools quaked in their boots: how could we possibly compete with Chapel Hill or Stanford’s best faculty?

Now MOOC providers are wringing their hands:  thousands of people start, but only about 10% finish (exactly the proportion that received certificates for Coursera’s Gamification MOOC last fall: 80,000 of us started the course and 8000 of us did the (fairly minimal) assignments to get a certificate).  Are the 90% actually “dropouts” as Inside Higher Ed describes them?  I don’t think so.

O is for “Open” – who decides what MOOC’s are for?

The people writing about MOOCs don’t seem to use them much. I’m sure they’ve looked at MOOCs. They don’t write as though they sign up for them as real consumers — folks who want what the MOOC has to offer.  If they took a few MOOCs out of interest, they’d discover the nature of their product.

In a college classroom, the professor determines the intended learning outcomes, structures the work to achieve them, and uses a combination social suasion and structured incentives to motivate the class to move through the activities. Every student intends to receive the full package: knowledge, validation of learning, credit.

MOOCs are “Open” in ways their providers didn’t anticipate. People who register in MOOCs use them in dozens of novel ways. Some do hope to meet the traditional objectives — and may find the MOOC isn’t open enough to allow that.

Open Objectives : How MOOCs really work

I’ve  been a registered student in more than a dozen MOOCs at this point.  I have Certificates of Completion for two. I’m not far off the national average.

Why complete? If I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t complete the Gamification MOOC: I would just watch the videos. The assignments weren’t relevant to my reasons for learning.  Why not take in the content for the least time and trouble? That would meet my objectives. In a MOOC, the student’s intended outcomes, not those set by the faculty, determine how the work proceeds.

Why not complete? In contrast, I want to complete Model Thinking on my second attempt. The content was tremendously fascinating, but complex enough that casually listening to lectures while cleaning or ironing didn’t make the grade.  MOOC requirements vary wildly — Introduction to Philosophy just asks me to listen to videos and answer a few quiz questions: I will get a certificate.  Stat 2.1X was intriguing — how do other profs present statistics online? — but not interesting enough to do the embedded homework: I dropped it. Two other MOOCs presumed more background knowledge than their description stated. After a couple weeks of effort, I gave up. Interest, work load, flexibility of due dates, complexity, prerequisite skill or knowledge, and relevance to other goals contribute to students’ participation and completion of MOOCs.

Why not complete it later? Data Analysis required grappling with data sets to get through the quizzes — more programming skill than I have. But I want to master the content — so I am downloading the lecture videos, the assignments, and the handouts so I can do them in the summer, when I’m not teaching.  To Coursera, I’m a dropout: I stopped taking the quizzes after 3 or 4 weeks.  To myself, I look like an independent learner with the chance to use the videos and assignments to step myself through the material without benefit of feedback from quizzes and peers.

Why complete all of it?  MOOCs are usually free — although Infographics and Data Visualization reasonably charged $20 to validate my assignments. Why not wait for the relevant lectures and ignore the others? Skip the parts I already know and do the rest? AtomicLearning and Lynda.com monetize this model to provide access, lesson-by-lesson, to hundreds of courses for a subscription fee. Students choose to view lessons from any course in any order according to their needs.  The MOOC providers don’t seem to understand that — to some extent — this for-profit business model may be their major competition.

What is missing? The MOOC does a great job of putting content material forward.  There’s some possibility for connecting with other people, but the huge number of people makes that chaotic.  At the heart of the classroom is the conversation or problem-solving experience where one’s thinking gets pushed further or sharpened.  It most often occurs in the interplay of two minds — and that direct connection between the experienced and the novice thinker is not present in the MOOC.   At least, not yet.

About Sister Edith

Benedictine sister of St. Scholastica Monastery, Duluth, Minnesota
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7 Responses to Why be surprised about MOOC retention?

  1. Pingback: 2U now offers online MOOC courses from top schools for credit | Tim Batchelder.com

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  5. Pingback: Peer Grading Can’t Work | Virtually Education

    • Sister Edith says:

      I agree with you on the futility of peer grading. In addition to the lack of expertise of the students — a huge drawback — the limited range of assignments graded makes it difficult. On my very first peer grading experience in a MOOC, I reviewed 5 students’ work. Not one of them had done ALL the parts of the assignment. Two overshot the word limit by 100% or more. Two were writing off the top of their head without connection to the content of the course. To me, it looked like one “C” and the rest were no credit.

      But I didn’t grade that way because I didn’t feel comfortable taking responsibility for setting the standards for the course, nor empowered to do so.

      I was not the only person to have this experience. The feedback I received on my own work said: “Finally: someone who listened to the lectures and carried out the steps of the assignment. You’re the only one.”

      I know some of the textbook companies are working on auto-grading (computers to grade standardized assignments). I’m against those (another post later) but at least they could be programmed to maintain some minimum standard.

      Thanks for the link to your piece.

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