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In my opinion

MOOC madness subsides

The newer iterations are a much better use of the medium.


MOOC madness has taken a turn for the better.  Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) entered public debate in 2012 when Coursera, Khan Academy and Udacity, together with a number of prominent U.S. universities (Harvard, MIT) started to offer free online courses to anyone. Hundreds of thousands of students signed up for courses in artificial intelligence, circuit-board design and other disciplines, mostly science, technology, engineering, and math. For little or no money, anyone with a reliable Internet connection could take a course that might earn them a digital “badge” upon completion. Everything was coming up roses.

Unfortunately, the bloom quickly faded. When researchers calculated how many individuals actually completed these courses and divided that number by how many initially registered for them, it became apparent that the lion’s share were unsuccessful.  For every 100,000 people who registered in these first MOOCs, fewer than 5,000 completed them.  Much gnashing of teeth ensued and a glass half-empty perspective permeates public debate in online education.

Looking back, it certainly seemed like MOOCs were an idea whose time had come. Increasing discontent over the high cost of university education, coupled with the advent of web-based learning management systems, surely meant that much of university could be experienced online. One could foresee a future in which people everywhere could obtain a university education for next to nothing. Unfortunately, looks can be deceiving. Attrition rates and the realization that many completers of MOOCs were male graduates made the egalitarian MOOC look less and less appealing.

Yet, condemning online courses for high attrition rates or gender bias ignores those students who do obtain real benefits from MOOCs. If we take another look at MOOCs, we can generate a more nuanced view of their benefits: Should success be defined solely in terms of completing courses? Harvard Research Fellow Justin Reich recently examined the intentions of MOOC students and found that by accounting for diverse intentions of students one can declare much higher success rates.  Sometimes, the so-called “lurkers” only want to get a glancing impression. Others may have the intention of only delving into one particular topic within a larger course. Both of these types of MOOC students would be considered failures from a more simplistic perspective. Perhaps by allowing MOOC students to act on their intentions a different picture emerges?

Building on that notion, Carleton University in Ottawa launched an experimental Flex Term model where MOOC students can “taste” a particular course and, if they like what they see, seamlessly enroll as a special student to turn their efforts into a university credit.

As an example, Erika Veillette is a 30-something mother of two, who had never had the opportunity to attend university. Erika enrolled in Carleton’s Intro Psych MOOC on Oct. 30 2014 and, after completing about 20 per cent of the course, came to two important realizations; she was capable of succeeding in university-level courses and she had a real interest in psychology. Carleton’s Flex Term allowed her to register as an official tuition-paying student in Introduction to Psychology over the weekend of Dec. 20-21, 2014, and to get credit for her completed work. On evenings and weekends, Erika is shoe-horning her studies into her already busy schedule of full-time work and raising her family. The MOOC and its Flex Term segue have allowed Erika a path to success that traditional bricks and mortar classrooms and rigid schedules would have denied her.

As an experiment in postsecondary education, MOOCs have the opportunity to bring university education to under-served segments of our population: full-time workers; those with family responsibilities; those who have not previously had the opportunity to engage in university. Carleton’s online courses (unlike those of Harvard and MIT) also come with closed captioning and the ability to speed up, slow down and replay, making them accessible for students who may not be granted such accommodations in every classroom. Condemning them for high attrition rates ignores the fact that some students are obtaining real benefits from MOOCs and other online courses. Apart from the benefits that individual students like Erika might enjoy, online courses also have some obvious financial advantages to increasingly cash-strapped universities.

While universities certainly have more work to do in order to improve the success rates of students who enroll in MOOCs, it is also true that online education is delivering value to members of our population who might not otherwise have the time, money, credentials or physical ability to enroll in conventional university courses.  It may be that the MOOC glass is half-full after all.

Dr. Tsuji is a faculty member in the psychology and human-computer interaction departments at Carleton University in Ottawa. 

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  1. Jim Davies / July 10, 2015 at 11:22

    I agree that completion rates are misleading. I object to the idea that a course is considered not worth having if some large number of people don’t complete it. It’s like saying that TV shows should not be on the air because most people “fail” to complete watching them and change the channel, or that Joyce’s “Ulysses” is a failure because of how many people don’t finish reading it.

    We need to examine our expectations and those of students. I know lots of people who signed up with a MOOC with no intention of finishing it. The cost for joining is so low, as is the cost of quitting; it’s no wonder people sign up for the flimsiest of reasons. Well, good for them.

    Of course a normal class at a university will have lower attrition rate–they need the grade for the degree, they need to be full-time students in many cases, and won’t get their tuition expense back. These are confounding factors when evaluating effectiveness of learning. They might explain the attrition rate differences, as opposed to the quality of the education the MOOC provides, which is what we really should be interested in, right?

    Personally, I see lots of people trying out MOOCs, even if they don’t finish, as a great thing, and this article shows some reasons why.