MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are spreading, and I think it's a great thing for education. One of my students took a stanford class in probability in his spare time. For lots of kinds of learning, this is the way to go, the future.
I was reading a good article in University Affairs about them (recommended)
If you want to check out available courses, try:
But I have to disagree with the article on one of its criticisms (p21 in the print version):
For one, dropout rates for MOOCs are exceptionally high. Dr. Siemens estimates that about 10 percent of registrants in his MOOCs (albeit smaller versions of the high-profile U.S. type) complete the course. Coursera’s Dr. Ng gives figures that are in the same ballpark: of 104,000 students who enrolled in his online machine-learning class last year (an earlier iteration of the Coursera version), 46,000 submitted at least one homework assignment, 20,000 completed a substantial portion of the course and 13,000, or 12.5 percent, passed.This is presented as a problem that needs to be addressed. But what exactly is the problem here?
To me, it's like saying that there is a problem with movies on television because a high percentage of people stop watching the movie before it's over.
The fact is, when people can get something free, it lowers their threshold for trying stuff they might not otherwise. They take risks, they don't stick to what they know and what they're already good at. That's a very, very good thing for education like this.
Suppose, for example, somebody has always wanted to learn probability, but was not great at math. He signs up for a MOOC in probability, and gets a lot out of it. But then his life gets busy and he drops out with only half a semester's worth of probability.
If we see dropping out as a problem, then to solve it we'd either want this person to stay in the class, never mind that he has a new baby, and finish, or we'd want him to never have signed up. Aren't both of those worse outcomes than what actually happened? And when I say "actually happened," I mean in my made-up example.
People should be willing to jump into difficult classes that they're not sure they have the power to finish, if there's not failure grade or other downside. If someone signed up for 30 MOOCs and drops out of all but the one that's best for her then it's nobody's loss, and the student's gain. To me, a high dropout rate is a good sign. It's a sign that people are taking chances with it. They might learn a bit and leave, but they also might love it. Might finish it and learn a whole new field. Might find a new direction in their life.
Let them have that.
Pictured: Five burrowing owls. They all started the course on burrowing; only two passed. From Wikimedia Commons.