Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and Their Drawbacks



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)
http://www.universityaffairs.ca/all-about-moocs.aspx

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.

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5 comments:

Jeanette Bicknell said...

I think that the high drop-out rate is a problem if MOOCs are promoted as a substitute for the traditional university experience. If they are only a supplement, then it isn't a problem.

It would also be interesting to have some data on why people drop out, if only to improve MOOCs. If only 10% of a class completed one of your courses, I can imagine that you'd want to know why.

Anne Warne said...

I hadn't considered the drop-out rate from Jim's perspective but it is a good thing if people are trying new areas of learning or are tapping back into areas which they may have attempted but in which they lacked confidence.
Hopeully, the traditional university experience and the use of MOOCs will both become a part of the learning experience as MOOCs may be a non-traditional pathway into Higher or Vocational education streams.

Paulo McManus said...

Despite all the educator's disagreements with Classes Online, still it's benefit is undeniable.

Anonymous said...

Bear in mind what it entails to sign up for a MOOC. Many people simply register to have a look see. Personally I've signed up to many classes on Coursera so I can pick and choose once the content is available at the start date. It's not the same as enrolling at a bricks & mortar university. Given this I'd say a 10%+ completion rate is actually high (especially as some of the course work can be pretty grueling)

Steven Borr said...

In today's era we can never disagree with the benefits of online courses. This is really helpful especially for adult learning. Another good thing about online training is in cost reductions and time savings. This is significant, and very likely the most measurable advantage. IT Courses