What Kind Of Beast Is A MOOC?

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Is an 85 percent drop-out rate in a MOOC (massive open online course) something to worry about? Stanford mathematics professor Keith Devlin, who’s about to launch his second MOOC, says no:

“For comparison, the equivalent figure for my own university, Stanford, is 95 percent. That’s right, 95 percent; a higher attrition rate than my online course. That’s not Stanford’s published “graduation rate,” of course. Of students admitted, 79 percent graduate in four years and 96 percent within six.

But that’s comparing apples with oranges. Anyone who decides to take a MOOC simply logs onto the website and signs up, thereby becoming one of the statistics. So a fair comparison would be to take the number of students who apply to Stanford. That figure is around 35,000, by chance about the number of students I expect will sign on for my course.

So considerably more students who sign up for my free online course will graduate than will occur with students who ‘sign up’ (i.e., apply) to Stanford, which graduates about 1,700 students a year.”

I’m sorry, Professor Devlin, but that comparison just doesn’t hold up. Students apply to a traditional college hoping to be admitted; they almost always apply to several other colleges, and they certainly don’t intend to be a student at all of them. Someone who signs up for a MOOC is signaling an intention to learn from that particular course, and if they drop out, that carries a different meaning from not being admitted to or not accepting admission at a traditional college.

Devlin is on firmer ground when he continues,

” . . . applying the traditional metrics of higher education to MOOCs is entirely misleading. MOOCs are a very different kind of educational package, and they need different metrics — metrics that we do not yet know how to construct.

Once thing that we have learned from the research done on the first twelve months of MOOCs is that, besides their students being typically much older than the traditional college population (median ages seem to be in the mid-thirties, but the spread is large), people sign up for a MOOC for very different reasons.

A great many never intend to complete the course. Rather, their goal is to sample, in order to get a general sense of a subject or topic. In other words, they come looking for education. Pure and simple.” (Read more here.)

A more accurate comparison, then, might be picking up a book on a topic one wants to learn more about. One might finish reading the book, or one might put it aside after deciding it’s not worth the investment of time and effort.

What’s your opinion—how should we think about  MOOCs?

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4 Responses to “What Kind Of Beast Is A MOOC?”

  1. I think picking up and potentially dropping a book is a decent comparison, but that doesn’t get the MOOCs off the hook for the high attrition rates.

    I think these high attrition rates are exactly what we should be focusing on with MOOCs. Why are people dropping out at such high rates, can we have an impact on that through different strategies?

    If you write a book you are not hoping that someone who has an interested in what you are writing will pick up your book only to be too bored to continue within a few pages. You want to write in a way that engages a large percentage of readers.

    Similarly MOOCs offer an opportunity to explore better pedagogical approaches (at least in the online space). This is an enormous opportunity and shouldn’t be written off because of apples to oranges comparisons. Regardless of the attrition rates at Stanford, any product that has such high attrition rates likely has room for improvement in that category. Maybe it’s not possible, but it’s certainly an area to explore.

    Imagine if a MOOC was able to achieve 95% retention in a complex subject with no credential attached. The ramifications of that could be enormous.

  2. Joy Cameron says:

    This is an excellent post and excellent opening to a conversation. You have a gift, Ms. Paul, for putting your finger on the pulse of a topic.

    I see merits in the points made by you and Prof. Devlin, as well as Mr. Cosulich who commented before me. Particularly salient, I thought, was Prof. Devlin’s point that traditional metrics are not telling us much here.

    I’ll only add my own experience. I’m currently enrolled in Prof. Devlin’s current MOOC, and about to drop it (heh, heh – the irony). My reason for dropping it has to do with your 12/3/12 post, Ms. Paul, ‘In Defense of Helicopter Parents.’ I’m the single mother of five growing children who need me more than I need the incredible opportunity of the MOOC, and working and mothering and working on a traditional degree does not leave enough hours in the day… Does that mean Prof. Devlin’s course was not of value to me? Absolutely not! MOOCs have opened a door to a wider world for me that would have remained closed otherwise, and will bear fruit exponentially (albeit in nonlinear ways) both in my own future career and in my mothering.

    So MOOCs – I salute you, and long may you thrive! You represent the very best of a spirit of innovation and collaboration that enriches us all.

  3. J. M. says:

    Mr. Devlin is really grasping at straws here. His argument makes no sense.

    The main marketing point for MOOCs is that they are MASSIVE and offer ACCESS to education for ALL (they are supposed to ‘revolutionize’ higher education, right?), so their abysmal completion rates are a HUGE cause for concern. Comparing MOOC completion rates to the acceptance rate at an exclusive school makes NO sense.

  4. Denise says:

    In an online environment, with no filter at all stopping students from enrolling in their chosen MOOC (or half a dozen at once, for that matter), it seems unfair to hold the MOOC courses to the same standards one would use for a traditional face to face degree-granting institution.

    I just don’t see the problem if most people don’t finish the course, for whatever reason. The course is for free, after all, so it’s not like the student lost an investment when they dropped out. They can move on to whatever best suits them. If they are really serious about learning the subject, they’ll find something that works for them. And maybe, like me, they only needed so much from a particular course and would count their experience a success even though the numbers don’t officially reflect that.

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