More contra MOOCs – that pfffft sound is the bubble deflating

Online education and Financial Aid
Online education and Financial Aid (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I wrote here before sceptically about MOOCs, essentially saying ‘don’t believe the hype’, and that lots of people are going to lose their shirts betting large on web delivery as the new university. The few I’ve looked at end up feeling a little an online version of the Open University courses that used to be broadcast late at night on BBC2.

Lots more contra articles have appeared in the last while (even ignoring this). Here’s a selection (and some are quite stunning):

The Atlantic on MOOC completion rates:

My first massively open online course ended recently, and I just can’t stop asking multiple-choice questions.

Here’s one: Which of the following statements might be true?

1) Two-thirds of those enrolled never showed up

2) More than half of the students earned a passing grade

It’s obviously a trick question since the answer is “both.” The apparent contradiction is entirely dependent on another, perhaps bigger question, one that is often phrased as a challenge—if not to to the idea of MOOCs, to the idea of their value: What good is a class where only 2 percent of the students bother to finish?

Or, to put it a little more quantitatively: What denominator should we use in computing student participation, engagement, and completion in a course like this, when the numerator is going to be the number who passed (in my case, 1,196)?

Fast Company profile of Sebastian Thrun (more or less the inventor of MOOCs). A must read. He’s not a happy camper anymore:

… he was obsessing over a data point that was rarely mentioned in the breathless accounts about the power of new forms of free online education: the shockingly low number of students who actually finish the classes, which is fewer than 10%. Not all of those people received a passing grade, either, meaning that for every 100 pupils who enrolled in a free course, something like five actually learned the topic. If this was an education revolution, it was a disturbingly uneven one.

“We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don’t educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product,” Thrun tells me. “It was a painful moment.” Turns out he doesn’t even like the term MOOC.

Some great snark from Slate:

 ….the new direction of Udacity, which is to leave the university environment and focus on corporate training courses, seems appropriate: Sure, go “disrupt” a bunch of corporations, they love that kind of thing.

Neatly fulfilling my suspicion that where the money is to be made in MOOCs in the short-term is in life-long learning – things like CPDs etc.

And see this for MOOCs and privilege:

Most people who take massive open online courses already hold a degree from a traditional institution, according to a new paper from the University of Pennsylvania.

Wow. People who already know how to learn are the ones who are most likely to continue learning and to do so independently:

“The individuals the MOOC revolution is supposed to help the most—those without access to higher education in developing countries—are underrepresented among the early adopters,” write the paper’s six authors.

Sure, we do need to experiment with lecture delivery: but in the end, we need to foster responsible, motivated, curious, self-directed learners. And this is a life-long project, starting from the earliest exposure to education, attitudes and behaviours within the home toward learning, quality of schools,  the more general social and cultural value placed on education, and so on. Placing a course online without all of these (and many other) hidden supports is not going to achieve much of anything.

UPDATE: A must read from Tressie McMillan Cottom with lots of wisdom, but this ‘graph struck me particularly:

 …places like SJSU that don’t benefit from Stanford’s highly selective admissions standards to skim the most prepared students, those general education classes have to do double-duty filling in learning gaps. Offering these courses for credit using Udacity significantly increases the incentive for students to take the class and risks for students if the class is a dud. General education courses are path dependent, meaning you fail one course at the beginning of a sequence and you cannot take the next course in that sequence. Research shows that disrupting path dependent coursework really hurts the most marginal students by increasing their time to degree completion, dinging their motivation, and sinking their GPAs.

In other words, those who are best-prepared and most-motivated to learn are the ones that MOOCs are best for (whoops). She teases out the other implications very carefully here too. Her point about accreditation and vetting is  also key: you can’t just put on a class in a university. It must necessarily be run through the relevant teaching committee, it must reach the relevant standard, it must be examined (etc, ad nauseum). MOOCs – not so much.

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Author: Shane O'Mara

Neuroscientist

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