The moot point of MOOCs

Some people are head-over-heels in love with MOOCs. Or perhaps more accurately, the idea of MOOCs. They believe the new paradigm will democratise – and even revolutionise – education.

Others, however, consider MOOCs a passing fad, an unsustainable business model, yet another a buzzword destined for the scrapheap like so many before it.

I happen to stand somewhere in the middle. I believe MOOCs will democratise education to some extent, and they will revolutionise the delivery of education. Importantly though, I don’t think they will revolutionise the science of education; after all, a MOOC is arguably an extensible version of what we’ve been doing all along – albeit on a massive (and free) scale.

I also think the business model will become sustainable, as soon as the providers adopt a freemium model. By that I mean the content is free, but the formal assessment and certification attracts a premium.

And don’t forget the intangibles of marketing. Perhaps a MOOC is a loss leader, or a branding exercise, or a CSR strategy. The ROI might be more complicated than the profit-and-loss statement suggests.

Piles of books.

So I appreciate the arguments both for and against MOOCs pitched by their proponents and detractors. Nonetheless one aspect of the argument that I don’t grasp is the high dropout rate. Apparently if relatively few participants officially complete the course, then the educational experience must have been be a failure. I just don’t buy it.

Annie Murphy Paul recently blogged about this phenomenon (The Truth About MOOCs: Only 10% Of Students Actually Finish Them), in which she makes the point that…

…for all the hype about making education available for free on the web, we need to work a lot harder to create the psychological conditions that promote persistence, accountability, goal-directedness, responsiveness to instructors’ and classmates’ expectations, and whatever else it is that makes students keep going to class in the real world.

Fair call, but I think there’s more going on beneath the surface, and the post attracted some excellent comments to that effect. For example, Arthur Clarke commented…

…I wonder if we might not overstate the problem. How many unfinished books do you have lying around? If you are like me you have quite a few. Does that mean that I have wasted my time and, puritanically, should castigate myself for being a quitter? Perhaps we need to look at learning differently.

Perhaps we need to look at learning differently indeed.

My reaction to the 10% completion rate for MOOCs is:

Who cares?!

The proponents of informal learning don’t care. Nor do the proponents of constructivist learning. Nor, dare I suggest, do the proponents of social, mobile and blended learning. To these people, the completion rate of a MOOC is a moot point.

The only people who seem to care are the MOOC providers themselves (naturally), the proponents of formal learning, and the ever-present killjoys.

To the MOOC providers I say: Adopt the freemium model already! I’m no accountant, but I expect a 10% completion rate would be financially viable.

To the proponents of formal learning I say: Formal learning certainly has its place, but that doesn’t mean it meets everyone’s needs. One size does not fit all.

To the killjoys I say: Identifying an obstacle does not impress me. Explaining how to overcome it does.

8 thoughts on “The moot point of MOOCs

  1. I agree. I am signing up for MOOCs now as if “what do I have to lose?” I get what I can from them, but it doesn’t matter (to anyone, as is pointed out here, apart from statisticians) whether I “complete” the course or not. The important thing is that for people who need to complete courses, the opportunities for that are skyrocketing (toward a freemium model). For those who want to learn what they can, or get their feet wet without taking the plunge, or just sample the waters, why wouldn’t the ‘attrition’ rate be high? But then again ‘attrition’ implies that all those enrolled intended to see the course through to the bitter end to begin with, which is hardly likely to be the case.

  2. I agree with Vance ~ between the two of you, this may be the best treatment of attrition rate and worrying about that I’ve come across so far. A standard item in the genre, there will surely be more.

    Who cares?

    My only quibble is that dark font on a dark background is hard on aging eyes

  3. @Vance I couldn’t agree more!

    @Vanessa – Were you referring to my blog? I wouldn’t want a dark font on a drak background. Maybe it was the rendering of the browser?

  4. I think the openness of MOOCs allow people to explore: both the content of the course and the level of the course and the online part of the course. That is just nothing short of great. The more you explore, the more likely it is that you encounter something of interest and the more you know what to expect. MOOCs will become, in addition to all other things that have been said, a good filter for university courses and programs. I suppose universities, at some point, may ask you to do a set of MOOCs before really signing up.

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