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2013 September 20

Some MOOC retention rates amazingly low

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 23:42
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Mark Guzdial, in his post Lessons Learned From First Year College MOOCs at Georgia Tech (and SJSU), points out the astonishingly low completion rates for some MOOCs (about 1% of registered students, 2–6% of those who did the first assignment):

Karen Head has finished her series on how well the freshman-composition course fared, published in The Chronicle. The stats were disappointing—only about 238 of the approximately 15K students who did the first homework finished the course. That’s even less than the ~10% we saw completing other MOOCs.

Georgia Tech also received funding from the Gates Foundation to trial a MOOC approach to a first year of college physics course. I met with Mike Schatz last Friday to talk about his course. The results were pretty similar: 20K students signed up, 3K students completed the first assignment, and only 170 finished.

Note that the composition course had only 3 major assignments, one of which was to produce a video, so it probably did not do a lot for the writing skills of even the students who completed it, compared to a normal freshman composition class with feedback from experienced instructors.

I can’t help thinking that for the cost of creating the MOOCs, a lot more students could have completed conventionally taught courses. After all, 238 students is only 10 sections of normal freshman comp, at about $6k per section or $60k, and 170 physics students is one lecturer and 6 discussion sections, or about $50k. (And a real physics class would have had an associated lab.)

I’m sure that the MOOCs cost a lot more than $60k—or they wouldn’t have needed Gates Foundation grants to run them.  If the courses had really managed to get a significant number of students to finish, they might have been worth the huge price tag (despite the arguably lower quality of the education).  But having fewer completions than higher quality, cheaper traditional education does not make for a convincing argument in favor of MOOCs.

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6 Comments »

  1. i believe there are several factors that play a role here like course design and evaluation structure, course content structure, the MOOC interface structure and so forth

    Comment by Ashish Dutt — 2013 September 21 @ 06:50 | Reply

  2. The cost of the MOOCs you’re talking about has to do more with the platform and the production values to which the universities are committing themselves plus the cost of professors who are usually pretty high up the food chain than anything inherent in the word “MOOC”. WizIQ.com has run three mini MOOCs (2000+ enrollees) on Moodle skills, Open Education Resources (which is still in progress), and Teaching English as a Second Language so far that were mostly volunteer taught, volunteer facilitated and I doubt that the cost to WizIQ was anything near what a Coursera MOOC of similar proportions would cost. So there are commitments being made to production values with which the average online teacher (or the independent online teacher or the small school) would never even think about getting involved.

    Retention is also a chimera when we’re talking about big platform MOOCs like Coursera: what you need to look at is retention among that subset of students who answered a pre-class survey with “I intend to finish the class” or “I intend to complete assignments to get a certificate.” The vast majority of us getting into MOOCs (and I’ve lurked in a half dozen at this point) are not in it to finish. We’re in it to sample, to experience, to play in the playground as long as time permits. So when you talk about course completion and you talk about retention in a Coursera or EdX MOOC as if it were comparable to retention/completion rates of matriculating, paying undergraduates — well, there are apples and there are oranges.

    It seems to me also that the big schools should be looking at huge MOOCs as three things: 1) not a replacement for onsite classes but perhaps an extension that puts materials, discussion sessions, faculty lectures not only online but in an international context that add value to F2F students who have other assessments, or other discussions in addition to the MOOC; 2) a form of marketing that spreads the brand of the high end school putting on the MOOC and possibly creating a demand among mainly international students who might be able to someday come to campus and pay for courses/programs (American students can barely afford community colleges, much less the Ivy League thanks to our economy, so it’s not surprising enrollment growth in conventional onsite courses are coming from international students, MOOCs might increase that tide); and 3), maybe more importantly, these MOOCs are a gift to the world, a way of providing access to high quality education to individuals who don’t have the means to come to the States and/or to attend the ultra-expensive ivy league schools that are mainly playing with Coursera, EdX etc. Seems to me the widening of a university’s sense of community from the 10 blocks surrounding their physical campus to the planet is a worthy goal.

    Comment by nanzingrone — 2013 September 22 @ 00:28 | Reply

    • I agree with you that MOOCs are not a substitute for real classes, that they are primarily marketing, that they provide some benefits to students who are not at the college (though I would question the “access to high-quality education” claim), and that most of the students in the courses are just dabbling.

      There is no evidence yet that MOOCs provide lower cost per student who completes the course, that they are effective with average students, nor that they provide close to comparable education except in a few specialized fields.

      Unfortunately, the MOOC companies are intent on selling the MOOCs to our legislature as a replacement for brick-and-mortar colleges, as a superior educational technique at a lower cost, and as a way to produce larger numbers of educated students than our current system. Politicians love the attack on the universities, even though the MOOCs are addressing the wrong part of the problem of rising tuition—the cost of instruction has not been increasing, it is the administrative overhead and “investment” in sports that has been growing. And MOOCs do not address administrative overhead—if anything, a higher portion of the MOOC budget goes to administrators than in conventional instruction.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2013 September 22 @ 07:50 | Reply

      • Well selling MOOCs as a replacement for bricks and mortar universities is the scariest thing I’ve ever heard. These are different delivery systems, IMO. And normal small online courses have an enormous amount to offer in terms of quality of education, student community and content.

        As for quality, I’ve only been in Coursera MOOCs — I did graduate work up to a doctoral candidacy at Duke and a PhD at Edinburgh so I have a pretty high standard for comparison — and the quality of the Coursera courses I’ve lurked in has been very very high in comparison. The mini-MOOCs I’ve taken from WizIQ have also been good in terms of the quality of the lectures and tutorials, but not as systematic in the assessment department as the Coursera MOOCs. So I think the quality issue is a red herring if you actually get in there and take Coursera MOOCs.

        In the mini-MOOCs it depends on how the courses are framed and what they are meant to do; some are professional development for educators and function at the level of very well-made adult/professional development education but not at the level of Ivy league undergrad/grad education. As such they still provide a significant educational service to those who finish, as well as to those who get what they want out of them (and intention to finish should be a big part of any retention converstion IMO).

        As for administrative overheard, mini-MOOCs run on any variety of low cost, affordable LMS system like Moodle or WizIQ or both combined, in the hands of competent volunteer facilitators — well, the administrative overhead is well nigh absent. That’s the difference through between the global community of educators who are dedicated to OER-infused offerings and free education, and the for-profit or bricks and mortar model that have armies of highly paid folk pushing up the bar — maybe unnecessarily — to higher production values, and great committee oversight, and all kinds of other cost-enhancers.

        I confess my heart is in OER and free or affordable education not only because it suits me best as a penniless academic but it only spreads the reach of the content across the globe to people who log in from places where there are no similar educational opportunities whatsoever.

        It’s not the schools, or the faculty, or the fancy schmancy overhead that’s important IMO, it’s the content that’s going to push the educational level of the planet up, even if just a bit.

        Comment by nanzingrone — 2013 September 22 @ 11:47 | Reply

        • For those not comfortable with acronyms:
          OER=Open Educational Resources (the comment by nazingrone was the first time I’d seen this acronym)
          MOOC=Massively Open Online Course (or, as I prefer, Massively Overhyped Online Course)
          IMO=In my opinion

          I have no quarrel with MOOCs as professional development, enrichment for adults, or advanced courses for high school students. I think that they have a very important role to play there. In fact, my high-school son is doing an econ class this semester that consists, in part, of the microecon lectures from MIT’s open courseware.

          My complaint is mainly with the university administrators and legislators who want to defund university instruction and push the students into taking MOOCs instead. I’d rather see the universities investing in increasing the differences in instruction between what they provide and what MOOCs can provide. That is, I’d like to see more investment in detailed feedback on student writing, hands-on design courses in engineering, inquiry labs in science, and undergraduate involvement in research in all fields. But these items are the first to be cut in budget slashing, with whatever savings accrues being soaked up by administrative bloat and tech support for online courses.

          Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2013 September 22 @ 12:51 | Reply

          • You said “My complaint is mainly with the university administrators and legislators who want to defund university instruction and push the students into taking MOOCs instead. I’d rather see the universities investing in increasing the differences in instruction between what they provide and what MOOCs can provide. That is, I’d like to see more investment in detailed feedback on student writing, hands-on design courses in engineering, inquiry labs in science, and undergraduate involvement in research in all fields. But these items are the first to be cut in budget slashing, with whatever savings accrues being soaked up by administrative bloat and tech support for online courses.”

            I’m with you a hundred percent there!

            Comment by nanzingrone — 2013 September 22 @ 13:06


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