The New York Times reported recently that the University of Texas System may be having second thoughts about its foray into the realm of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC).

There are three major concerns that were raised:

  1. The completion rate of MOOCs offered has been languishing between one to 13 %;
  2. Majority of the learners were not from the home state;
  3. Of those few learners who have completed, the bulk of them were people who have already college education.

I think the decision makers need to think strategically about the objectives for their institutions being involved in MOOC.

Low completion rate: look at the total number of learners that passed

The nature of MOOC needs to be understood and we need to avoid comparing apples with oranges. MOOCs, unlike regular on-campus or traditional online courses are “Opened” in its enrollment. This means that anyone with the basic internet access will be able to enroll and un-enroll as they please. Many who enrolled may also choose (for whatever reason(s)) not to be active in the MOOC they have signed up for. Thus if we measure the completion rate of MOOCs based on the number of people signing up we will get a very low figure. If the completion rate is computed from the number of people who have “attended” at least 50% of the online courseware, I think this will be a better and fairer measurement of the completion rate. After all in traditional bricks and mortar setting, you do not count the number of students based on the number who applied to take the course but the number who have paid. Thus a even closer analogy for MOOC should be the number of learners who intended to complete the MOOC versus the actual number who passed. Professor Owen Youngman of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism provided a great insight into this issue in following the completion of the first run of his highly successful MOOC, “Understanding media by understanding Google“.

Analysis of passing rates of Owen Youngman’s maiden MOOC, “Understanding media by understanding Google” in Nov 2013. (Image source: http://qz.com/149406/how-two-thirds-of-my-students-never-showed-up-but-half-of-them-passed/)

In Youngman’s maiden foray into MOOC, which incidentally I was one of the 1,196 successful learners, if we measure the passing rate as the number of learner that pass versus the number who complete their homework (qualifying them to take the final examination), the passing rate was actually 50.1% instead of the 2.2% that the conventional calculation would provide. The fact that should be remembered is not the passing rate but the number of people who have successfully passing the MOOC, which in this case, at 1,196 is a great achievement by Youngman’s team in whichever way you measure it.

 Majority of learners are not from the home state: does this matter?

People who evaluate MOOCs must bear in mind that MOOCs are, as the word “Massive” indicates, huge in number. While those who have approved the investments would want to see benefits shown for the institutions’ home state, these cannot be measured just on the number of “home” state learners who have enrolled or passed. MOOCs are meant for institutions to showcase their academic delivery expertise to not only those learners who come on campus but to the world at large. It should be catching learners in the “long tail” of the global learning community. It is meant to reach out to those who, under normal circumstances, never have the chance to attend on-campus courses due to many circumstances (financial, time or career constraints). If a course is meant to benefit only home state’s learners, then MOOC may be a wrong platform for it. Conventional e-learning delivery via learning management systems such as Moodle or BlackBoard would have been better. Thus the expectations of the decision makers and funding authorities must be realistic. MOOCs can be used to as a very effective means to project the brand of an institution, especially to the “long tail” end of the learner’s domain. Those who may not have heard of or know about your institution will, after taking a good MOOC from your institution, be impressed by the brand and which will have a positive effect when these people (or their offspring) are looking for a good college education. Thus I think many of the institutions on the MOOC trails are thinking along the same line.

In the time of great competition for the overseas students’ attention, the colleges with a good spread of MOOCs will gain reputationally in leaps and bounce to put them in a better position in the mind of these overseas students. The proof of the pudding is in its eating, so if a college’s MOOC is well delivered and the learners gain great knowledge, it gives those wishing (and thus may have the means) to study on campus a greater confidence to apply. The benefits to the home state will be in attracting good overseas students to their on-campus or traditionally delivered online courses. This is the under-valued payoff for MOOCs. So does it still matter if the bulk of an MOOC’s learners are not from the home state? I do not think so.

The bulk of the learners scoring a pass have college education: why?

If the bulk of an MOOC’s successful learners are those with some college education or higher, it could mean that the level of this particular MOOC is pitched at senior undergraduate or even graduate levels. It is not the fault of the concept of MOOC. In fact it is an issue of academic standard not the delivery system of concept. Thus if the MOOC is intended to attract mainly high school graduates or freshmen level students, it should have been designed as such. Sometimes the delivery of a course and its learning materials may both appear to be at undergraduate level, but when the assessment system is converted to MOOC level, it may appear too difficult (with lots of discussions, short essays type of questions and complex multiple choice questions) for freshmen but it would have been fine for those who have had degree level education.

To take MOOC successfully requires one to be very disciplined. This may also be one of the reasons that some of these MOOCs show a low number of freshmen learners who passed. Adult learners are much more motivated and are usually more focused. Full-time students may also have a full load of classes already and thus may be spreading themselves too thinly.

One other aspect of MOOCs that those funding authorities and decision makers must take into consideration is the “flipped classroom” concept that MOOC confers. In this context, on-campus students are directed to view the MOOC lectures prior to coming to class. In every class, instead of the instructor repeating the content covered in the MOOC’s video lectures, will use the contact hours to discuss, to further explain and to engage the students accordingly. I have attended one such MOOC by Stanford University (“Technology Entrepreneurship 1) where “flipped classroom” was reported by Assistant Professor Chuck Eesley to have benefited his on-campus students. In this case the class was run about the same time for both the MOOC and on-campus learners. So any decision on the effectiveness and benefits of MOOCs should not be evaluated in isolation. The number of people benefiting from an MOOC could be substantially more than the first run of an MOOC.

I think the disruptive effects of MOOCs to academic institutions have surely been over-exaggerated.  This could be due to the lack of an holistic understanding of what MOOC can do and ignorant of the interaction between MOOCs and conventional delivery of learning.

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Dr. Chow YN is a “veteran” MOOC learner. He has already completed over 20 MOOCs and is currently pursuing two more. Dr. Chow provides consultancy in education management and technology commercialization. He also provides regular advising to parents and students seeking an unbiased advice on tertiary education.

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