Learning Leisurely

With a couple of courses from last year continuing (ChinaX which runs all year, and some mop-up on Science and Cooking), I’ve been able to enjoy MOOCs under very different circumstances than last year when any one course had to compete with 5-6 others.

It occurred to me that this must be what “normal” MOOC education looks like for the average learner fitting 1-2 courses into a schedule that includes work and other life responsibilities.  And there is quite a bit to be said for the leisurely learning lifestyle.

Last year, I wrote about time as one of the components of MOOC education.  To begin with, courses go on for different numbers of weeks and require different time commitments during each of those weeks.  So a MOOC student really needs to know what they’re getting into since a semester-long MIT computer science class where the recommended commitment of 10-12 hours of work per week turns out to be the floor rather than the ceiling is a very different from a six-week economics class where nothing much is asked of students beyond watching 1-3 hours of lecture every seven days.

The way courses are structured chronologically also plays a major role in a student’s experience.  To cite the most obvious example, an on-demand Psych course from Udacity where students can start and stop anytime and move at their own pace was a very different form of education than a Coursera class with fixed deadlines (even if both experiences are referred to as MOOCs). I noticed that one edX course has been offered with an on-demand option, something I anticipated might happen given that there are no technical limitations to releasing a finished online course based on different schedules.

One of the people I interviewed for that MIT book was a HarvardX researcher who was studying how assignment scheduling impacts completion rates.  He had looked at 10 courses, 5 from Harvard and 5 from MIT, which varied the way deadlines worked for MOOC assignments.  For instance, some courses required students to finish each week’s assignment by the end of the week while others left all assignments open until the final deadline for the entire course.

He observed that firmer deadlines seemed to correlate with higher completion percentages.  Being a good statistician, he pointed out that correlation does not mean causation.  But from personal observation, I can vouch for the fact that at least one committed student did much better when I was given no choice regarding when work needed to be handed in.

I don’t think it’s an accident that two of the on-demand Udacity courses I took (Statistics and Psychology) were the ones that I struggled most to fit into my schedule since they were always the easiest to blow off when other courses with hard deadlines were gobbling up too much time.  And while there were other confounding factors as to why Science and Cooking dribbled to the finish line, I can vouch for the fact that options to complete homework and labs months after watching the lectures made it easy to put off today’s work for tomorrow.

And as I’ve been returning to that work during this wind-down period, I’ve noticed that material I studied months ago didn’t stick very well, likely because I didn’t put it to work immediately by doing the labs and homework accompanying a set of lectures that had just wrapped.

If you think about the two major academic experiences most of us have had (K-12 and college), later K-12 years (notably high school) consisted of taking 4-5 academic classes an hour a day, five days a week (with electives and gym filling in the gaps).  And, from watching my own high-schooler doing his homework every night, a half an hour of homework in each academic subject each night seems about average.

College consisted of fewer (usually four) classes that required students to set aside about three hours a week for lectures, and another 1-2 for discussion sections and labs, adding up to 15-20 hours of time commitment out of over 100 waking hours per week (which is why it still amuses me how many times people blew off class).  But assignments (including reading, homework, preparation for tests, etc.) definitely added up to more than the 10-12 hours per week of homework we were given in high school.  And the nature of college work done outside of class also makes higher education more of an exercise in self-propelled learning, with professors acting more as sages and mentors than instructors and policemen.

As the conversations surrounding MOOCs turns to things like flipped classrooms and non-traditional learners, time will continue to be one of the most important factors in how well a MOOC works for different types of learners working in different environments.  Which is why I hope that seemingly simple decisions (like how deadlines are structured) are not made haphazardly since they may have more impact on the success of course than the technical breakthroughs that tend to make news.

One Response to Learning Leisurely

  1. Bert Stevens January 16, 2014 at 3:07 pm #

    Thanks again for sharing (and going through this!), it helps me alot in understanding what works and what doesn’t in MOOC’s.

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