How Long Should a MOOC Go On?

I got my biggest Halloween scare right before the sun went down and I logged into my edX account to see what ChinaX, Harvard’s latest edition to their MOOC catalog, would demand of me between now and the end of the year (when I anticipated its conclusion would wrap up my One Year BA).

Imagine my shock to discover that ChinaX is scheduled to go on for not six, eight or even fourteen weeks (the greatest length for any scheduled MOOC I’ve been enrolled in so far) but for fifteen months starting on October 31, 2013 and finishing at the end of January, 2015(!).

Apparently, the folks behind the course (which includes Peter Bol, who was recently named Vice Provost for Advances in Learning at Harvard) have chosen to break their MOOC into nine “mini-courses,” each 6-8 weeks in length.  So what will be available before the end of this year will just be their first “mini” on “The Political and Intellectual Foundations of China.”

My first reaction upon seeing this schedule was to despair that I would have to find another course to replace ChinaX if I wanted my One Year BA to wrap by the end of 2013.  But upon reflection, I don’t want to miss out on a class that the professors have committed this level of time and effort to creating.  And given the scope of the subject matter (the class will ultimately cover over 3000 years of Chinese history), why should it be a shock that some professors freed from the constraint of having to fit what they want to teach into a single semester might fit the calendar to the material, rather than vice versa?

Generally, the tendency has been to shrink rather than expand a course as it moves from the traditional classroom to the Internet.  For instance, of the several dozen classes I’ve taken or am taking this year, only a handful seem to mirror the 12-16 week timelines you see in a semester-long college class.  In fact, as the year has moved along, I’ve noticed 6-8 week classes emerging as an increasingly popular standard for MOOC length (perhaps as a means to make them feel less overwhelming to both developers and students).

I’ve commented before on classes where the prof seems to have taken the material he or she liked teaching best and distilled this subset into a shorter MOOC class, rather than feel constrained to mix it with other subjects in order to fit the tyranny of the academic calendar.  And I’ve also noticed a range of “efficiencies” vis-à-vis professors, some of whom manage to cover more in 6-8 weeks than other teachers do in twice that amount of time.

So if we are going to grow comfortable with some courses gravitating to be half the length of a standard college class, I don’t see any reason to get bent out of shape when other classes decide to double or triple a typical course length.  For anyone who sticks through the year and a quarter of ChinaX (which I hope will include me), the reward in terms of comprehensive learning should be considerable.  And how else are we expected to learn what the maximum patience level is of MOOC students if we don’t start adding some increasingly long courses to a growing list of shorter ones?

This does bring up a question that MOOC supporters should start grappling with before others decide to grapple with them to the detriment of the new learning medium, namely: what are we saying about the potential equivalency of MOOCs and traditional college courses if something as close to the surface as course length (which is pretty well standardized at most brick-and-mortar institution) ranges by 100-1000% in MOOCworld?

Which gets back to my original dilemma on whether to bag ChinaX, include it and let this project stretch out for another 12 months for the sake of this one course (AHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!), or find some compromise solution.

As an addicted difference-splitter, I’ve chosen the latter route which means that ChinaX Part I will count as a half credit course towards my final “degree” (the same value I’ve assigned lecture-only courses less than twelve hours in length).

This means I’ll have to find another short course to sandwich in before the end of the year (why not?).   And if this decision triggers questions regarding what a degree program consisting only of MOOCs and other free-learning resources ultimately adds up to, rest assured that these are concerns I both share and plan to address at length before the end of the year.

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3 Responses to How Long Should a MOOC Go On?

  1. Joanna November 4, 2013 at 11:45 am #

    The length of MOOCs is something I’m always a bit conflicted about when picking my courses. On one hand, I appreciate that long courses can be a good things because they allow more content and depth. On the other hand, given I have dramatically varying work commitments, I can much more comfortably commit to a 5 week course with some degree of certainty that I can finish it than I can to a 15 week course.

  2. Elizabeth November 4, 2013 at 4:52 pm #

    Length is a concern for me as well. Since I take these as a fun hobby, once they go beyond 6 – 8 I get leery of committing to them, since I really try to do all assignments and everything.
    I can’t imagine committing to a 15 month long class, especially if I only get a spiffy certificate out of it that isn’t “useful” in the real world…
    On the other hand, that’s a lot of good learning to be had.

  3. Paul Morris November 7, 2013 at 12:06 am #

    Since one of the key indicators for the ‘success’ of MOOCs is completion rate (at least so far as the bureaucrats behind the scenes and the press are concerned), I’d expect the tendency, sadly, to be towards shorter courses.

    To see why operators might be attracted to shorter courses, look at Open2Study, the Australian platform. They have settled on a standard 4 week course length and are consistently achieving 25-30% completion rates–this compares to less than 10% average for Coursera. In fact their figures are even more impressive (if you are impressed by completion rates) when one considers that only 50% of registered students actually start the courses, so over half of those who start stick it out to the end and achieve a ‘pass’. Their worst performing course (on the figures published to date) still managed over 20% completion. This makes Harvard’s <1% pass rate on CS50 (on edX) look a little shaky…

    I said 'sadly' as I feel that the shorter courses offer scope for little more than the most superficial skimming across a subject. Futurelearn , for example, have announced a further batch of courses (to run in 2014) and most are 3-4 weeks with an estimated 3 hours per week commitment. Even the most optimistic student must wonder how far they will get on 9 hours.

    One bright spot is edX's move to combine individual courses into overarching programmes of study. This at least holds open the possibility of progression through a sequence of shorter courses. A pioneer of this approach was Berkeley's Stat2x series of three courses (on edX) which combined to cover pretty much the same ground as the full semester on-campus 'Introduction to Statistics' course. Three five week courses seemed much more manageable than a single fifteen week one would have done.

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