MOOCs – Is the Sky Falling?

The latest version of the “Glass-Half-Empty” critique of MOOCs focuses on recent pull-backs of attempts to make massive online courses count towards official college credit.

As this story highlights, legislation submitted that would require colleges to accept MOOC credentials in California and Florida has been quietly shelved.  And programs designed to eliminate hurdles that were assumed to stand in the way of college students earning credit for MOOCs they complete ended up drawing almost no takers.

Like that other favorite data point used to diss the MOOC phenomenon (attrition rates – over 90% in many MOOC classes), recent moves away from for-credit efforts are likely to become more enlightening once you move past the headlines and look into the detail.

Using that just-mentioned attrition issue as an example, the calculation used to claim a 90%+ drop-out rate involves sticking a count of everyone who enrolled in a MOOC into the denominator of a fraction, then putting the number of people who complete all of the work successfully into the numerator.

While such a calculation may seem intuitive, it does not take into account the fact that different people sign up for different MOOC courses for different reasons.  For example, students who want to audit a course by just watching/listening to lectures would count as a “drop-out” using the simple fraction described above, even though every one of them got exactly what they intended out of the course (assuming they finished).  And the crude fraction described above doesn’t take into account the fact that many people may have signed up for a class to get something for nothing, only realizing afterwards the kind of workload such courses require.

The head of edX (who prefers the term “stop-out” to “drop-out”) claims that if you use the number of people who complete the first assignment for a course (be it an assessment or homework exercise) as your  denominator, the fraction of finishers to “real” starters climbs to 40%.  And while this calculation might serve as a corrective for the over-simplistic “sky-is-falling” 90%+ attrition rate, genuine understanding of what students are doing will only come about once data is released that demonstrates how many students watch the first lecture, watch all the lectures, start assignment, finish them, finish the course and so forth.

In other words, we will only know what’s really going on once we have a better sense of the fine-grained behavior of those tens or hundreds of thousands of students enrolled in a course beyond the fact that they signed up for it.

Similarly, the initial drive to immediately award credit for MOOCs derived from the fact that because they were online version of real college courses they should be worth credit like real college courses.

But like drop-out rate statistics, MOOC-for-credit assumptions begin to break down once you get into the weeds.

For instance, the first (legitimate) objection to these early, enthusiastic MOOC-for-credit schemes was that there was no clear way to assure that the person who enrolled and completed a MOOC was the person who did the work.  And while systems (like Coursera’s Signature Track) are beginning to be put in place, these programs do not provide the kind of air-tight security you get in a proctored educational environment (where cheating is also rampant, by the way).

But even if all these security holes were magically plugged tomorrow, you then face the fact that not all MOOCs are created equal.  Some were designed specifically to match the content and rigor of an existing college course, for instance, while others were meant to give students a brief introduction to a subject with no intention of paralleling the workload of a full-semester class.

In theory, a neutral third party (such as the American Council on Education) could serve the role of leveler, analyzing the rigor of a MOOC course and providing a credit recommendation that might vary from course to course.  But (as I know from personal experience) ACE accreditation is expensive and time-consuming, and it’s not entirely clear that a school spending $20,000 to get a simple MOOC up and running wants to spend an additional $10K+ to get it the ACE nod.

But even if every MOOC was automatically deemed ACE worthy right now, credit recommendations are simply recommendations.  Meaning students need to be enrolled in a school (which implies they already applied, were accepted, and wrote a tuition check), a school ready and willing to accept those recommendations.  And how many students who have put time, effort and money into getting into college are going to immediately be in the market for ways to end that experience sooner?

As the dust settles, it’s looking like analyses which saw MOOCs as an alternative to traditional higher ed were over-simplistic (or at least highly, highly premature).  For if you look at the demographics of those who complete courses delivered through edX and Coursera, MOOCs begin to look more like extension school classes for older students than alternatives to college for younger ones.  And even high school students who take MOOC classes seem to be doing so for their own enrichment, rather than an external award of credit to be cashed in when it’s time to go to college.

I suspect that humbler version of for-credit schemes will begin to emerge once MOOCs have proven themselves and mechanisms are put into place that solve existing security issues and other challenges.

For example, they may find a home alongside AP classes, summer school or Gap Year programs which allow students to eliminate pre-requisites so that they can study more advanced subjects once they begin a residential college experience.  Or perhaps we’ll see universities start to take seriously calls to allow students to complete a BA program in three vs. four paying years, or graduate in four years with the equivalent of a Masters (with MOOCs and other forms of independent study substituting for freshman year core requirements).

I can’t remember the exact saying that expressed the sentiment of “Lord protect me from my friends,” but clearly eager attempts to position MOOCs as a substitute for traditional higher ed were too early and made potential friends and allies uncomfortable.  So let us move forward with blinders off and begin to do the heavy lifting that will let MOOCs earn their place on the official curriculum, rather than just barge their way to a seat at the table.


7 Responses to MOOCs – Is the Sky Falling?

  1. Srinin September 17, 2013 at 12:08 pm #

    A balanced take. I too am watching as the MOOC trend unfolds. I am afraid we are looking at a baby and trying to guess whether the flailing limbs indicate the arrival another Babe Ruth or a Michael Jordan. I would imagine that unless (or until?) technology evolves to take care of identity issues (Coursera’s Signature Track may just be beginning steps in that direction) MOOC will serve the needs of the plainly curious. It may also help young people figure what excites them and from thereon make a career choice more intelligently. And the older ones, like me, to catch up with things they had to forego die to other demands on their time. The biggest curiosity for me is how MOOCs will take up advanced level of education as the courses (some 40-50 I have seen) offered now are basic levels as of now.

    Finally the key question is its sustainability as a ‘free’ source of knowledge. Unlike the Wikipedia, the engagement levels required is much higher requiring significant resources. When MOOCs turn from ‘free’ to ‘fee’ as inevitably they must, I am afraid, what will happen to the demand for these courses? As a member a Facebook group catering to Coursera course takers my impression is that half of us are doing it as fun and may not be seriously interested in a paid course as several have indicated taht they are not even looking to certificates.

  2. Muvaffak GOZAYDIN September 17, 2013 at 12:50 pm #

    We do not object to provide degrees for regular online courses for 20 years .
    They are from not well known schools , they are expensive too . $ 1,500 per course.
    7 million students are taking those online now . That is 39 % of the HE in the USA.

    there is MOOCs from elite universities,
    at low fees

    Many people object that they cannot get degrees .

    MOOCs , as long as they are same as oncampus course, can be used for degrees as well. That would solve the whole HE problem too.

  3. Paul Morris September 22, 2013 at 9:04 am #

    As I wrote in one of my own recent blog postings, there are two main reasons, as I see it, why colleges are reluctant to accept MOOCs for credit. The first, as alluded to above, is the question of security and identity verification. While Coursera’s Signature Track can address the latter it does nothing for the former. While the student at the keyboard may have a confirmed identity, there is no way to stop them having an ‘off-camera’ supporter or even from registering multiple accounts in order to access the exam in advance of the ‘verified’ attempt.

    The second reason is that there is very little incentive for colleges to accept external courses for credit, even if these were fully secure and of a sufficiently rigorous nature. Every credit transfer, or accreditation of prior learning (APL) for that matter, is simply another course fee lost. Imagine that all of the General Education requirement were to be completed via MOOCs or APL. How many tens of thousands of credit hours (and the attendant fees) would an average college lose?

    Despite all the fuss about accreditation and credit transfers, few participants actually have any intention of making such use of the courses. Surveys suggest that not only are most MOOC students already graduates but that a far larger proportion than in the general population already hold post-graduate (graduate in US terms) qualifications. The debate is, to an extent, chasing phantoms.

    • DegreeofFreedom September 25, 2013 at 1:25 pm #

      I think the last year has taught us that taking courses leading to learning and taking courses leading to credit are two different processes. This can be confusing since when you are in college, you are doing both at the same time. But that’s only because an institution (the school) has a successful business model that merges these two processes together.

      My experience so far has taught me that MOOCs can provide the learning you would get from a college class. And while some courses are better than others, the steps needed to close the gap between a MOOC and a traditional college class learning wise are few and known. But processes needed to take a class for credit outside of the framework of a formal institution are still few and what processes there are turn out to be limited, expensive and clunky.

      So if MOOCs for credit continues to be an ambition for some in the MOOC community, they will need to focus on political, economic and bureaucratic issues (not just assume that if we make MOOC courses good enough, people will have to reward them credit). Another alternative is to simply accept that MOOCs will largely be used by people who don’t care about college credit and focus on continuing to make them as strong as possible.

  4. bob October 23, 2013 at 1:14 pm #

    Moocs are the natural evolution of learning.
    With Google now giving people across the planet access to more knowledge than any generation before has ever seen, the need for learning to only be authorised via campus institutions will eventually pass.
    Add to this that once established institutions begin to offer formal degrees then the floodgates will well and truly open, after all, would you rather have a qualification authorised via the likes of Harvard or a lessor known university
    Yes, certain qualifications will still stand apart when delivered under direct tutorage such as that produced via the Australian medical system that only allows the top academic students to proceed to the next level where 40% are further weeded out through the grueling physical pressure cooker system. Moocs have years of development before they can ever match that system.
    I have attended campus university and now have embarked upon a python programming Mooc via Rice and I can tell you the Rice offering is light years ahead of a campus style learning setting. The Mooc offering is very well structured, well guided and deadline driven. I would go so far as to say the Mooc offering is more likely to force students to produce their own work as they operate more on their own than a campus setting where students band together and swap work
    The other aspect is that it appears the world is ending decades of unsustainable unbridled growth at all costs model, students of the future will not be willing to saddle themselves with 100’s of thousands of dollars worth of debt that will not be paid off for years as wage structures flatten and competition for jobs heats up as east collides with west.

    Moocs in my opinion is the only way forward as the world deflates and as boomers exit the workforce and as the next generations following adapt to a world of lower general standards, at least in the west.

    I for one have waited years to see the doors to learning opened up and the closed protective universities forced to lay aside their protectionist ways and get back to focusing on the delivery of education to the masses

    I for one welcome our new Mooc overlords 🙂


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