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.