Those loveable MOOCs are in the news again. It looked like massive open online courses were going to be the answer to educating the masses so we might have a better educated population, and not just for low-cost but for free. What could be wrong with that? Well, nothing really if people who signed up for MOOC courses actually finished the classes they started. But the folks who study these things have found some surprising, yet puzzling facts.
Researchers are scratching their collective heads as they try to understand why the vast majority of students who sign up for free MOOC classes actually fail to finish them. One widely quoted dropout statistic for students in MOOCs is whopping 90 percent. This figure in a traditional class would be incredibly high, but that number has been used to question the potential of massive open online courses, that have become the newest educational hook.
It may be sensible to take the number of people who register for any giveen course and compare it with the number of students still participating at the end. Researchers ask if that deduction is fair?
The reason for the doubt, researchers say, is the dropout rate cited does not describe the reasons why hundreds of thousands of people worldwide are signing up for the MOOCs in the first place. The comparisons to students taking on-site college courses are pretty thin. All but a few of the courses that MOOC providers offer are free and do not earn students the college credit they would receive at traditional colleges and universities. There are no attendance requirements or prerequisites either, as with credited college courses. For these basic reasons it is hard to compare the registration numbers with the number of students who finish their courses.
Who Are These People?
Andrew Ho, a Harvard University assistant professor of education who is involved with MOOC related research, said that the cited dropout numbers maybe be “largely missing the point.” Ho pointed out that researchers are trying to see what different types of people are registering for online classes, and the goals they have in taking MOOCs. Some people have no intention of taking every test or being the best student, nor do they hope to earn a largely worthless certification of completion. ”What we’re trying to do is distinguish between them in a meaningful way,” Ho said.
The profiles of people who register for MOOCs are pretty broad. Researchers say they include high school students, college students interested in another way to study a subject they are already learning in traditional classrooms, plus the stay-at-home parent or retiree who may take an online course for reasons similar to doing a crossword puzzle, according to Yvonne Belanger, head of assessment and planning for the Center for Instructional Technology at Duke University. “They have nothing more than, ‘This is a good way to spend my free time – it’s better than television,’” she said.
As an example, Belanger worked on a recent summary of enrollment in a bioelectricity MOOC that Duke offered through Coursera, a MOOC provider. Of the approximately 12,700 Coursera users who registered for the course, only about 350 took the final exam. That is a 97 percent dropout rate.
Sign up numbers give a false total, as close to 5,000 people who signed on to the bioelectricity course never even watched the first lecture. The completion rate of the course looks better if we start with the number of students who answered at least one question correctly on the first quiz, which means about a fourth of them finished the course.
Then again, the figure doesn’t take into account the users who simply want to watch lectures, not take quizzes, or basically have “a social experience that is intellectually stimulating,” says Belanger.
One part of the study is one to categorize people who take the MOOCs, so the categories could provide a basis for future studies.
The current groups could change if MOOCs begin charging entry fees or make other changes to their registration process. Belanger adds, “I don’t know how long MOOCs in this current form will last. I think (users) just plan to enjoy it while it lasts.”
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