Monday, November 18, 2013

Staying the course

This week's main  MOOC story has been an article by Max Chafkin on Fast CompanyUdacity's Sebastian Thrun, Godfather Of Free Online Education, Changes Course, revealing that Sebastian Thrun is having second thoughts about his Udacity initiative. Having rocketed to world fame with the astounding success of the Stanford University artificial intelligence course in 2011 he founded Udacity with a mission to make higher education freely available to all. The MOOC hype revved into top gear and the rest is history. Now Thrun seems disillusioned with the MOOC concept as a disruptive factor in higher education and intends to focus more on the corporate training sector which will appeal more to the venture capital investors who are backing Udacity.

The main reason behind this abrupt change is the low completion rates in Udacity's courses and the realisation that no amount of attractive graphics, production and design is persuading learners to complete the courses. The dream of replacing expensive university education and offering it free to the world was simply unrealistic, at least in this version.

"We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don't educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product," Thrun tells me. "It was a painful moment." Turns out he doesn't even like the term MOOC.

He's not alone in disliking the term MOOC. It was once an apt term for a genuine form of collaborative learning that has now been twisted into a diffuse variety of interpretations and the term itself has become an empty cliché. Massive open learning is about developing learning networks and communities and investigating the potential of such arenas for learning. We need to really start investigating what massive and open really mean to education rather than repackaging traditional models as Bonnie Stewart writes in her post: in the wake of MOOC hype, what shall we talk about?

Yet the institutional structures and norms that dominate our society and particularly our education system do not foster networked identities. In the midst of all the pressure for educators to somehow prepare students for this mythical “21st century” we seem to be both living in yet still casting as the eternal and exotic future, the whole fact that schooling practices are broadly structured to create herd identities of compliance and uniform mastery rather than networked identities of differentiation is…well…not surprising. But definitely a disconnect.

However I'd like to dwell on the last element in the MOOC acronym; the concept of a course. When we speak of completion rates or more negatively drop-out rates it assumes that a student somehow breaks a contract. The course is a preset unit that a student makes a commitment to either by applying for admittance, by paying a fee or both. Once admitted there is strong motivation for the student to complete the course and hopefully be rewarded by some form of hard currency (certificate, grade) at the end. Dropping out is a significant decision since you are breaking a contract (however weak) and not fulfilling your side of the bargain. Since most MOOCs are free and completely voluntary there is no pressure to complete the course other than your own self-discipline. Being one of thousands means that your absence will pass completely unnoticed. Maybe you're only really interested in one part of the course, maybe you simply don't have time or most commonly life simply gets in the way with work demands, family responsibilities and so on always taking priority. Those who devise the course may see it as a coherent unit that should be completed but most participants will see it as something to dip into, test, learn from and then leave when their own curiosity has been satisfied. MOOCs may look like courses and are certainly designed as such but they are not seen that way by the majority of learners. They offer a package of learning materials that can be accessed for a myriad of reasons, like a good reference book, and learners will dip into whatever interests them. Most will not buy into the whole course concept that the institution has devised. Can we therefore compare MOOC completion rates with regular course completion rates?

I think there is a place for even the most traditional information transfer xMOOCs as long as they are honest about what they are and what they intend to do. Many people learn a lot this way and if this type of course inspires thousands of people to learn more or maybe motivate them to more formal studies then that's a worthwhile contribution. At this level the MOOC is part of a lifelong learning framework with the aim of awakening interest and in this context completion rates stats are totally irrelevant. Udacity could easily continue to offer their courses as part of this context as a way of inspiring people to learn more but that sort of activity does not offer any return on investment for the investors.

The keys to completion are active participation, a sense of belonging to a community and a shared purpose (see more on this in my article in a recent issue of EURODL, Completion Rates – A False Trail to Measuring Course Quality?). This requires a different approach than many of the current xMOOCs and in the well-developed field of for-credit online learning there are plenty of excellent examples of courses that have high completion rates. There is a tendency to confuse MOOCs with online learing and maybe it's time for the MOOCs to learn from successful online for-credit courses. 

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