by Jon McGovern
After so much MOOC criticism focusing on the low completion rates (a subject I've written on many times) it was refreshing to read a more positive angle from a teacher. Guy M Rogers (Professor of Classics and History at Wellesley College) ran a MOOC on edX on the life of Alexander the Great (see the archived course on edX) and reflects on the course's success in an article in Inside Higher Ed, Alexander the MOOC Lands, The course attracted 17,500 students from over 130 countries between the ages of 12 and 86. Rogers was well aware of the challenges facing every MOOC team and set three questions to be answered:
... whether a Massive Open Online Course could be as intellectually rigorous as a brick and mortar history course; whether a MOOC could serve as a portal for both teaching and historical research; and whether an online course could engage and inspire students. The data are in and the answer to all three questions is an emphatic yes.
On the surface this course demonstrates the usual low completion rate with 1162 students taking the final exam but Rogers decides to focus on the fact that those students who actually followed the course succeeded impressively. Firstly more students passed the course than had passed all other courses he had taught in the last ten years. In addition 862 of them passed with over 90% test scores and this compares very favourably with results from the campus version of the course. Even more surprising is that this was achieved in a course lasting a whopping 15 weeks, three times longer than most MOOCs.
What this example demonstrates so well is that the students who really engaged in the course learned a lot and performed as well as traditional students. The 16,000 participants who didn't finish were not failures or drop-outs, they were probably just curious about the course and tested it for a while. Once the initial dust has settled you see how many real participants your MOOC has and if you start with that figure the completion rate is generally pretty good considering it's free and the students have made no commitment whatsoever to completing it. The course described in this article was certainly rigorous and demanded a variety of skills, just like a traditional campus course. Basically the course was a success for those who committed to it. The others might come back another day or have maybe continued reading on their own. MOOCs are lifelong learning.
Inspiring engagement, passion, and a love of learning are of course harder outcomes to measure. At the end of our course however we asked the students to fill out course Evaluation Surveys and a very high percentage of the students highly recommended both the course and the instructor. Without any prompting from EdX or WellesleyX students also decided to form ongoing Alexander study groups, requested more history courses like the Alexander course, and asked if we could organize a study tour overseas to follow in the footsteps of Alexander the Great. We also received many unsolicited letters from students telling us how much our course had inspired them.