Like a kid in a MOOC

Today’s massively multiplayer online courses, or MOOCs, provide an opportunity for teaching, and learning, at an unprecedented scale. Universities, instructors, businesses, and students are still exploring what the benefits and limitations might be. Should you pay tuition or should it be free? Should you get a certificate of completion, and if so, how should future employers or schools value it?

Most of all: are MOOCs successful or not?

Like most things, it depends how you define success. If a MOOC is like a college class on steroids, then you can start with the same metrics used to evaluate college classes: enrollment numbers, completion rates, and (maybe) student evaluations. MOOCs have been criticized for abysmal performance in terms of completion rates, which are something like 5-10%. A traditional college class with a completion rate that low would likely be canceled (if only because it wouldn’t be economically feasible).

Yet, gradually, arguments are emerging for why the wailing and gnashing of teeth can stop. Maybe we need to redefine what it means to ‘sign up’ for a MOOC. Justin Reich and Andrew Ho point out that HarvardX MOOCs stay open even after the deadline for certification has passed — so all subsequent registrants are “dropouts the second they’ve registered” (i.e., they aren’t allowed to “complete” the class).

Or maybe we need to stop equating MOOCs with their tiny, elite, in-person predecessors and develop new ways to evaluate them.

William Spaniel offers an interesting alternative metaphor. He likens signing up for a MOOC to adding a show to your Netflix queue. I like that concept, and it makes me feel a little better about my own course-dabbling habits at Coursera. Even though the classes were free, and there was no explicit obligation to complete them, I felt sad and embarrassed each time I had to un-enroll from another eyes-too-big-for-my-stomach endeavor. But a movie queue… it’s okay if something sits on there forever and never gets watched. Right?

Then there’s the low cost of entry: you can click and sign up for a MOOC, for free. How much of a commitment you consider that to be is up to you. Contrast that with college students who may feel bound to grind through a painful or boring class because they just paid thousands of dollars for it and/or they need it to get into another class or to graduate. MOOCs eliminate that kind of pressure. Instead, the currency that matters is your time. Where will you spend it?

I’d like to go one further and propose another new metaphor for a MOOC. It’s not a college course (even if taught by college professors and employing content from a college course). It’s not a Netflix queue. It’s a candy store, where all the candy is free! Or again, more aptly, the cost is measured in time.

We’re used to valuing things by how much money people are willing to spend on them. Think of the stock market, clothing, cars, airline tickets. But how much closer to the heart is a measure of how much time you’re willing to spend on something (or someone)? What does it take for a course, to which you owe no obligation, to inspire you to spend hours reading, listening, writing, thinking, investigating, and learning?

It’s simple, really: the course has to provide something in return that you value (entertainment, new knowledge, new skills, interaction with other students, whatever). Because the main beneficiary of all that effort is… you.

2 of 2 people learned something from this entry.

  1. Michael Littman said,

    February 27, 2014 at 10:19 pm

    My preferred metaphor is “a MOOC is a textbook”. I imagine the “completion rates” for textbooks are pretty darn low—of the people who get a textbook out of curiosity, how many go all the way through them? Why would it even matter?

    When students apply to school and claim MOOC experience on their application, I urge my colleagues to think of it as if the student claims to have picked up a textbook and read it and did the exercises and did well. It shows initiative and likely helped the student learn more. But, there’s no quality control and we only have the student’s word that she engaged with the book.

  2. Kiri said,

    February 27, 2014 at 10:47 pm

    (Learned something new!)

    That’s a great metaphor! (But maybe less tasty.)

    I start many, MANY books (textbooks or not) out of curiosity, and my completion rate is always lower than I think it “should” be. On the other hand, the excellent book titled “How to Read a Book” recommends that you make strategic decisions about which books truly need a complete reading and which ones you can extract the useful stuff from by skimming, or even stopping early.

    Thanks also for the insight on MOOCs in college applications. I infer therefore that student applicants *are* using this as a kind of credential? Interesting!

  3. Holly said,

    March 1, 2014 at 12:51 pm

    (Learned something new!)

    I think the candy store metaphor is a good one, and I like that you say that the payment is time. I think the metaphor also emphasizes that the person has choices–in what they pick *and* how they consume it.

    I also didn’t know that MOOC courses could be listed on college applications! I wonder if these types of courses also show up on resumes and employment applications.

  4. Jim in PA said,

    March 2, 2014 at 8:31 am

    I think your candy store view on this is exactly right.

    I have engaged in a few Coursera courses and my completion percentage is 40%. This doesn’t bother me.

    My view on abandoning courses, books, etc. really changed once I understood the economics and psychology of sunk costs. I used to have a near religious devotion to finishing a book once I started it. I now that understand that this is foolish. If I am not enjoying a book or learning anything from a class, I dump it and do something else. Even with individual assignments – if I don’t think the return is worth the investment (or if I just don’t have time) – I just don’t do it. If skipping an assignment means I don’t get the little doodad for my Facebook page or whatever – I am OK with that. It sounds like a little thing, but it has actually made a big difference in my life. It’s liberating to break out of the human bias to reduce everything to an “achievement unlocked” badge.

    Of course, it helps that I have now reached adulthood and no longer have to worry about impressing people with my Coursera portfolio.

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