Online Learning Ecosystems: What to Make of MOOC Dropout Rates? #cccmroe

EmptyThe “Circuits and Electronics” MOOC from MIT last summer had over 150,000 registrants, but only 5% of them completed the course. The University of Michigan’s “Social Network Analysis” MOOC last fall enrolled over 60,000 students, only 2% of whom earned a certificate in the course. Duke University’s “Bioelectricity” course, with just over 12,000 enrollments, had the same completion rate of 2%. Another Duke course, “Computational Investing,” did a little better, with nearly 5% of its 53,000 students completing the course. What are we to make of these numbers?

I propose the following three common stages of reaction to MOOC enrollment and completion numbers:

  • Stage 1 – Tens of thousands of students in a single course?! Holy moley!
  • Stage 2 – Wait a minute… Most of those students dropped out?!  What a crock!
  • Stage 3 – Those students who didn’t finish… Why did they drop out? What could we do to help them complete the course?

I’ve seen all of these reactions. Stage 1 seems common among journalists and university administrators. The educational technology and instructional design communities are fond of Stage 2. Stage 3 is where I find many MOOC instructors and educational data mining researchers.

I’m beginning to think there’s a fourth stage, one that I saw a few times at last week’s “Multidisciplinary Research for Online Education” (MROE) workshop in Washington, DC. Apparently, when you get together a bunch of people in Stage 3, some of them move to Stage 4:

  • Stage 4 – Maybe all those “dropouts” got just what they wanted out of the course.

During one of the workshop breakout sessions, the discussion turned to the various goals students might have for taking a course, goals that might differ dramatically between students. Some students might take an open online course to learn new skills and to gain certification of those skills for use in the job market. Other students might be more interested in learning for its own sake, but appreciate the external confirmation of mastery that certification provides.

Other students, however, might not be interested in certification at all, enrolling in a course just to get a general introduction to a topic, or to see if they like the instructor, or to get a sense of how online courses function, or to learn just one particular concept covered in a course. These students might not “complete” the course, but (Stage 4) they might get exactly what they want from the course.

We see versions of some of these students in traditional college classrooms. I took a poetry course in college pass/fail because it sounded interesting, but I didn’t want to have to worry about my grade in the course. When I taught at Harvard, the entire first week of classes was a “shopping period” that allowed students to sample courses and instructors before committing to a schedule. And I’ve had students who had very particular interests in taking my course, interests that motivated them to focus on certain aspects of the content and largely ignore other aspects.

One of the “Stage 4″ participants at the MROE workshop argued that the completion of a MOOC might be just one educational option in what could be an entire ecosystem of online learning opportunities. Instead of working to get more students to complete our MOOCs, perhaps we could get a better sense of the full range of educational needs people have and design different kinds of online learning experiences to meet those needs?

Might we tailor some MOOCs to students who just want to get a sense of a field? Or provide, say, one-week MOOCs for students interested in developing very particular skills? Or, say, “training wheel” MOOCs designed to help students learn to learn online? Or maybe create more online offerings that aren’t MOOCs at all, but leverage some of the technologies and pedagogies being developed for MOOCs?

Yesterday, news broke that a UC-Irvine professor had quit the MOOC he was teaching after five weeks into a ten-week “Microeconomics for Managers” course. It’s not clear from the outside what exactly transpired, although Catherine Prendergast’s tweets about the course provide some useful information. (Prendergast is an English professor who was enrolled in the course.) One of the dynamics at play in the course seems to be that many of the students in the course had a fair amount of experience in the field of microeconomics, perhaps more expertise than the professor was used to encountering in his on-campus courses. I’m reminded of the Duke “Computational Investing” course, where more than 10% of course finishers already held PhDs.

I’ve found it challenging to teach an undergraduate calculus course in which some of the students took calculus in high school, and some didn’t. How much more challenging is it to meet the diverse learning needs of students in an open course with tens of thousands of students?

Another MROE participant mentioned a MOOC currently in development at her university which will try to address this challenge by offering two distinct paths through the same course, one for students interested in having something of an online book club experience and another for K-12 teachers interested in incorporating the course content in their own classes. It sounded like the plan is to set up distinct assessments for these two types of students.

Here at Vanderbilt, one of our open online courses will feature two paths to completion, one for students who essentially want to audit the course and another for students who want a deeper learning experience. The former students can watch the lecture videos and complete a few quizzes and reflection activities; the latter will need to form teams and complete a group project. We’ve been thinking about this two-path approach as a way to motivate more students to complete the course, but I think it also acknowledges that students are taking the course for different reasons.

I keep returning to that comment about an entire ecosystem of online learning opportunities. The Stage 1, 2, and 3 reactions I described above assume, I think, that having students complete courses is the goal of an online learning venture. Stage 4 shifts the focus from the course as the end-all and be-all to the students and their learning needs. If we’re to use online tools to expand access to higher education, I think we need to focus on those highly variable learning needs, and start mapping out an ecosystem of online learning that might meet those needs.


Image: “Empty,” Shaylor, Flickr (CC)

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