Success? Failure? How should we measure MOOCs?

One of the most common comments made about MOOCs seems to be about their high dropout rate. But so what? We should be concerned with how many succeed and in that MOOCs shine. In the class at the bottom of this pyramid, Think Again: How to Reason and Argue Successfully, only 2% of the students completed the course. But we need to look at those that finished it. 2% of the 226,652 students that started the class is 4533 people.

In a traditional brick and mortar university one professor can teach three classes a semester with an average of 20 students in each one.  Let’s say our professor is ambitions and also teaches a class in the summer session. That is 140 students each year. In a traditional classroom setting it would take over 32 years to teach that class to as many students as completed the MOOC in 12 weeks. Nearly a lifetime’s work for one professor in a traditional setting completed every 12 weeks in a MOOC. This idea did not originate with me, I heard it from one of the professors in one of the MOOCs I have taken. I would like to add that just like I sometimes have to read a sentence several times to grasp what the author meant it is possible for any of the 97% who did not finish the class to try again. And again if necessary.

After all, with a MOOC all you lose is your time and all you gain is knowledge. (We all know that the “Certificate of Completions” and “badges” are not worth the paper they could be printed on. We take the classes to learn something.) If something keeps you from learning it the first time why not go back?

If you are a graduate student looking forward to a career teaching on a traditional campus the fact that a MOOC can teach as many students in a few weeks as you will your entire career might worry you. Judging from the few MOOCs I have taken the best ones are often introductory courses, Introduction to Mathematical Thinking, Think Again: How to Reason and Argue Successfully, and Archeology’s Dirty Little Secrets could all be classified as introductory, Mathematical Logic 101, Rhetoric 101, Archeology 101, if you would prefer.  I believe that these high quality introductions will encourage students to pursue the subject rather than discourage them as often happens today in “101” level classes. The American History 101 class I took at Miami might very easily caused me to reconsider history as my major if I had not already spent several decades reading history.  These are the classes that are traditionally taught by inexperienced graduate students. In a MOOC the professor has years of experience and very often a deep love for the subject coupled with seemingly boundless enthusiasm. The three classes I named above were all like that. In addition there are many graduate students working in the background, gaining experience that will help them teach the more interesting, advanced courses, that students intrigued by high quality MOOC introductions may one day demand.

If you are a businessperson looking for a cheap source of educated labor this might look promising. However, the only “career” oriented class I signed up for, Georgia Institute of Technology’s Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application, collapsed in its early weeks under the the crushing weight of flawed planning and application. I am sure that not all of them are failures but I doubt that they will be as valuable to companies as internal training courses would be. I have never worked for a company that did not have very specific ideas on how software was to be used, even when I was in charge. A student that learned from a professor to use a bell, when company policy is to only use whistles, could have a difficult time in the workplace.

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