online education

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Since their inception, there has been a flurry of debate around the legitimacy and efficacy of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). Widely recognized as game-changing in education, they offer radical reach and democratize access to education unlike anything we’ve ever seen. However, the rise of anything new and exciting is typically accompanied by criticism. In the case of MOOCs, it has been heavy. Skeptics point to uncertainty in scalability, assessment, engagement — the list goes on.

The main argument being made against MOOCs attacks the perceived lack of success as measured by their low completion rates (Mass MOOC Dropouts). The interpretation of this metric varies greatly.

Critics are obsessed with the infamous five percent rate, pointing out that “If 95 percent of students who enrolled in a residential college course dropped out or failed, that course would rightly be considered a disaster.”

Some take it further (the MOOC Racket), claiming that MOOCs are a platform for evangelizing academic rock stars to the detriment of students and teachers, and arguing that educators can’t teach tens of thousands of people at once — “that MOOCs only deliver information, but that’s not education.”

What is clear from all the fur flying is that people aren’t satisfied with the current state of affairs in U.S. education. But are MOOCs really failing to make the grade? Is this the right interpretation of that troubling five percent?

As a technologist, I look at the five percent through a very different lens than educators do. Equating online conversion rates to offline behavior is naive, and any attempt to hold MOOCs to a classroom standard for learning is going to lead to disappointment.

Examined through conversion rates, one of the Web’s favorite metrics, five percent is very typical for early Web companies. Through this lens, our criticism of MOOCs instantly transforms into a relatively average complaint. Does this mean that MOOCs are right where they should be for a nascent technology? That’s a question worth asking.

The other group we really haven’t heard from in this debate is students. Sure, we have the infamous “five percent completers,” but do educators really know what’s going on in the heads of the other students?

The answer is no.

The instruments educators are currently using to measure them don’t tell much of anything. For example, time spent watching online video, which seems to be the measurement of choice, if not one of the only measurements of engagement for MOOCs, is a blunt instrument.

Technologists would look at the problem differently. We love data, and as much of it as we can get. And by creating interaction with learners, we could capture data that shows different types of engagement, and whether or not people are actually learning from MOOCs, a question that I don’t believe has been adequately addressed up until now.

Measuring engagement could come in many different forms that educators haven’t explored yet. For example, by intersecting MOOCs with adaptive learning or gaming, we could capture a phenomenal amount of data and have the added benefit of improving how people learn, and how well they remember information. One could also measure rates of learning and forgetting, and effectiveness of content being taught on a very granular level, and ultimately provide instructors with insight into how their content is performing. This, in turn, will let them improve the process or intervene with students when needed.

Before we pass judgement, we need to look at MOOCs again, this time from all angles, and start digging for contextualized data to serve as the foundation for evaluation.

Our education system is in dire need of positive change, and while MOOC 1.0 is not a panacea for what ails the system, the interest in online learning and the fiery arguments around the subject suggest that there’s something here worth exploring further.

If properly channeled — and combined with a bit of forward thinking — I believe MOOC 2.0 will make the grade, and be the game-changer we’re all hoping for.

Andrew Smith Lewis is founder and executive chairman of the memory-management tool Cerego. He spoke last week at SXSW EDU and SXSW Interactive about “Hardwiring the Brain” and improving experiences in education. Follow him @aslives.



10 comments
JoeR
JoeR

I'm one of the MOOC students and believer in the platform.  I have a BS in Accounting and a BA in History.  I am currently unemployed and using the MOOC platform to stay sharp.  Like a "real" classroom MOOCs have good and bad instructors.  I have dropped more classes than completed, mostly because the instructors were not good teachers.  Unlike the traditional classroom, I have the flexibility to drop a class without fear of financial penalty or this class is required for my major. 

Many of the MOOCs are simply classes that are taped, which turn out to be the most boring.  The classes I have completed and learned from were tailored for the channel.  I believe that this period can be compared to the early years of television.  During that time shows were basically radio programs put on TV.  That changed, but it took time, and the changes were easier to measure.

As for 5% completion rate, which sounds low, no article I have read talks about the 100%, in other words 5% of what?  Many of the classes I have registered for have had over 50,000 students, at 5% completion that's 2,500 students per class! 

There are many groups interested in maintaining the status-quo, after all how would we maintain the increase in education costs at 6% per year.Higher education has not changed in over 200 years and has been a hold out to change.Ironic that the institutions charged with educating the next generation of explorers, are rooted in a system that is stuck in the past.

pano
pano

If the goal is to not educate students, then a conversion rate of 5% is perfectly fine. If the goal is to learn some hobbies -- fine. Whether you learn them or not is not mission or life critical as compare to gaining knowledge or work experience that preps you for the harsh, competitive world.


While we would like to believe that education is a lifelong experience, the harsh reality is that we rarely have a second chance to make a great first impression. 


Unlike social games or e-commerce, you cannot easily re-ignite the joy of learning as easily as re-target the user to return and buy the dress or play the game. We are working with human beings who have the opportunity to change the trajectory of their life with stimulating learning modalities --- not a repurposed video lecture.


More interesting are interactive approaches that try to bring life to online learning opportunities -- like www.gathereducation.com and many others who understand the power but the weakness of online.


For the few who are highly inspired toward self-learning, Moocs are ideal. For the 95% of the rest of us, its a poor start if the goal is to educate us less motivated learners.

Vani
Vani

I think MOOCs are just the beginning in the transformation of education. Personalized learning is achievable in a massive scale with the use of adaptive technologies. Even if we are going to measure education by retention rates and completion rates, technology enhanced teaching, like using simulations and games is more efficient than the traditional models.

pratnala
pratnala

The point of a MOOC is not to complete the course and get a certificate but to learn. And I am pretty sure that far more than "5%" have learnt a hell of a lot

Plooms
Plooms

You said you haven't heard from students so here I go. I am a student, pursuing my second bachelors. I first graduated with a Bachelor of Interdesciplinary Studies in economics and psychology from Arizona State University. Along with a minor in sociology I really loved the topics of study my first four years in college. Although it gave me a great way to look at the world, it didn't teach me much in applicable skills. Through my lifelong love of computers, I eventually stumbled upon websites like Codecademy and Lynda where I started learning basic programming after my first degree. I thought it was neat, fun, and a useful skill with lots of opportunity. So, along with everybody else, I jumped on the coding bandwagon.

Now to MOOCs. I signed up for a couple of classes on coursera that ranged from computer science 101, to machine learning, to basic algorithms. By the time the machine learning class rolled around, I wasn't as pumped or as excited when I first signed up, and never even checked out the class. The algorithm class' lectures were extremely dull and I couldn't stand to watch an entire one. The computer science 101 class was the only one I "kind of" participated in. Mostly because it was available to use the second you signed up for it. Now I dunno why, but I lost interest after logging in about two time. I was still loving Lynda and Codecademy and was dabbling in other "in-browser editor" sites like CodeSchool and CodeCombat. I don't know why Coursera couldn't hold my attention but I have a few theories.

Yeah it's somewhat accredited, but not really. Even if you pay for higher accreditation, it doesn't feel like it means much. Another thing is I felt the classes were very boring. The websites mentioned above are actually fun, if you haven't tried them, you should. Even Lynda, which is just videos, had a much higher quality of lectures. Lastly, there isn't as much structure in MOOCs as a traditional degree. You kind of pick and choose what classes you want to learn about with no real direction of beginner, to intermediate, to educated. When you earn a degree through a university, there is a clear path. You also learn generations were of norms and conventions. When you graduate from a university, you're expected to know a certain body of knowledge. If I were to show my MOOC certificates to a prospect employer, I would expect him to think, "Ok show me what you know," instead of, "I know you know this."

Fast forward to now. I recently started my second bachelors, Software Enginnering, through ASU. I'm currently taking all my courses online right now, but if I wanted I could take them in class. Either way, it has the same accreditation which is awesome. University accreditation "feels" much tha MOOC accreditation. I've actually preferred the online format so far. Much less distracting that a lecture hall (for me) and believe it not, more social. My 130 classmates and I were required to join a private Facebook group that literally has thousands of posts and comments from us. And unlike MOOCs, I'm going to interact with many of these same people throughout the next four years of my degree.

I know MOOCs are pretty much the exact same thing on the surface as a university class. But under the hood, they're definitely not, at least not yet. I have a cumulative 4.0 in the university so far, whereas I failed and dropped out of MOOCs.

Alex Enkerli
Alex Enkerli

Some (many) of us tackle MOOCs in a more nuanced fashion. For one thing, there’s a variety of MOOC models, from the one originally built through work by constructivists Stephen Downes, George Siemens, and Dave Cormier (“cMOOC”) to the reappropriation by EdX-like institutional interests in need of a business model (“xMOOC”). It may sound like a trivial debate in definition, but it’s actually hiding a very deep distinction in the future of learning. The critiques mentioned here relate only indirectly to constructivist MOOCs.


Another issue is that many of us protest the hype surrounding MOOCs, not the MOOC concept itself. For anyone interested in deep insight as to what has been surrounding MOOCs, in the past several years, Rolin Moe’s blog offers a lot. http://allmoocs.wordpress.com


Besides, MOOC debates are, like, sooooo 2013. Can’t we have deeper discussions on online learning? Thankfully, e.SCAPE 2014 moved away from MOOC talk to focus on more important issues involving learners, teachers, institutions, and society.Some (many) of us tackle MOOCs in a more nuanced fashion. For one thing, there’s a variety of MOOC models, from the one originally built through work by constructivists Stephen Downes, George Siemens, and Dave Cormier (“cMOOC”) to the reappropriation by EdX-like institutional interests in need of a business model (“xMOOC”). It may sound like a trivial debate in definition, but it’s actually hiding a very deep distinction in the future of learning. The critiques mentioned here relate only indirectly to constructivist MOOCs.


Another issue is that many of us protest the hype surrounding MOOCs, not the MOOC concept itself. For anyone interested in deep insight as to what has been surrounding MOOCs, in the past several years, Rolin Moe’s blog offers a lot. http://allmoocs.wordpress.com


Besides, MOOC debates are, like, sooooo 2013. Can’t we have deeper discussions on online learning? Thankfully, e.SCAPE 2014 moved away from MOOC talk to focus on more important issues involving learners, teachers, institutions, and society.

Bob_jingle
Bob_jingle

I don't think we should read too much into the 95% drop out rate. The first MOOC I took I quit but then 6 months later I went back and completed it. Today I've finished 12 MOOC courses covering ruby, php, python, html/css, javascript, jquery among others.


I would have never become familiar with those programming languages if it wasn't for MOOCs such as code academy and udacity.

Andrew Smith Lewis
Andrew Smith Lewis

@Vani  totally agree with you - we are at the beginning here and once things become more integrated - MOOCs combined with adaptive technologies - the system will change for the better.


Andrew Smith Lewis
Andrew Smith Lewis

@Plooms  Thanks for taking the time to share your experiences thus far.  I absolutely agree that MOOCs have a long way to go, especially when being compared to a model that's had hundreds and millions of students over the last 200+ years!  Some are definitely doing a better job than others of capturing and maintaining attention, and as with any industry I am confident we will see a shakeout of winners and losers.  Glad to see you've found an online program that works for you - ASU has an excellent reputation and hopefully their best practices will spread.

Vani
Vani

@Andrew Smith Lewis Education has stayed rigid for many decades, now its being unbundled from costly packages, integrated with new modes of learning and made affordable for everyone. I appreciate your insight and effort in the evolution.  


-Vani (Researcher at http://wunicon.org/)


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