MOOCs for a happy few


Why do MOOC students disengage?

A first striking piece of evidence about MOOCs – and related experts – is that we can all talk about them but very few know exactly what they are, even fewer have registered for a MOOC, and almost none of us have completed one. Let’s have a look then at the terrible completion rate of MOOCs .

Only 1% of enrolled students completed the first-year college MOOC on physics at Georgia Tech. In an interesting blog post published last September, Karen Head from the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Institute of Technology asked herself: is retention an accurate measure of success?

If you ask a university or school teacher whether he or she would consider it to be a success that 99% of the students leave the classroom before the end of the course, the answer will be easily given. Of course, this is not the type of analysis we want to do with MOOCs … as long as we agree that we are not talking about substituting one instructional model for another.

Why would a MOOC with a 1% completion rate be a success then?

The Third International Conference on Learning Analytics and Knowledge organised by Erik Duval from the University of Leuven, provided new evidence on the nature of students’ disengagement in MOOCs. In a paper presented at the conference, “Deconstructing disengagement”, René F. Kizilcec, Chris Piech and Emily Schneider from Stanford University study ways in which MOOCs students engage or disengage.

It seems that MOOCs reproduce different types of discrimination instead of providing an alternative and more egalitarian learning path. The analysis showed that there were seven times more men than women enrolled and that less than 1% of learners came from developing countries!

The authors conclude on the importance of auditing as “an alternative engagement pathway for meeting learner needs.” MOOC auditors will be learners aiming at personal enrichment, but unwilling to accept too many constraints in terms of assignments and dedication. These students will be the TED-like followers, always interested in shopping around for additional learning. “Additional” may be the point. MOOC auditors will be more like MOOC followers than MOOC learners.

Universities will therefore be able to develop MOOCs without endangering their physical model, i.e. expelling the auditors from the classroom and opening the doors of virtual classes where they won’t be interacting with fully registered, committed and certified students.

So what are the perspectives for MOOCs? Are we surfing on a speculative wave (see my blog entry on MOOCs mania)?

Is this the model we want for open education? Will we promote MOOCs as a second-best solution that maintains the status quo, i.e. an education open mainly to male and well-off learners?

Disengagement is a trend in learners that preexists MOOCs. This can’t be solved in an opportunistic way by highlighting the current failures of MOOCs.  It is a fundamental issue for the future of learning that requires a self-critical analysis of existing learning schemes.

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