Friday, January 3, 2014

Putting College Under the MOOC Microscope

Another year draws to an end, but not before yet another"MOOCs aren't as good as college" story slips into the media (NPR, in this case). Amazing insights are present there, like that MOOCs don't provide as much personal, face-to-face interaction as one can potentially get in a college class. Wow, no one could ever have figured that out. Also, a very small fraction of people who sign up for a class (requiring in some cases literally one button-click of a mouse on a website) don't view all the lectures or complete all the assessments. Well, blow me down. And the conclusion in the article? "We have a lousy product."

Lousy??? I'm really fed up with the anti-MOOC movement, especially when it comes from within academia. Despite my snide sarcasm above, I do appreciate that much of this continued MOOC pushback is a response to the MOOC overhype that both preceded and overlapped it. What many MOOC dissenters seem to miss is that most MOOC advocates (including myself) never argued they are a "replacement" for a college education and experience. No way-- not even close. The media and a very few zealots played that line up, and they were wrong from day 1.

But let's turn the tables a bit. Let's put "in-person" college experiences under the microscope used for MOOCs. Before that, we must realize that we cannot compare completion rates for a college class and a free online product that fails to provide credentialing. Especially for introductory-level science courses (the kind I teach in genetics and evolution), the vast majority of students in college attend classes for credentialing rather than to satisfy a keen interest in the specific topics. A few months ago, I asked a room full of college students in a workshop, "How many of you look forward to 2 or more of your classes most weeks?" The answer-- one. Keep in mind all of the students there take 4-5 classes at a time, so the vast majority do not look forward to even half of what they're signed up for. Again, they are signed up for most classes because they're "required", either directly or to fulfill some sort of requirement or credit. If the students fail to complete the "in-person" college class, not only do they fail to fulfill the requirement and fail to get the credit, but they often have the black-mark of an "F" or a "W" on their permanent record. That's simply untrue for MOOCs in all respects-- if you dislike a MOOC, you simply stop watching without consequence.

How can we compare these experiences fairly then? MOOCs are like what students would be willing to look at as "extra," and with no consequence for failing to complete. I looked up some statistics from my on-campus class last spring as a comparison-- every week, I provided online resources (often podcasts or pdfs) that were truly "extra"... the resources were available on the same webpage as required materials for each week, and the resources complemented what was discussed in the lectures. There were 452 students enrolled. The very first such resource was viewed 100 times. How does this (100/452) compare to the MOOC criticism of "About half who registered for a class ever viewed a lecture"? Again, these were students already in a college class on this subject, and it was material pre-identified for them as relevant. If you look at the supplements from the end of the semester, the views are in the low single digits (potentially just reflecting the times I'd open the files to confirm they uploaded). How does this compare with the MOOC criticism of "completion rates averaged just 4%"?

I don't blame these on-campus students for the low uptake at all. They have career aspirations (in my case, mostly pre-med), and frankly, we've placed them into a situation where their grades matter more than what they care to learn about. If they spend time viewing my supplementary materials, that time is not spent studying for organic chemistry or physics. For every B or lower grade they get, their choices of medical schools become more limited, so they need to triage. And maybe they don't even really care about my topics, but they're forced to take my class by major requirements. None of this is true for MOOCs. Further, as I've argued previously, many college classes effectively focus on stratifying students (the essence of a "curve"), and far too little ensuring that all students who want to be engaged and learn are successful in doing so. MOOCs don't concern themselves with stratification at all-- it's all about engaging and learning for an interested audience. I wonder if college was once that way, centuries ago.

Back to MOOCs, let's drop the percentages and look at just the final numbers. I'll use mine as an example, but I suspect you'd get similar numbers in any of them. My MOOC ran twice. Even if we pretend that only those students who completed every assessment and got a passing grade at the end were the only ones who reaped any benefit, that number still comes to ~4000 students. 4000 people from around the world quantifiably learned about genetics and evolution as a result of this MOOC. Presumably there are other students who didn't complete it but found some part of the experience personally rewarding or engaging, and they have a greater appreciation for the topic. And best of all, none, NOT ONE, of those 4000+ "had" to do it-- this was quenching a thirst for knowledge, not jumping through a pre-MCAT or biology-major hoop. I'd like to see more "lousy products" like that in the world. How many of those students enrolled would have gone to a local college instead to satisfy this particular thirst? My guess is less than 1%, if any. Finally, I like the thought experiment of what would happen if I just told my on-campus class from day 1, "You'll all get A's no matter what," (obviating the credentialing)-- how many would still be in my classroom three months later? How many years would I have to run my on-campus class under that condition to get 4000 students to have continued to month 3 of my class?

Yes, MOOCs were overhyped. They are no panacea. They don't have face-to-face interactions with knowledgeable faculty and able other students. They don't invalidate college or provide a serious alternative. They don't provide "education for all." Most of the enrolled students already have higher education, so MOOCs' contributions to equalizing opportunity are limited (if for no other reason than because of variable internet access). And they are misused by some reckless college administrations. But before we cast any more stones at MOOCs for what they "aren't", let's have colleges take a serious look in the mirror themselves at what they've become, and see how badly their faces have broken out.

Personally, MOOCs have helped me see deficits in standard on-campus college experiences. I think the overall college experience needs to be rethought in a big way. It's NOT that I think MOOCs are better or are replacing college, but they highlight college's obsessions with course requirements, with grades, with credentialing, and with hoops of various sorts in the on-campus experience. Unlike on-campus college classes, MOOCs are hoop-free and purely educational: people enroll because they think they want to learn the subject being taught, and they continue in the class if and when they stay engaged in the material and seek to commit their time to it. What a concept that would be for an on-campus introductory science classroom.


  1. Could not agree with more with you, Mohammed. MOOCs are fledgling, and yet still they've come so far. They are such a promising societal tool. Plus, I think they hold up a mirror to society—and we may not like what we see in our educational values.

    I took an EdX course from Deflt University recently and it was just great. 'Course, I'd rather be in Holland taking it, but the MOOC was way cheaper. Plus, it's nice to kick back and watch a lecture from a world-class professor in your jammies.

  2. I wonder why no one is comparing MOOCs to online classes that are already offered at many colleges and universities. Shrinking budgets and growing enrollment have led to large capacity lecture classes (upwards of 400 students compressed together in a single classroom) and moving coursework online, streamlining the content delivery-regurgitation model. It's possible to graduate with a bachelor's or master's degree without having any face-to-face interaction with another individual.

    Meanwhile, MOOCs operate as a voluntary pursuit of knowledge adjacent to academia, and yet they garner all of the current pushback. Some of the MOOCs I've seen use better learning techniques (short content lectures, quizzing, peer interaction) than some in-person classes. Instead of unfairly deriding MOOCs, we need to evaluate what works in education and what we want our students to get out of each educational experience. Mohamed has it entirely correct that the college experience needs a significant overhaul to reorient student's learning away from grades and toward knowledge and experience.

  3. Thanks, Mohamed, for your perceptive comments. I think you are right: if anything, MOOCs have shined a light on the internal structural problems of the undergraduate curriculum of our time--and made all of us think more about pedagogy (oops, I said that dirty word...). And although they are not a panacea for the absence of educational opportunity for many people in our global world, they have nonetheless shined a light on a pent up demand for knowledge that cries out to be addressed.