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MOOCs Not Measuring Up… A Bad Harbinger for ALL On Line Learning

June 22, 2020

Forbes writer Derek Newton offered an overview of the most comprehensive study to date on Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, and the title summarizes the results: The “Depressing” and “Disheartening” News About MOOCs”. The early findings on MOOCs were depressing and disheartening. While enrollments in these online courses offered by prestigious professors from “brand” colleges were massive, the completion rates for the courses were embarrassingly low… sometimes in single digits and seldom, if ever, above 20%. The MOOC advocates, though, figured that the problem was the need to develop self-regulation through interventions, which struck me as a good way to improve completion rates. So, a team of nine researchers did a comprehensive study tracking 250,000 students over two years and, alas for advocates of online learning, that wasn’t the case:

In particular, the authors tried tactics such as self-regulation interventions, long-term planning prompts and social interventions – tactics that had been proven to impact social behaviors such as voting and keeping doctor’s appointments. The study tried five different interventions, none worked.

Oops! Derek Newton’s conclusion is that this study probably clouds the future for ALL remote learning, even though he did not see the findings applicable:

Throughout the survey, the authors conflate MOOCs with all online learning, which is likely misplaced. It appears they studied MOOCs exclusively, and they are different. But if it’s right that their findings apply more generically to “online learning environments,” the news is even worse.

Even as printed, the news pretty bad. As long as completion rates remain bad for MOOCs, they will retain their reputation as an education afterthought – something that’s not quite college, not going to be revolution it was promised to be.  And that, in turn, has long-term implications for those who want an education and those who invest in education like a business.

The study DID find one aspect of learning that COULD have a bearing on the future development of courses: “People who want to complete their MOOC class will. Those who don’t, won’t.” Because Forbes is primarily a business magazine, this was viewed as bad news for “for those who invested in or continue to promote MOOCs“.

But for those who still believe human beings are more effective than algorithms when it comes to inculcating a desire to learn and determining the topics that a student is passionate about, it is unequivocally good news. If it turns out that MOOCs are good for students who want to complete them then there is a clear role for remote learning in schools. If there is a clear incentive for completion, as there is for students seeking a driver’s license, then students will persist. Lacking such an incentive, however, students will lack a clear desire to finish a course and will fail.

The bottom line: the art of teaching is not the coverage of material or preparing students for a test that, in their estimate, is pointless. It is connecting with students on a deep level to gain an understanding of what the STUDENT wants to learn and then providing that student with the tools to do so…. because, in the words of Derek Newton and the researchers: People who want to complete their MOOC class will.

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