MOOCs are hot, but do students learn?

MOOCs (massive open online courses) are red hot in higher education, reports Time. A third of college administrators think residential campuses will become obsolete. State legislators are pushing for-credit MOOCs to cut college costs. But, how much are MOOC students learning?

“At this point, there’s just no way to really know whether they’re effective or not,” said Shanna Jaggars, assistant director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, which has produced some of the most recent scholarship about online education.

Enrollment in online college courses of all kinds increased by 29 percent from 2010 through 2012, according to the Babson Survey Research Group. However, completion rates are low. Only about 10 percent of people who sign up for a MOOC complete the course.

Advocates say that’s because there are no admissions requirements and the courses are free; they compare it to borrowing a book from the library and browsing it casually or returning it unread.

In addition, completers don’t earn college credits. In a survey by Qualtrics and Instructure, two-thirds of MOOC students said they’d be more likely to complete a MOOC if they could get college credit or a certificate of completion.  That still not widely available, notes Time.

Until it is, said Jaggars, it will be hard to measure the effectiveness of MOOCs—a Catch-22, since without knowing their effectiveness, it’s unlikely colleges will give academic credit for them.

To study what happens when students get credit for online courses, Teachers College looked at online courses at community colleges in Virginia and Washington State that were not MOOCs—since tuition was charged and credit given—but were like them in other ways. The results were not encouraging. Thirty-two percent of the students in online courses in Virginia quit before finishing, compared with 19 percent of classmates in conventional classrooms. The equivalent numbers in Washington State were 18 percent versus 10 percent. Online students were also less likely to get at least a C, less likely to return for the subsequent semester, and ultimately less likely to graduate.

San Jose State’s experiment with for-credit MOOCs was suspended in response to very low pass rates.  Pass rates improved significantly in the summer semester, but “a closer look showed that more than half of the summer students already had at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to none of the students who took online courses in the spring.” Even then, more summer registrants dropped out than in traditional classes.

“In general, students don’t do as well in online courses as they do in conventional courses,” said Jaggars. “A lot of that has to do with the engagement. There’s just less of it in online courses.”

Despite all this, 77 percent of academic leaders think online education is as good as face-to-face classes or better, Babson found. Four in 10 said their schools plan to offer MOOCs within three years, according to a survey by the IT company Enterasys.

In a new Gallup poll, 13 percent said employers see an online degree as better than a traditional degree, while 49 percent said the online degree has less value for employers. Online education gives students more options and provides good value for the money, but is less rigorous, most respondents said.

POSTED BY Joanne Jacobs ON October 16, 2013

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[…] MOOCs (massive open online courses) are red hot in higher education, but how much are MOOC students learning? […]

[…] MOOCs (massive open online courses) are red hot in higher education, reports Time. But, how much are MOOC students learning? Nobody's sure.  […]

Dr. Jim Ellsworth

MOOCs represent the irrational conviction that those massive, 400-seat courses we all endured as freshmen will somehow be more effective thanks to the magic of technological determinism–that the same instructional designs the evidence has repeatedly proven ineffective will be transformed if we just change the medium–despite the thousands of media comparison studies over the last two decades that showed us that media produce no significant difference in learning outcomes if the instructional strategy remains unchanged.

And it does remain unchanged: MOOCs are simply a zombie re-animation of old instructional designs that the evidence has shown to be ineffective. We’ve done massive before: programmed-text-based correspondence courses were massive. They weren’t very effective (and they, like MOOCs, were plagued by average attrition in excess of 50%). Sure, MOOCs add the affordances of modern, multimedia instruction, but so did interactive videodisc, and CD-based correspondence courses. They weren’t effective either.

Some MOOCs have recently added unsupervised learner-to-learner interactions–but as I’ve noted on my Google+ pages, so have other designs. The joint body that coordinates distance learning efforts at the U.S. military’s grad schools, of which I’m an officer, compared a faculty-led online model with a model in which the learners (all highly-experienced, successful, mid-career professionals) “helped” each other learn the professionally, faculty-produced content when they needed it, but with no instructor present. Not only did we find that the model in which students received regular, personal faculty attention significantly outperformed the student-led model, but without continuous oversight by an expert faculty member the students in the latter actually tended to reinforce one another’s misconceptions and errors in reasoning, producing faulty mental models that had to be “un-taught” on the job site.

I’ve focused my comments, up to this point, on striking a cautionary note–that the evidence simply does not support MOOCs as an effective standalone educational strategy. But I would be remiss to leave this seeming to imply that MOOCs are necessarily useless, or that their purveyors are simply selling snake oil. There are a lot of superb, dedicated educators and even professional instructional designers out there working on MOOCs of one form or another–and edX (along with others like Coursera and Udacity) is among the most prominent I’d put in that category. The problem with the current direction in “MOOC mania” goes back to affordances: just like the best jockey can’t ride a mule to the Triple Crown, even the best of us can’t create a model that effectively and consistently educates without regular, personal guidance of a human expert throughout the course or program.


Imagine if the faculty-led face-to-face or online courses at your local community college (or a university in a developing country) could, at little or no cost, incorporate guest modules into their courses that were designed by the top experts in the field at the most prominent institutions around the world, and then discussed with fellow students from around the world too, with all this being observed (and then integrated, interpreted, and related to local circumstances) by the local faculty, as part of the actual, credit-bearing course.

Imagine if, before someone mires themselves in student loan debt to get an undergraduate degree at your institution–only to flunk out because they lack prerequisite skills, or drop out because they turn out to hate the field–imagine if instead they could “test the waters” for free by taking a few MOOCs from your faculty, designed in your institution’s style…which, if they then matriculated into your degree program, might be accepted for a few credit-hours of the introductory courses they’d have to take anyhow.

Those seem like real wins all around–and there may be others. Now these are just ideas: they don’t have any evidence behind them (yet) either. But neither, at least, do they have a few decades of evidence showing they don’t work. I’d like to see the money and expertise at edX, Udacity, and Coursera put to work in some of those directions, instead!

Dr. Jim Ellsworth

P.S. Don’t equate MOOCs with “online courses.” After three decades in the field, I’ve seen the research iterate in on what makes for an effective online learning environment–and twice designed award-winning ones that revolutionized learning outcomes, in some cases over their face-to-face counterparts. For example, in the Naval War College’s masters-level online Command & Staff program I led for five years, our online students were able to learn from faculty (and classmates) who were actually DEPLOYED in Iraq or Afghanistan, doing the jobs we were preparing folks for–while at the “elite” resident program I attended myself, we had to wait for such people to finish their tours and get orders for the College.

We have *evidence-based knowledge* of what makes effective online courses.

MOOCs just aren’t it.

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