July 28, 2016

The strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs: Part I

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© Carson Kahn, 2012

© Carson Kahn, 2012

How many times has an author cried: ‘Oh, God, I wish I’d never started on this!’? Well, I wanted to have a short section on MOOCs within a chapter on design models for teaching and learning in my online textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age‘ and it is probably poetic justice that the section on MOOCs is now ballooning into a monster of its own.

Although I don’t want to inflate the importance of MOOCs, I fear I’m probably going to have to devote a whole chapter to the topic. (Well, I do have to agree that the topic is relevant to teaching in a digital age.) However, whether MOOCs get their own chapter may well depend on how you, my readers, react to what I’m writing, which I’m putting into this blog via a series of posts.

I’ve already had two posts, one on the key design features of MOOCs in general, and another on the differences between cMOOCs and xMOOCs that has already generated quite a lot of heated comments. Here I’m posting the first part of my discussion on the strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs. I’ll do another couple of posts to wrap it up (I desperately hope).

Strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs

Because at the time of writing most MOOCs are less than three years old, there are not many research publications on MOOCs, although research activities are now beginning to pick up. Much of the research so far on MOOCs comes from the institutions offering MOOCs, mainly in the form of reports on enrolments. The commercial platform providers such as Coursera and Udacity have provided limited research information overall, which is a pity, because they have access to really big data sets. However, MIT and Harvard, the founding partners in edX, are conducting some research, mainly on their own courses. There is very little research to date on cMOOCs, and what there is is mainly qualitative.

However, wherever possible, I have tried to use any research that has been done that provides insight into the strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs. At the same time, we should be clear that we are discussing a phenomenon that to date has been marked largely by political, emotional and often irrational discourse, and in terms of hard evidence, we will have to wait for some time. Thus any analysis must also address philosophical or value issues, which is a sure recipe for generating heated discussion.

Lastly, it should be remembered when evaluating MOOCs is that I am applying the criteria of whether MOOCs are likely to lead to the kinds of learning needed in a digital age: in other words, do they help develop the knowledge and skills defined in Chapter 1 of Teaching in a Digital Age?

1. Open and free education

MOOCs, particularly xMOOCs, deliver high quality content from some of the world’s best universities for free to anyone with a computer and an Internet connection. This in itself is an amazing value proposition. In this sense, MOOCs are an incredibly valuable addition to educational provision. Who could argue against this? Certainly not me, so long as the argument for MOOCs goes no further.

However, this is not the only form of open and free education. Libraries, open textbooks and educational broadcasting are also open and free to end users and have been for some time, even if they do not have the same power and reach as Internet-based delivery. There are also lessons we can learn from these earlier forms of open and free education that also apply to MOOCs.

The first is that these earlier forms of open and free did not replace the need for formal, credit-based education, but were used to supplement or strengthen it. In other words, MOOCs are a tool for continuing and informal education, which has high value in its own right.

The second lesson is that there have been many attempts in the past to use open and massive education through educational broadcasting and satellite broadcasting in Third World countries (see Bates, 1985), and they all failed miserably for a variety of reasons, the most important being:

  • the high cost of ground equipment (especially security),
  • the need for local support for learners without high levels of education, and its high cost
  • the need to adapt to the culture of the receiving countries
  • the difficulty of covering the operational costs of management and administration, especially for assessment, qualifications and local accreditation.

Also the priority in most Third World countries is not for courses from high-level Stanford University professors, but for programs for elementary and high schools. Finally, while mobile phones are widespread in Africa, they operate on very narrow bandwidths. For instance, it costs US$2 to download a typical YouTube video – equivalent to a day’s salary for many Africans. Streamed 50 minute video lectures then have limited applicability.

This is not to say that MOOCs could not be valuable in Third World countries. They have features, such as integrated interaction, testing and feedback, and much lower cost, that make them a more powerful medium than educational broadcasting but they will still face the same challenges of educational broadcasting:

  • being realistic as to what they can actually deliver to countries with no or limited technology infrastructure
  • working in partnership with Third World educational institutions and systems and other partners
  • ensuring that the necessary local support – which costs real money – is put in place
  • adapting the design, content and delivery of MOOCs to the cultural and economic requirements of those countries.

Also, MOOCs need to be compared to other possible ways of delivering mass education in developing countries, within these parameters. The problem comes when it is argued that because MOOCs are open and free to end-users, they will inevitably force down the cost of conventional education, or eliminate the need for it altogether, especially in Third World countries.

Lastly, and very importantly, in many countries, all public education is already in essence open to all and in many cases free to those participating, if grants, endowments and other forms of state support to students are taken into account. MOOCs then will have to deliver the same quality or better at a lower price than public education if they are to replace it. I will return to this point later when I discuss their costs and the political and social issues around MOOCs.

2. The audience that MOOCs mainly serve

In a research report from Ho et al. (2014), researchers at Harvard University and MIT found that on the first 17 MOOCs offered through edX, 66 per cent of all participants, and 74 per cent of all who obtained a certificate, had a bachelor’s degree or above, 71 per cent were male, and the average age was 26. This and other studies also found that a high proportion of participants came from outside the USA, ranging from 40-60 per cent of all participants, indicating strong interest internationally in open access to high quality university teaching.

In a study based on over 80 interviews in 62 institutions ‘active in the MOOC space’, Hollands and Tirthali (2014), researchers at Columbia University Teachers’ College, concluded that:

Data from MOOC platforms indicate that MOOCs are providing educational opportunities to millions of individuals across the world. However, most MOOC participants are already well-educated and employed, and only a small fraction of them fully engages with the courses. Overall, the evidence suggests that MOOCs are currently falling far short of “democratizing” education and may, for now, be doing more to increase gaps in access to education than to diminish them.

Thus MOOCs, as is common with most forms of university continuing education, cater to the better educated, older and employed sectors of society.

3. Persistence and commitment

Hill (2013) identified five types of participants in Coursera courses:

© Phil Hill, 2013

© Phil Hill, 2013

The edX researchers (Ho et al., 2014) provided empirical support for Hill’s analysis. They identified different levels of commitment as follows across 17 edX MOOCs:

  • Only Registered: Registrants who never access the courseware (35%).
  • Only Viewed: Non-certified registrants who access the courseware, accessing less than half of the available chapters (56%).
  • Only Explored: Non-certified Registrants who access more than half of the available chapters in the courseware, but did not get a certificate (4%).
  • Certified: Registrants who earn a certificate in the course (5%).

Engle (2014) found similar patterns for the UBC MOOCs on Coursera (also replicated in other studies):

  • of those that initially sign up, between one third and a half do not participate in any other active way
  • of those that participate in at least one activity, between 5-10% go on to successfully complete a certificate

Those going on to achieve certificates usually are within the 5-10 per cent range of those that sign up and in the 10-20 per cent range for those who actively engaged with the MOOC at least once. Nevertheless, the numbers obtaining certificates are still large in absolute terms: over 43,000 across 17 courses on edX and 8,000 across four courses at UBC (between 2,000-2,500 certificates per course).

Milligan et al. (2013) found a similar pattern of commitment in cMOOCs, from interviewing a relatively small sample of participants (29 out of 2,300 registrants) about halfway through a cMOOC:

  • passive participants: in Milligan’s study these were those that felt lost in the MOOC and rarely but occasionally logged in.
  • lurkers: they were actively following the course but did not engage in any of the activities (these were just under half those interviewed)
  • active participants (again, just under half those interviewed) who were fully engaged in the course activities.

MOOC participation and persistence rates need to be judged for what they are, a somewhat unique – and valuable – form of non-formal education. Once again, these results are very similar to research into non-formal educational broadcasts (e.g. the History Channel). One would not expect a viewer to watch every episode of a History Channel series then take an exam at the end. Ho et al. (p.13) produced the following diagram to show the different levels of commitment to xMOOCs:

Ho et al., 2014

Ho et al., 2014

Now compare that to what I wrote in 1985 about educational broadcasting in Britain:

(p.99): At the centre of the onion is a small core of fully committed students who work through the whole course, and, where available, take an end-of-course assessment or examination. Around the small core will be a rather larger layer of students who do not take any examination but do enrol with a local class or correspondence school. There may be an even larger layer of students who, as well as watching and listening, also buy the accompanying textbook, but who do not enrol in any courses. Then, by far the largest group, are those that just watch or listen to the programmes. Even within this last group, there will be considerable variations, from those who watch or listen fairly regularly, to those, again a much larger number, who watch or listen to just one programme. 

I also wrote (p.100):

A sceptic may say that the only ones who can be said to have learned effectively are the tiny minority that worked right through the course and successfully took the final assessment…A counter argument would be that broadcasting can be considered successful if it merely attracts viewers or listeners who might otherwise have shown no interest in the topic; it is the numbers exposed to the material that matter…the key issue then is whether broadcasting does attract to education those who would not otherwise have been interested, or merely provides yet another opportunity for those who are already well educated…There is a good deal of evidence that it is still the better educated in Britain and Europe that make the most use of non-formal educational broadcasting.

Exactly the same could be said about MOOCs. In a digital age where easy and open access to new knowledge is critical for those working in knowledge-based industries, MOOCs will be one valuable source or means of accessing that knowledge. The issue is though whether there are more effective ways to do this.

Furthermore, percentages, completion and certification DO matter if MOOCs are being seen as a substitute or a replacement for formal education. Thus MOOCs are a useful – but not really revolutionary – contribution to non-formal continuing education. We need though to look at whether they can meet the demands of more formal education, in terms of ensuring as many students succeed as possible.

To come

I think that’s more than enough for today. In my next post, I will try to cover the following strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs:

4. What do participants learn in MOOCs?

5. Costs and economies of scale

6. Branding

7. Ethical issues

8. Meeting the needs of learners in a digital age.

I will probably then do another short post on:

a. The politico-economic context that drives the MOOC phenomena

b. a short summary.

Over to you

Remembering that this is less than half the section on strengths and weaknesses, and that the criterion I am using for this is the ability of MOOCs to meet the learning needs of a digital age:

1. Are these the right topics for assessing MOOC’s strengths and weaknesses?

2. Would you have discussed these three topics differently? Do you agree or disagree with my conclusions?

3. Is ‘the ability of MOOCs to meet the learning needs of a digital age’ a fair criterion and if not how should they be judged?

4. Is the educational broadcasting comparison fair or relevant?

References

Bates, A. (1985) Broadcasting in Education: An Evaluation London: Constables

Engle, W. (2104) UBC MOOC Pilot: Design and Delivery Vancouver BC: University of British Columbia

Friedland, T. (2013) Revolution hits the universities, New York Times, January 26

Hill, P. (2013) Some validation of MOOC student patterns graphic, e-Literate, August 30

Ho, A. et al. (2014) HarvardX and MITx: The First Year of Open Online Courses Fall 2012-Summer 2013 (HarvardX and MITx Working Paper No. 1), January 21

Hollands, F. and Tirthali, D. (2014) MOOCs: Expectations and Reality New York: Columbia University Teachers’ College, Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education, 211 pp

Milligan, C., Littlejohn, A. and Margaryan, A. (2013) Patterns of engagement in connectivist MOOCs, Merlot Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, Vol. 9, No. 2

Yousef, A. et al. (2014) MOOCs: A Review of the State-of-the-Art Proceedings of 6th International Conference on Computer Supported Education – CSEDU 2014, Barcelona, Spain

Comments

  1. The work by Kop and Fournier (collected here – http://ritakop.blogspot.ca/2012/01/research-publications-on-massive-open.html (I don’t know why everyone cites the 2014 EdX research but ignores this earlier research) on the population served by MOOCs also found that it was an older and well-credentialed demographic.

    But I wonder how relevant this is. The 1994 surveys of internet users http://www.cc.gatech.edu/gvu/user_surveys/survey-01-1994/graphs/results-general.html show that the average user was North American, educated and professional. They were also overwhelmingly male. But it would have been incorrect to conclude from this data that the internet would not have a broad society-wide utility or appeal. It shows, simply, that there is a characteristic demographic that benefits from innovation earlier than everyone else.

  2. I found this article really interesting, so please do continue the topic as you propose. I liked the comparison with broadcasting. Downes’ comment above about early Internet users is very pertinent, of course, so that adds further interest.

  3. Interesting article, Tony – thanks for starting the conversation. It’s interesting to see some data regarding MOOCs, particularly in the context of what has been believed/assumed to be MOOCs aims/goals (of providing access to world-class education for free and in an open way). It has been done before (e.g. Open University in the UK), although not for free, but this is changing for MOOCs anyway.

    To answer your questions regarding assessing the value of MOOCs, in my opinion, we need to reassess the needs of learners. I think these may have changed since the beginning of edXs and Courseras. These days people expect online education/knowledge-sharing to be free, and there are bucket-loads of it out there, from YouTube videos, to all sorts of guide/advice/self-help materials sold by various on-line businesses, to MOOCs. But employers or IRL educational institutions are still reluctant to accept credits given by those online entities. But people are still taking all those courses, even paying more and more – are their needs then met? Probably yes, regardless of what we think.

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