How can we get more serious about MOOCs?

MOOCs currently are able to retain only a small percentage of their students through to completion. Is this mostly because the courses are free, and therefore students are not serious enough? And would adding a small fee bring in the required seriousness? And if the courses are not free then would they still qualify as MOOCs?

When I sought the views of John Ebersole, president of Excelsior College, Albany, New York, on this burning issue of low completion rates, he stated …

In my opinion there are multiple reasons for the low completion rates (under 10%) of MOOCs.

    The participant is not truly interested in the topic but wants to see what all the hoopla is about.
    With no psychological or financial investment, it is easy for the participant to become engaged in other activities/interests.
    Work is too hard for the participant’s level of preparation.
    Participant is fatigued by the lack of instructional diversity and the absence of any meaningful engagement with either the instructor or the material. Methodology feels more like a classroom lecture on steroids with all interaction taking place, or not, with peers.

Incidentally, the companies offering MOOCs do not consider the high dropout rates a cause for concern. Anant Agarwal, the founder of edX, in an interview with The Economist says …

…we should put this number in perspective…if you look at traditional universities…some of our top universities accept between 5-10% of the students that apply… with MOOCs…anyone can sign up…even the fact that 5-30% are successfully completing what are high quality hard courses, I’d view that as a really good thing…

So alright, we are now looking at the number in perspective. But are the two scenarios—one of a traditional university accepting a small percentage of student applicants and the other of a MOOC being able to retain only a small percentage of enrolled students— comparable?

Furthermore, if these 70-95% of students who dropout are the ones who were not truly interested in the topic, then there should not be much cause for concern from academic and pedagogic perspectives. But even if a small percentage of the 70-95% dropouts were truly interested in the subject but dropped out because they couldn’t cope with either the subject matter or the format, or because in spite of their interest, got engaged in other activities and were therefore not able to commit their undivided attention to the course, then I believe we do have a problem at hand.

So, what is the solution?

University of Maryland University College (UMUC) recently announced that they will give credit to some MOOCs but will evaluate these first. I presume the students aspiring to earn these credits will surely be serious about the courses. So, should each MOOC find a university that gives it some credit to be taken seriously?

In my white paper on “Designing MOOCs,” the focus has been on the design, and therefore the engagement level for learners in a MOOC environment. So, if engaging interventions such as games and simulations are used to enhance the learning experience, would the completion rates improve?

And finally, should completion rates be measured on the basis of what the students want to learn, rather than how many students enroll? A prerequisite test or an initial survey to find out whether the course would meet student expectations and likewise whether the student has the prerequisite for the course will allow an early filtering to ensure only the interested students sign up and complete the course.

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