I am the 90%

Yes, I am.  I’m this 90%.  And this one.  And this one too.  (But I hope not in this one.) But I’m also in this one: the 90% of MOOC students who do not finish the course.  And I’m okay with that.  On balance, my MOOC experience has been quite positive: my first course in Fall 2012 was “Computing for Data Analysis”, taught by Roger Peng from Johns Hopkins, and it was a well-constructed and nicely-delivered course.  Not shift-the-Earth-off-its-axis great, but very serviceable and for self-motivated learners it served a nice purpose.  I am currently enrolled in “Data Analysis”, offered by Jeff Leek also from Johns Hopkins.  It’s also a well-thought-out course that (so far) has given a gentle but useful overview of doing data analysis, especially on large datasets.  Great.

But think of the pedagogical challenges associated with developing a MOOC.  Your students, perhaps over 100,000 of them, are:

  • from dozens or more different countries around the world, with different cultural views and experiences of education
  • from all age groups and levels of previous academic achievement
  • equipped with different levels of academic ambition (i.e., some want to take the course for very specific career-related reasons, some might want to simply “sit in” and observe)
  • confronted with different levels of constraints upon their time available to devote to the course
  • and so on…

Essentially, when designing a MOOC you are trying to develop an educational experience that respects and reflects all those differences listed above (and more), yet serve some segment of the student population–presumably you try to teach to the students that will finish the course–whose thirst for the course content is highest.  Moreover, you are probably modeling the course after an existing, in-person course offered at a brick-and-mortar institution somewhere, and “translating” it to the MOOC domain.

So back to why I am the 90%.  I work, have kids, engage in the community, and do all the things that lots of other people do with their time.  I am interested in the subject matter of my two courses, and it’s certainly helpful for my job, but I’d hesitate to say that it makes a discrete difference in the quality or quantity of my work.  So I’m not motivated enough to actually complete all the work in the course.  One night, I say down in bed at 10 pm to do one of the programming assignments for the Computing for Data Analysis course, and it was literally about 5 am when I realized what had happened.  I was immersed in the material, it was interesting, I was definitely learning about the R programming language, but this was no way to live.  It took me two days to recover from doing my homework.

So I am happily part of the 90%.  I learned the course material to a large degree, I can perform lots of basic functions in R and am using R right now to analyze some large-ish-scale data we collected from our students (about 1000 rows and about 40 columns).  So I continue to get smarter even though the course is over.  And it’s helpful that the course I’m in now (that I’m not planning to complete) also uses R as the computing platform.  But I am fully happy to be 2-for-2 (or is it 0-for-2?) in MOOCs.  And perhaps for this segment of the population (i.e., working professionals interested in the subject matter), this is the best we can hope for. I still wonder about the students for whom the course subject matter and skills would make a discrete difference in their life and/or employment prospects…how do we get them out of the 90%?  Is it possible that if the course really would make a discrete difference, they would be self-motivated enough to not end up in the 90%?

To be sure, not all MOOCs are created the same. Many are excellent, some are okay, and a few are not so good at all.  But this is an experiment worth doing, despite people like me in the 90%.  What we learn about delivering course content via the MOOC platform could add a lot of value to how we teach face-to-face.  The content-instruction-assessment triad of teaching and learning takes on new importance in the MOOC, and some very thoughtful people are working, right now, on compelling MOOC pedagogies.

But what can the 90% learn about teaching by taking a MOOC?  That’s a better question, and here’s what I think.  My first three observations so far are, you are saying, the obvious things that any conscientious teacher will do for his or her class (and you’d be right):

  • to think very carefully about the preparation of students in the class, and more specifically the variation in preparations especially in a large class
  • to consider how students can access help via the instructors and TAs, especially online and asynchronously
  • to develop assessments that are sensible and try to measure the things that are important

And of course we should follow some basic best practices in how to present materials, use hand-written or PPT notes, etc.  The really enlightening thing for is this:  the social constructivist part of this, including peer support, peer review for grading, and essentially group construction of knowledge and meaning around the course material is exceptionally powerful in a MOOC.  This notion (i) turns that variation in preparation into an asset by enlisted more prepared students to help and support the less prepared students (both formally and informally), and (ii) the peer review part of it absolutely falls into the category of “sensible” (i.e., scalable) and, if you are careful and deliberate in planning your exercises and assessments, will measure the right things in a meaningful way.

This is powerful, for sure.  Where MOOCs fall down as an educational endeavor might be there relative lack of interactivity and the all-important active learning strategies that we talk about so much in educational circles there days.  I think we shouldn’t be too hard on MOOCs in this regard, because on any college campus, on any given day, in any discipline, I bet we can find a face-to-face class with the most dismal, non-active, disengaging lecture approach that has ever existed since the dawn of time.  So, let’s not hold face-t0-face instruction as the gold standard here, because the abuses of face-to-face class time are many, honed by years and years of dedicated practice (ha), and so saddled by instructor inertia as to be virtually unsolvable.

But MOOCs have at least started a new conversation, or perhaps revived an old one, about what an educational environment should look like, how a course should be constructed, what assessments should look like, and what student expectations should be.  And for this, we–the 90% and the 10%–should thank them.


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