MOOCs Fail, But Not For the Reasons You Think They Do

student traveling home after studying on the train

Back in 2011, the rise of the MOOC was going to completely revolutionize education.  We in the ed tech world were tremendously excited by the idea that we could democratize education, and platforms like Coursera and EdX were set to transform the world. I remember listening to a radio show where Sebastian Thrun extolled the virtue of this idea and being enthralled.

The bubble burst quite quickly. From terrible completion rates (5-15%) to a marked skepticism in the value of a MOOC, the train got derailed and many Universities started to divert efforts from MOOCs quietly, and many put an end to their MOOC programs entirely. We got into the trough of disillusionment with the MOOC, where we seem to have been languishing since. 

So why are the completion rates so dismal? A variety of theories have been put forward, from the ease of signing up not filtering out the “uninterested” to the lack of credibility in the credential for completion being an issue. It’s hard to benchmark truly because there hasn’t been any other format to compare with, other than the traditional university, which has a high barrier to entry and is expensive, making it obviously more of a commitment and thus more incentive to complete. 

With that in mind, we have to compare with other online systems to get a better picture. Teens will spend hours on Minecraft or other games with no commitment or incentive to complete other than the pure delight of building blocky looking castles. Adults will spend hours on forums dedicated to hobbies, discussing various aspects of the hobby and learning about them. There’s no specific incentive to be a long time member of such a forum beyond the credibility that you get by virtue of your perceived expertise in the particular topic area, which is demonstrated by the reception of others to your posts and upvotes or other status symbols indicated on your profile. 

Most MOOCs are currently structured in long video format, often with poor production value, traditional types of learner interaction (homework papers etc.) and though they contain some opportunities for learner reward and interaction, they are few and far between. This is a major barrier for most adult learners who are trying to fit in some learning between meetings or on the train. A 15-minute video, very common in the MOOC, simply stretches the edges of the ability to pay attention online.

MOOCs often have discussion boards, but the discussions often are prompted by the instructor and pitched as homework — a strategy that can work in the classroom but doesn’t necessarily work amongst adults who are voluntarily learning on the internet. In addition, often these MOOCs are time-based with penalties for getting out of synch with the rest of the crowd.

Though we’ve found that individuals do need some structure to complete a course, this does leave people out when their busy lives get in the way and many people do abandon at this point. The principles of andragogy insist that Adults do best when they an active role in the development of the online course, and yet many MOOCs are designed just like the University classroom, with no chance for interaction, branching structures or abilities to contribute to the direction of the learning.

Educational Technologists should take a page from the handbook of Industrial Designers and Ethnologists and follow our intended audiences around. See how learning fits into their days. Listen to their concerns about why they couldn’t complete the course. Watch them interact with the course software.  See where they get hung up and where they are frustrated. What shortcuts are they taking? How many other browser windows do they have competing for their attention?

If we structure the MOOC differently, thinking about the native online environment and how adults interact with the online world, I believe we’ll see some completion rates increase. It may not increase to the same level as the equivalent higher education course because people come to MOOCs with all kinds of different aims, but we can certainly do better.

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