The M in MOOC stands for Massive!

Posted on: August 8, 2014, by :

Inside Higher Ed reported that the University of Wisconsin – Madison is revamping its Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) offering. It will put emphasis on MOOCs that have local interests. This was done at the back of 3.2% average completion rate for Wisconsin – Madison’s MOOCs. Although this is low, it still falls within the 3 to 7 % range that is the average for MOOCs in terms of completion rate.

As a “veteran” MOOCer, I think Wisconsin-Madison has missed the whole point about MOOC by going local. MOOC is the means by which academic and other learning institutions can extend their reach to learners at all corners of the world whose only criteria of participation (aside from prior knowledge specific to some courses) is access to the Internet. Local learners can well afford the time (and resources?) to take up on-campus courses. By “going local” there may be many consequences such as:

  1. Lower sign up figures:

With an averagely popular MOOC, you can expect at least 30,000 enrollment. With local-focused MOOCs, you will bound to have a much lower enrollment figure as your subject will not have broad enough interest to the “Massive” part of MOOC. Hence a figure of 3,000 enrollment is already very generous, I think it will be more in the range of 800 – 1500. You will not have the kind of geographical reach that MOOC is designed to bring. Will you still be able to “qualify” your courses as MOOCs?

2. Lower total number of people completing the MOOCs: (Is completion rate more important than the number of learner benefiting from your MOOCs?)

The cost of putting up Wisconsin-Madison’s revamped MOOCs, IMHO will not be that much different from the previous version. With 4% completion rate of the “old” MOOCs and with say 30,000 enrollment, you would stand to educate and benefit 1,200 people. With an enrollment figure of 1,000 and a completion rate of say triple of the conventional 4%, you will only educate more or less 80 people. Hence your return on invested effort (the MOOC industry has still not figured out a business model, thus it is best to measure return on invested effort rather than investment at this point) will be very low.

To benefit 80 – 100 local learners, you might as well provide free on-campus delivery of the course rather than using the more expensive MOOC system.

I think what Wisconsin-Madison needs to do is to look into the delivery system of their “old” MOOCs and find out from learners or if possible engage a sample of learners (with incentives) to give them answers to what work for the learners and what elements are the “turnoffs”. By improving the completion rate by just 2 to 3 percent, a significant increase in the number of people benefiting from the institution’s MOOCs can be attained.

What elements of an MOOC that worked for me may not work for everyone. However in my case I think these are, for me at least the success factors in an MOOC:

(a) Clear and concise learning objectives and learning outcomes. The kind of pre-requisite knowledge and skills must be well specified as well. The syllabus must be well written and available BEFORE the course commences to allow learners to judge whether they want to or have the pre-requisites to benefit from enrolling and learning.

(b) Tie to (a) a series of short video lectures, “purpose-shot” (i.e. shot purely in MOOC fashion and not a class recording). Each video lecture should be around 8 to 10 minutes long, covering a learning point each. Long video covering many points will lose learners and it is not easy to resume learning if you have to take a break while watching a 1 hour lecture.

(c) Tie to (b) a good summary of the learning points to be achieved for the chapter, summarizing the key learning outcomes attained with glossary of new terms / concepts.

(d) A clear and easy to follow assessment regime. I for one is a kind “loner” when it comes to studying. I like discussion forum and will take part even if not required by the assessment regime if the conversation is interesting. I never like to work in a group in which the bulk of the assessment for knowledge attainment is based. In Stanford University’s pioneer “Technology Entrepreneurship” MOOC, I was let down by some of my fellow group members (we were from Malaysia, Singapore, and Pakistan) to the extent that we could not develop our project fully (luckily the assessment system made allowance for such scenario). I think group work should still be used but assessment of which should not occupy a significant chunk of the final grade. I also do not like peer-based-assessment for written work. This is because the system will not have the ability to distinguish the serious peer assessors from those who just want to complete the task and simply assign a grade. In fact, I have an idea: why not engage some of these serious peer reviewers as course monitors (a sort of class representatives) give them some Teaching Assistant’s privileges to “double mark” a group of learners’ work. In return these serious peer assessors can be given some incentives such as free enrollment into verified assessment (i.e Coursera’s Signature Track or edX’s Verified Certificate) which usually cost a fair bit of money especially if you are not earning US dollars like me.

In short, learners’ expectations and what an MOOC promised to deliver must tally. Some MOOCs look good on the introduction page but the content was either not suitable or too demanding of the learner. Some will have unrealistic assessment regime that drives away those who already enrolled.

The “we build it and they will come” expectation of some of the MOOC providers has to be erased from their vocabulary! What happens will likely be this, veteran MOOCers like me will come, even sign up and look around, feeling disappointed and dropout from the course!

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