MOOCs: ‘dropout’ a category mistake, look at ‘uptake’?
I've dropped in to a number of MOOCs recently. Some I've liked and persevered with, others I've had my fill after a short-time, for most, life is too short and \i don't have the time, yet others have been awful, too slow and ponderous for words. But it's all good, that's what I expected. But I resent being universally classed as a 'dropout' and used as an excuse to dis' MOOCs.
Is it inappropriate to take the word ‘dropout’ from one context and stamp it upon another? With MOOCs I’d call it a category mistake, when a word is used to mean one thing (pejoratively) in the context of a long school, college or University course, then applied with the same pejorative force to a very different type of learning experience. Stopping during a MOOC is very different from dropping out school, an expensive long-term degree or a compulsory compliance course.
Lots of people dropout from MOOCS, so what? Lots of people stop doing lots of things.
Lot’s of people don’t finish books but we don’t see this as a sign of intellectual failure. In fact, it can be a sign of efficient learning and research. Read Pierre Bayard’s brilliant ‘How to talk about Books youhaven’t read’ to see how prevalent and positive this can be.
Lots of students don’t attend lectures. Imagine running a restaurant where all the meals have been paid for in advance, yet huge numbers of customers don’t turn up – that’s not unusual in Universities. Yet is there a demand to take a register in all lectures to collect the most basic form of teaching data? NO!
Lots of students attend lectures but drop out in terms of attention. In fact they nearly all do, as it’s a predictable function of the 1 hour lecture, whose length is based upon the fact that the Babylonians had a sexidecimal number system, not the psychology of learning. Yet we don’t demand any checks during lectures on psychological attention or insist on more action learning.
Lot’s of people drop out of college because the course, institution, teaching method, boredom, other opportunities, debt or academics are not for them. In fact, as any lecturer will tell you, colleges are full of people doing courses for reasons that have little to do with genuine interest in the subject. In fact, many degree courses simply lock in students to long-term 3/4 year courses.
MOOCs not failure factories
MOOCs must not be seen as failure factories. They must rise above the education models that filter and weed out learners through failure. Good MOOCs will allow you to truly go at your own pace, to stop and start, go off on an exploratory path and return again. This is what true adult learning is and should be. I always drop out of learning experiences as I never go on formal courses. I decide when I’ve had enough. They should not copy but complement or construct new models of learning.
Uptake not dropout
MOOCs encourage the ‘look see’ approach to learning, and as they are free or very cheap, the consequences are negligible. Do the people who don’t finish a MOOC rush back to college or Universities with cheques in their hand? Of course not. The decision to take or drop out of a MOOC is not a life changing decision in terms of money, time or commitment. Many MOOCs are, in fact, VOOCs (Vocational Open Onine Courses) where the aim is upskilling, not academic progress.
We need to look at uptake, not dropout. It’s astonishing that MOOCs exist at all, never mind the millions, and shortly many millions, who have given them a go. Dropout is a highly pejorative term that comes from ‘schooling’. The ‘high school dropout’. He’s ‘dropped out of ‘University’. It's this pathological view of education that has got us into this mess in the first place. MOOCs are NOT school, they eschew the lecture hall and are more about learning than teaching. MOOCs, like BOOKs, need to be seen as widely available opportunities, not compulsory attendance schooling. They need to be encouraged, not disparaged.
Take Sebastian Thrun’s famous AI course. He was teaching 200 students at 30k a year, suddenly he had 160,00o students who paid zilch. The fact that his own internal students opted for the online course, 26,000 students finished and that the top 400 students were all external and online is astonishing. Think on this. If we forget dropout and focus on the true comparison, 200 versus 160,000 means that it would take 800 years using traditional methods. Even with the 26,000, that’s 130 years!
The data for Duke’s first MOOC has come out, and at first it looks depressing but they don’t think so. Bioelectricity (Coursera) registered 12,461 (from 110 countries) with 7593 watching at least one video. 313 completed certification (basic+distinction) with 260 (distinctions). The real story here is that the number of students who completed the course is over ten times the campus enrollment.
Note that I’m not saying that uptake is not an issue. It is in terms of investment and growth. The monetisation of MOOCs is important in terms of their sustainability but the monetisation models are evolving quickly to include recruitment, advertising, delivery fees and low cost certification.