Making MOOCs that stay the course

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are popular with educational establishments as an efficient way to deliver their materials. Unfortunately, student engagement does not match the enthusiasm of the educators and the number who complete any given course is disturbingly low, according to research published in the International Journal of Learning Technology. The authors of the paper, suggest that an engagement model for MOOCs needs to be implemented and simple steps taken to improve completion rates.

Jane Sinclair and Sara Kalvala of the Department of Computer Science at the University of Warwick, Coventry, UK, explain that the advent of MOOCs over the last few years has seen millions of people signing up for courses, hoping to improve their education, skills, job prospects, and their lives, in general. For instance, Coursera, one of the leading MOOC platforms has a portfolio of more than 1000 courses and some 22 million registered students while the not-for-profit edX platform provides access to 300 courses to more than three million students.

Attrition and low completion rates are often cited as failures of MOOCs, but in the absence of other measures of success of such courses, the team points out that the criticism is to some extent unfair. Completion of a course, is not necessarily the only measure of its success given that students who ultimately drop out may have gathered what they needed to know or have been inspired to take a different path when only part of the way through the course. There are other positive outcomes that a low completion rate would not take into account, such as the formation of new contacts and friendships among students.

There is an intrinsic problem in using MOOCs for many students. “It appears that learners on many MOOCs are spending much of their learning time on activities which are not generally associated with high learning gain,” the researchers report. “When time is limited, it may well be the more time-consuming reflective and interactive activities that are skipped.” One might assume that inefficient learning in a MOOC as in conventional education might lead to students failing to keep up with coursework and fall back in their understanding as they work through subsequent modules, all of which can lead to disenchantment with a course and ultimately a student dropping out.

However, the problem with assessing and developing MOOCs perhaps lies in the fact that they are really only distant relatives of conventional face-to-face lecture and classroom education. They are also only really kissing cousins to other types of online course. “We need to consider further the nature of the courses and the activities they incorporate,” the team says. “One approach to this is to consider them (and participants’ interaction with them) in terms of the level of meaningful, high impact, engagement activity.” In coming to that conclusion the researchers make the case for the need to understand MOOCs from the student engagement perspective and so improve outcomes and increase completion rates.

Sinclair, J. and Kalvala, S. (2016) ‘Student engagement in massive open online courses‘, Int. J. Learning Technology, Vol. 11, No. 3, pp.218-237.

Author: David Bradley

Award-winning, freelance science writer based in Cambridge, England.