Me and the MOOCs

I just signed up for another MOOC. So far, I’m batting .500, completing one MOOC and withdrawing from a second. That puts me way ahead of the average, since the average completion rate is only four percent, according to one recent study.

(Just in case you haven’t heard, a MOOC is a Massive Open Online Course, free to all who want it, anywhere in the world, and forecast by some to be the new wave of education.)

The University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education (Penn GSE) studied MOOCs, and found that they fall short of the promise of delivering free education to low-income people around the world. According to Penn’s December 5 press release, “Course completion rates are very low, averaging 4% across all courses and ranging from 2% to 14% depending on the course and measurement of completion.”

The report summarized findings of a survey of a million MOOC enrollees at U Penn, from July 2012 through June 2013. The study found that there are few active users and that involvement “falls off dramatically after first 1-2 weeks,” with many enrolled but few completing courses. Moreover, the MOOC enrollees are not struggling students in Africa and Asia or even impoverished U.S. students. They are, instead, “disproportionately educated, male, wealthy. ”

After the first wave of MOOCs, some of the for-profit producers partnered with universities to offer lower-cost courses. One such partnership was between San Jose State University and Udacity.  According to an NPR report,

“In theory, students saddled by rising debt and unable to tap into the best schools would be able to take free classes from rock star professors at elite schools via Udacity, edX, Coursera and other MOOC platforms.”

Didn’t happen.

“But by all accounts, the San Jose experiment was a bust. Completion rates and grades were worse than for those who took traditional campus-style classes. And the students who did best weren’t the underserved students San Jose most wanted to reach.”

So why am I signing up for a MOOC, if there are so many problems? Well — I’ve got all the degrees that I need, so that’s not an issue. I just want some specialized expertise (social media for journalists, in this case), neatly organized by experts and packaged for easy learning. If the MOOC doesn’t deliver, I simply quit — no money, no consequences. If the MOOC measures up, I learn.

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