A MOOC Mystery: Where Do Online Students Go?

Some of the problems encountered by MOOCs echo those of an earlier model of alternative learning. Last month, the General Educational Development exam, or G.E.D., was replaced by a more challenging computer version. Like MOOCs, the G.E.D, which has been around since 1942, is partially an attempt to save time and money in education, and to extend opportunity to students outside the traditional classroom. As a marker of high-school equivalence, it holds the promise that an entire academic career can be distilled into the knowledge required to pass a five-part exam.

But according to a September, 2013, American RadioWorks report, of the forty per cent of G.E.D.-holders who go on to college, fewer than half complete more than a year, and only about four per cent earn a four-year degree. The additional rigor of the redesigned exam might not be the solution. The military tried a similar approach when, in the nineteen-seventies, it raised the G.E.D. scores required for entry. Even then, G.E.D. applicants quit or were thrown out of the service at a higher rate than enlistees with high-school degrees.

Here we stumble up against a familiar MOOC-themed mystery. Motivated students complete their G.E.D. as a waypoint for college, and, like those who signed up for the online courses, around ninety-five per cent of them don’t succeed. But what happens in between?

Somewhere short of the finish line, something that the G.E.D. cannot measure, and that the MOOCs aren’t equipped to address, is siphoning these students off. It may have to do with the noncognitive aspects of education. In 2010, three University of Chicago economists found that, while the G.E.D. does approximate a high-school degree as a measurement of scholastic aptitude, it reveals nothing about the non-academic skills—traits like persistence, motivation, and reliability—that are developed over the course of a high-school career, and that are necessary for success in work or at college.

The G.E.D. is not the same sort of learning experience as a MOOC, but there are points of contact between the two. They both attempt to trade most, if not all, of the traditional classroom experience, where a student’s noncognitive skills are tried and tempered, for access and convenience. And that can seem like a good deal. On a physical campus, courses are often a negotiation between motivation and curriculum, in which the success of a class depends as much on how much sleep students get, who’s sitting next to whom, or personal opinions of the instructor as on the lesson plan and lecture notes. When a student’s attention drifts in a classroom, it can be regained. A skilled teacher can bounce the curriculum back into the messy real world of education, focussing and flipping distractions into the lesson in a sort of pedagogical jujitsu.

Traditional classroom educators long ago realized that when you crowd ten or twenty or a hundred students close together, learning, by default, becomes a social experience. Rather than constantly fighting the disorder of the system, some classes learned to harness it, adapting their practices and assumptions accordingly. Around the seminar table, where students work face to face and elbow to elbow, the harmonies and dissonances between individuals can be played out in an academic discussion. The class can draw upon differences in perspective and persuasion to build a conversation, solve a problem, or interpret an experiment.

Online classes also have this potential, expanded many times over by the Earth-shrinking capacities of the medium. But, in an online discussion or in an offline MOOC meet-up, it’s easier for a person to disengage or not show up, to “agree to disagree”—that polite fig leaf of social shorthand—and fall out of the experience. The same point of disagreement that sparks a classroom discussion for an hour has the potential to scatter Internet participants to the four corners of the Web in minutes.

If, like the G.E.D., MOOCs are missing a vital social element, that doesn’t mean they’re without value. The data tells us that very few of the students who enroll in a MOOC will ever reach its end. In the ivy, brick, and mortar world from which MOOCs were spun, that would be damning enough. Sticking around is important there; credentials and connections reign, starting with the high-school transcript and continuing through graduate degrees. But students may go into an online course knowing that a completion certificate, even offered under the imprimatur of Harvard or UPenn, doesn’t have the same worth. A recent study by a team of researchers from Coursera found that, for many MOOC students, the credential isn’t the goal at all. Students may treat the MOOC as a resource or a text rather than as a course, jumping in to learn new code or view an enticing lecture and back out whenever they want, just as they would while skimming the wider Web. For many, MOOCs may be just one more Internet tool or diversion; in the Coursera study, the retention rate among committed students for a typical class was shown to be roughly on par with that of a mobile app. And the London Times reported last week that, when given the option to get course credit for their MOOC (for a fee), none of the thousand, or so students who enrolled in a British online class did.

In the context of the ever-expanding Web, where apps and sites live in some multivalent state of becoming and unravelling and becoming again, the preliminary grade of incomplete may not be so bad for MOOCs. In traditional courses, incomplete almost always signals frustrated expectations, left lazily unmet. MOOCs’ incomplete also means potential. It hints at an unclaimed territory, for teachers and students, novices and autodidacts, to explain in their own ways. Someday soon they may find a better and more sociable way to do so, but for now there is still much to learn.

Photograph: Troy Aossey/Getty

Speak Your Mind