Massive, open, online and incompleted courses?

The University news feature on page 28 of the current Private Eye (No. 1341, 31 May – 13 June 2013) focuses on MOOCs – “massive open online courses”. Several prominent universities are offering these courses free of charge to anyone, anywhere with internet access. Many people are only likely to stumble upon these courses if they’re directed to them, but the options seem very attractive in light of rising fees in higher education and a decline in participation by mature students.

The article includes statistics that are surprising in this context and very disappointing if taken at face value.

  • Only 10% of people who start short courses with Coursera ( ever finish them. (Source: New York Times)
  • There was an average completion rate of just 6.8% for students on 29 MOOCs run by prestigious universities in various countries (Source: Katy Jordan, PhD student at the Open University)
  • A mere 2.2% of people who enrolled on a 5-week artificial intelligence planning course run by Edinburgh University in January received a statement of accomplishment for finishing and only 4% finished an e-learning and digital cultures course.

It would be interesting to delve further into reasons for the reported non-completion. What was the demographic make-up of students and what were their incentives for joining courses? What role did information, advice and guidance play in assessing how suitable courses were for each student? Were the learning processes meaningful and motivating? What pedagogical principles were applied? Do we commit as deeply to courses that are relatively anonymous and free of charge?

In comparison, the WEA’s Self-Assessment Report for the last academic year shows average success rates for all our adult education courses (accredited and non-accredited) as 93%.

Figures show that tailored support plays an important role.

  • 96% of WEA students receiving Additional Learning Support stayed to the end of their courses.
  • 95% of WEA students receiving Discretionary Learner Support stayed to the end of their courses.

As well as completing courses, WEA statistics for 2011-12 from our student survey show that:

  • 25% of students progressed onto another taught course
  • 66% of these progressed onto a course with the WEA while 33% progressed on to a course with another provider.
  • 33% of our students who went on to do further learning progressed onto a course with a qualification.

The WEA student body is from a very diverse range of groups and circumstances:

  • one third were aged over 65
  • 24% were from minority ethnic groups
  • 27% had a physical disability
  • 13% had a learning difficulty or disability
  • 40% were in receipt of income related benefit
  • 37% lived in a ward with a disadvantaged postcode
  • 41% did not have previous qualifications above Level 2.

Most WEA courses are part-time and involve face-to-face teaching, learning and assessment with active group participation but we’re keen to make access to learning more flexible by increasing the range and availability of our online resources. Clearly we will have to learn some lessons from MOOCs and their effectiveness if their outcomes and impact aren’t yet meeting the high expectations and promise.

The Open University has a very successful tradition of distance learning and blended learning so it will be interesting to see the development of Futurelearn MOOCs, which could offer progression for some WEA students.

About Ann Walker
Adult education and lifelong learning specialist and campaigner. LinkedIn:

17 Responses to Massive, open, online and incompleted courses?

  1. Peter Threadkell says:

    This research shows that any online course must be supported in some way whether by face to face,telephone, or online contact .Being left to “sink or swim is not a good idea for using distance learning to develop a persons education As an OU graduate I found their then teaching methods based on paper materials,core books and Tutor days where we came together in groups very effective .Incidently the Eastern Region has just invited the local director of the OU to join their Regional Education Committee so we are hoping for a fruitful co-operation in the years to come

    • Ann Walker says:

      Thanks for commenting Peter. The ‘sink or swim’ approach doesn’t fit with the WEA and you’re living proof that well-supported and interactive blended learning can work well. Good to hear about strengthened OU link in the region.

  2. Jol Miskin says:

    I agree with Peter. Blended learning is part of the solution for sure. I wonder what life expectancy the MOOCs have? How long can these Universities sustain this free provision? Not long in my view. I suspect the initial hype will be followed with a speedy demise of the free stuff and the emergence of much more blended provision with a fee!!
    Which begs the question: what next for the WEA in this arena?
    For instance we now have the Social Purpose on-line Module which we are starting to roll out to staff, tutors and volunteers. We are encouraging a blended approach- engage with the online module before meeting in a classroom discussion- and it’ll be fascinating to see how it goes. But should we be selling it beyond the WEA? I have absolutely no idea…………….

    • Ann Walker says:

      Thanks Jol. The Private Eye article hints that MOOCs will become more commercialised in the future and it seems inevitable that there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

      Good that people from beyond the WEA are commenting on the social purpose module. There’s a lot of expertise in our networks of people with shared values and we can learn a lot from each other.

  3. I enrolled with excitement on a MOOC and withdrew several days later, completely bewildered. At least, I would have withdrawn, had I figured out how to do so…

    As I’m reading students’ reflections on blended learning this year, I’m realising the importance of face to face connection, followed up by some hard work on social media to continue the engagement. What’s causing the TeachNorthern Community of Praxis to work so well, it seems, is a deep pool of shared values. And those values are identified and explicated early on in all of our courses. It seems the ‘bonding’ done at this stage carries into the distance element of the course and makes it function effectively.

    That’s my working hypothesis, anyway.

    • Ann Walker says:

      Typically thoughtful comment Lou and based on practical experience. Some WEA colleagues who’ve started MOOCs have had similar experiences – although the sample is very small and altruism in Higher Education should be encouraged and explored further.

      The Community of Praxis is an excellent model. Group support for learning with engagement and reflection is so important.

  4. Dr Camila Bassi says:
  5. teachUSA says:

    There’s a fundamental difference between paid, accredited classes at an institution and free online classes. The numbers have been misrepresented by both sides (pro- and anti-MOOC advocates). “Enrollment” in a MOOC is equivalent to picking up a book at the public library. What fraction of people that “pick up a book” read the entire thing cover-to-cover? Probably <10%. But what fraction of people that picked up the book INTENDED to read the entire thing cover-to-cover? Probably similar. This, and other recent MOOC-related issues, are discussed in this blog post I just read today:

    • Ann Walker says:

      Thanks for adding to this discussion and for sharing the link. MOOCs are definitely a hot topic.

      Just to be clear, I’m not on any particular ‘side’ of a MOOC debate and don’t think that polarised opinion is very useful – although I agree that people do take opposing stances. I hope that the best aspects can be built on and developed, learning the lessons from what has worked well and what hasn’t.

      Your library book analogy is all the more interesting at a time when access to public libraries in the UK is under increasing threat in some communities. Where does the 10% completion rate for library books come from?

      Thanks again for the comment.

  6. Pingback: MOOC | Annotary

  7. Pete Caldwell says:

    Bit late in the day, I know. Having read this and the various comments I think it would be worth thinking about how some of this could be developed in adult ed, perhaps in conjunction with learning circles to provide a critical and face to face element to the learning. I am interested in the practice, promoted by Coursera of peer assessment. This would be an interesting and challenging idea for learning circle members and would offer something quite different to e.g. U3A. all the best

  8. Pingback: Some Mooc points | Pete Caldwell

  9. infostocksy says:

    Another late comment ! I would be very interested in FREE or LOW cost accredited teaching qualifications, I paid for my own PTLLS course and thoroughly enjoyed it and had the opportunity to extend it to level 4 at no extra charge, I would dearly love to continue learning and developing in the area, but find a formal PGCE / Cert Ed to be way out of my price range as I am out of full time employment. I undertake as much CPD as I am aware of and “Every day really is a school day” for me personally – as a slight aside, I did undertake a VISION2LEARN IT course, not for the qualification, but to understand how e-learning worked and I can report back that the process works very well and they have numerous FREE accredited courses to help people attain qualifications to assist them back into employment.

  10. Its really nice work you are doing.such type of online classes was help people to learn something in make a carrer.thanks for this really nice post.

  11. Dar. says:

    Just had a nightmare experience with the Future Learn Begin Programming course which could have been avoided by more pre-launch development work by the course provider into a basic issue. Course minimum hardware & software requirements.

    This was very badly handled by the course and caused unnecessary course killer problems for many students judging by the posts on the course. Comments made by course Mentors ‘on the fly’ trying to help people with these issues just left me feeling that the course providers had big knowledge gaps themselves.

    Having trust that the course staff know their stuff is a very big issue for students. I have had my trust in Future Learn utterly destroyed and the knock on effect is that I no longer trust the Open University (Future Learn’s owners) either.

    Not a problem for a big company like the OU to lose forever one customer like me you might think, but I’m not just a student I’m also an employer and guess where any CV with OU or Future Learn qualifications on it is going from now on.

    Anyone with ‘pound shop’ qualifications can go get a job there too.

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