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 (https://www.coursera.org/) 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 http://futurelearn.com/about/, which could offer progression for some WEA students.