Like tens of thousands of others, I signed up to take a few of the online course offerings made available through udacity and coursera. And, like tens of thousands of others, I completed nary a one of them. I knew this was going to happen. In fact, I preregistered and registered for the classes with almost no intent on finishing them. Really, I just wanted to see what the offerings were like, across a series of computer science and social science areas I have interests in. I also imagined I would pick one of them, and well and truly do the class. I didn’t. I’m fairly self-motivated for things I find stimulating. (I did, after all, actually write a dissertation.) But, the demands of family, commuting, teaching three classes, serving as a book review editor, and all the rest squeezed out my ability to really concentrate on any of these classes. In fact, for the most part, I didn’t manage to get past watching a few videos.
And, it turns out, neither did droves of other people.
One of the classes I was most excited to follow was Natural Language Processing, offered by a pair of Stanford professors. The course just recently concluded after its 8 week run. Interestingly, in a final email, the professors included statistics about course participation:
- Preregistered: ~70,000
- Registered: 42,223
- Watched at least 1 video: 24,287 This group included me!
- Watched all videos: 4,030
- Got a statement of achievement: 1,466
- Total video downloads: 860,854
There were eight programming assignments. The stats on submission of those assignments:
- PS1 8,425
- PS2 4,527
- PS3 3,721
- PS4 2,994
- PS5 2,529
- PS6 2,005
- PS7 1,911
- PS8 1,654
These numbers represent quite astounding levels of attrition, and bring to the fore, I think, a number of questions for the efficacy of this particular form of MOOC. First, I wonder what the difference in participation rates is between a course like this on coursera or udacity, and Jim Groom’s Digital Story Telling? Granted, the two courses offer very different experiences and to very different ends. But, those differences point directly to tensions in the move to offer open, online courses. On the one hand, Groom and his merry band of pranksters are engaging in acts of creativity that have next to nothing to do with credentialing. The CS and other courses offered in this Spring’s explosion of MOOCs feel, to me, much more pragmatic, much more credential-oriented. It’s like the difference between genuine DIY/edupunk learning and Kamenentz’s retail version, analyzed so well in Stephen Downes’ review of Kamenentz’s The Edupunk’s Guide.
Certainly, many people in the cast of thousands who dropped out of the NLP class did so because the content was hard. Hard in a technical way that’s different from the ‘hard’ of a course on digital storytelling. And, there is no denying that for the 1400 people who finished the course successfully, the NLP MOOC was a success. Heck, I know more about NLP (and command line utilities, for that matter) just from the handful of videos I watched. I’m sure that many others learned some subset of the course’s objectives as well. But, the attrition statistics point to some real problems with the online model still proffered by ventures like udacity, coursera, and the other elite university ventures. I know that if I had attrition rates of 97% in my traditional face-to-face courses, I would have intervention from my department, from my college. Is it fair to compare the two settings? I think it is, only to the extent that advocates for online education trumpet the internets as a source for revolutionary change in the higher ed model. Or, it could just be that the NLP class is an outlier, and the material is hard enough that only 3% of those who were motivated enough to enroll themselves in the class were capable of getting it. I doubt that’s the case.
More likely, the current model of user-generated forums, videos with embedded multiple-choice questions, robo-graded assignments, and credential-oriented outcomes really don’t generate the kind of engagement needed to keep the 97% involved for just 8 weeks. Is this a glass-half-full/glass-half-empty type of question? I wonder. Groom and ds106 raised $12,643 from kickstarter in a few weeks, in part because they lacked institutional support of a Harvard, Stanford, Michigan, MIT, or Penn or the ‘startup’ feel and Silicon Valley ties of udacity’s Sebastian Thrun. And yet, as an outside observer of this process (and small time kickstarter supporter of ds106), the educator in my finds one of these two models much more exciting than the other.
Did any of you finish one of the coursera or udacity courses?