Liveblog: CALRG reading group – MOOCs, International Information and Education Phenonmenon?

This week’s CALRG reading group discussed the paper: ‘MOOCS — International Information and Education Phenomenon?’ by Lee Wilson and Anatoliy Gruzd. Below is a liveblog summary of our discussion. Each bullet represents one point made in the discussion (which does not necessarily represent my own views). As always, please excuse any typos or errors as it was written on the fly.

  • Every time I see these articles on MOOCs and we talk about quality versus completion, it feels like a mismatch. Are we comparing apples and oranges?
  • I’ll give a counter position: If you say it’s a MOOC, then it’s a course. If you claim it’s a course, then you claim it has a beginning or an end, and therefore it is of interest if people don’t get to the end. If they don’t finish, then as a teacher you are failing.
  • The paper is from June/July 2014, and it’s a bulletin rather than a journal article. It feels very outdated in some of its claims, particularly things like the challenges MOOCs face. It talks about not a lot of MOOCs being in English, for example, but a lot of that has changed now. The field is moving so quickly. I think what we’re seeing is that MOOCs are a course for people who want it to be a course, but for others it’s about the ability to take a pick of the mix. People get what they want from it and aren’t fussed with the rest. Some want a broad overview of a subject and will want to do the whole thing, but others will engage in different ways and just want to pick and choose what is relevant to them.
  • But why do we treat it differently than any other OER resource? MOOCs are the only OER where we are obsessed with people finishing it. We don’t look at how many people watched to the end of a video or how many people read through an entire ebook, but we’re obsessed with people doing every step in a MOOC. And we only do that because we call it a “course.”
  • Then why do we bother calling it a course?
  • In that regard, I would be careful about not calling MOOC users “students,” because that’s why edX got in trouble for not having accessibility features. If we don’t call MOOC users students, then they aren’t getting the services required to them by law or by institutions.
  • For us, we have to call them “learners” to differentiate between formal and informal learning. “Students” are formally registered for a degree program.
  • There is a difference between “learners” and “students,” and the largest difference is payment. Accessibility is an expensive service that we offer students at formal universities. MOOC learners aren’t “students,” and they don’t have access to many other services available to students in formal institutions, like libraries, IT services, student groups, etc.
  • From an accessibility perspective, though, we have to think about inclusion for all, not just those who are paying students. What if people decide to jump ship from formal universities and use MOOCs instead to gain these skills? In that scenario, learners with disabilities would lose access to essential services to advance their education.
  • You can also think about accreditation in this scenario. I agree people’s journey from formal to informal learning is important. For instance, at some point someone might be a learner on a MOOC and then become a formal student. It’s confusing to think about what services are due to them if we consider MOOCs as a pathway to accreditation.
  • We have a suite of 12 MOOCs, that you have to take 8 and pass by FutureLearn standards, then do a formal assessment and become a formal OU student. What we’re seeing is that the engagement is still not there in those MOOCs, it’s actually lower than what it would be on a standard MOOC. There’s an argument to be said that MOOCs could be a gateway to formal education, but what they are actually doing is what open learners have been doing for years: helping people take a look and get an idea for content, then make an informed decision about if they want to move forward
  • There was a good piece about edX and people wanting to do MOOCs for professional development, and how people with these motivations were less engaged than people who signed up because they needed to teach the activity. It’s worth considering whether people who are already attached to formal education structures are going to better suited to follow along with that sort of paradigm.
  • I wonder if those who are doing if for professional development, if they are choosing to do it or if their employer is saying “do this and bring me the certificate” If it’s just “I should know about this,” then you aren’t as committed. It really depends on what the motivation is to take the MOOC.
  • I think what the paper is talking about is related to short-term goals, but we as academics have set those goals and targets for completion. We didn’t set goals for other OERS, like how many downloads we get, but we set completion goals for MOOCS. At the same time, we didn’t think about what the learners’ goal are and how they fit in with our own goals as academics. We’ve created our own goals that we’ve fell short on.
  • The pick and mix model undermines the value of instructional design. They lead to bubble world mentalities,  where people pay attention to what they believe to be true. Education, though, should be a little more concerned with saying there are seminal pieces of info in this area of study that you should spend some time getting familiar with.
  • But the issue with buying into that is the openness of this system. If you sign up for and pay for a degree, then we can tell you what to study and have a fair sense that you’ll stick with it. In this open environment of MOOCs, we can make the structure and then people ignore it or just go to YouTube to get their information instead. MOOC users don’t want to go through a structure. There’s an interesting tension there, because as you say, education should push people to think outside what they expect to find.
  • That’s why we have to label MOOCs a “course,” it’s a different beast. It has a structure and a narrative. I still feel there is something in completion because of that.
  • It could be a module as part of a course. When I first did my OU undergrad, I could pick and mix what courses I wanted to take. That was the beauty of it, that you didn’t need to follow a strict structure.
  • But as a student, if you have a TMA over block 2, you would choose to read block 2 rather than “I’m interested in this and this and this.” Assessment is geared towards making sure you cover every bit of the course. If you weren’t assessed, would you have bothered?
  • There’s also a sense that shorter is better, that people want a shorter MOOC rather than a longer one.
  • But we only think that because we think completion matters. People say to make it as short as possible to increase completion, but it doesn’t work. We have related MOOCs running 2, 6 and 8 weeks long. We reworked those three into four different four-week MOOCs. The completion rate is to the point of a percentage the same. Why is that?  They’re shorter, they’re for credit. C0mpletion should be better, but it’s not.
  • But if it was 4 weeks versus nine months, though…
  • It’s about content at the end of the day and the learner will do what they are interested in. They will learn what they need to and get the gist of it. People take MOOCs because they just want to be able to have a better conversation with their friends, not make world peace with it. We put too much emphasis on what it can do for the learner, but we don’t consider what the learner wants out of it.
  • When you make it 4 or 8 weeks, the group of people taking it is the same. Unless you change the demographics of the population taking the MOOC, you aren’t going to see a change based on how long it is.
  • If it’s for credit, is the demographic different? That’s what we need to know.
  • Would a demographic difference be enough to change things, though? What are the support systems that learners have to complete in the first place? When you’re in a physical space you have more support of those around you. Online, it’s a very different context. You’re surrounded by people in your life who maybe don’t even know why you’d want to take a MOOC. I did a bunch of MOOCs after my masters degree, and my wife would be like “why would you do that? Why spend your weekend on this?”  And we both value already education. But in the same context, it’s about what the end game is. You need networks of support around you that acknowledge your goals or else you’re working against your context.
  • I’m working on a paper now that considers time management versus time value. Lots of MOOC papers say time is the issue with completion. Time is a fallacy, though, because if you want to finish it badly enough, then you will make the time. The real issue is that the time spent using a MOOC is not valued enough. Not that the content isn’t great or it isn’t well written or not engaging, but that your personal value puts it at a lower rate than things like spending time with your family.
  • If we say completion does matter for us, then I think you need to take an alternative model like a tv series, which encourages people to come back again and again each week. If we design MOOCs so they encourage learners to come back every week… but we don’t see a lot of that in MOOCs. There’s no narrative that unfolds that makes you really have to come back. If we really care about completion, and people don’t have to come back in the current structure, are we then thinking about redesigning them in a way that makes learners really want to come back?
  • Narratives don’t work in every context, however. I can’t write a narrative about doing your taxes. Also not all tv series push a narrative. For instance, the people who wrote Friends ,do they care if you watched every episode? No, because they are stand-alone. MOOCs are more like recipe books. They are written sequentially, but with the knowledge that people come and go within them. Recipe book writers don’t care if you’ve made every single recipe.
  • There’s a tension in the MOOC system, because they were designed with the idea of personal leaning networks in mind, and as a democratisation of education by getting people away from formal learning. “Learners” are feral and “students” are those we’ve already captured and are making money off them. But the actual learning is important to both of those people. We’re just taking the concept of a MOOC and trying to stick it back into a formal education box, but it was never designed to work in that format to begin with.
  • Right, they didn’t care about completion at the beginning with cMOOCs. That narrative only came along was only after Coursera. The learning was the important emphasis before. Stephen Downes never wrote a single paper about completion.
  • We have 2 camps now: (1) those trying to use MOOCs to expand education and learning for public good, and (2) freemium models that are trying to domesticate learners into formal students at their institutions.
  • Education is a difficult endeavor and maybe a better metaphor is more about going to the gym – you often go for a few times and then give it up. There is a perceived value in participating in education, but there are also costs involved. It isn’t a form of entertainment. It’s not bad to include entertaining elements in education, but that’s not what is going to build affinity with education. It makes learners expect a hook at the end, and makes them think a course is bad if it doesn’t dramatically rope them in.
  • It all goes back to motivation and investment. You’re more likely to go to the gym if you’ve paid for it. You can run in the open air and it doesn’t cost you anything. If you’re signed up for a formal gym, though, you’re making more of a committment, whether that lasts or not. But it’s also about whether you know someone else who goes to the gym, and whether you can go together, then you’re a lot more committed. When students paying £5000 a year for university, then they are given the equipment for learning, but they still have to put in the effort.
  • I have a different view. You talk about how paying a fee makes students more motivated. From an economic point of view, it’s already a sunk cost and that payment doesn’t impact your future decisions. On the gym metaphor, there was a study that compared a one-off gym membership with a pay as you go model, and the pay as you go members actually went more than the ones who paid the yearly sum.
  • It’s the same with MOOC presentations. The theory is that the more you present, the better it will be, the more learners you get and the higher the completion rate will be. But the more you make a MOOC available, the worse these things actually get. Scarcity drives up he value of the MOOC. You get a”I’ll do it on Monday” effect otherwise. We have MOOCS that run four times a year, and their completion rates drop faster than if we put it on just twice a year.
  • I worked for the police service and we used to put on courses, and we found if we put a lot of courses on at one time, people would sign up for them and never show up. If we didn’t charge for a course, people also felt they didn’t have a committment and didn’t show. We put less courses and charged a small amount for them, and the turn up rate was better.
  • But who is showing up? Are we supporting privilege by putting up a pay wall so that only those who can afford or have disposable income can attend?
  • There’s sort of this assumption that MOOCs are a social good – is it really true that free MOOCs are benefitting those who can’t afford to pay for formal education? We know that most MOOC users are already educated and already have degrees.
  • But having a degree doesn’t mean you have money.
  • If someone is disadvantaged, they aren’t going to take a MOOC from MIT. Time is a resource that is finite the more poor you get. What they need is education that directly relates to making their life better.
  • I worked on a project using Batched Open Courses. We threw away the idea of learning subjects, and said we would instead teach people to learn to learn first. They have almost double the completion rate. This was more public good, because we know people of lower demographics struggle with knowing how to learn. There’s no point in doing a great MOOC on curing cancer if you don’t know how to learn in the first place.
  • In formal higher education settings, you have this rigid 12 week structure. For people who don’t like this weird structure we’ve created, we can’t expect to just recreate it in a MOOC, put it into their home and then fail them there instead. There are barriers to the structure of the learning process and that’s an interesting question to consider.
  • With the BOCs, the value was higher because they needed those skills.
  • What the difference between BOCs and MOOCs?
  • No cohort, no social features, no weekly emails. We’ve stripped it all bare and just given them content. It also completely incentivises the badge and works on things like math skills, English skills, or writing skills.
  • So is it the badge or the relevance of the content that motivates learners? I would bet it’s about the development.
  • I think we have to talk about the disadvantaged person, regarding availability of devices to study etc, But mostly it’s about awareness. You say MOOC to the general public and people are confused, but if you say online course, they understand. People just have to be thinking to look for the MOOC in the first place. It’s also about relevance of the content. If we have a MOOC on basic English and followed that up with more advanced English, we’d get millions of people completing.
  • You think that, but the British Council did them and they….
  • But they didn’t do them very well.
  • It wasn’t what they thought they would be. They had from half a million participants, only 24,000 completing. That’s a lower percentage than what I’m getting on my MOOCs
  • But you’re also completing with App English like Babble.
  • It’s a new generation. People will look for things on YouTube, rather than digging through a course if they needed something relevant.
  • But langauge learning is a social thing anyways. Plugging into a MOOC isn’t going to work.
  • Tying this back to Friends and not having to watch every episode — you still need some sort of social committment and buy in, because people around you are talking about it and watching it. It’s not about locking us in a room together for 12 weeks and interacting in a formal setting, but there’s an ebb and flow of people coming into a known conversation.
  • In my research, I asked people what they liked most about MOOCs, and they said articles and videos. Learners love them. Things they hate about MOOCs? Discussion, peer review, social interaction, peer assessment.
  • Maybe because they don’t want to do the whole college thing.
  •  I think it’s because it’s overwhelming, you’ve got thousands of comments. I’ve found the less learners in a MOOC, the more comments they’ve made, and the better the comments. What’s gained if no one sees your post? There’s no decent conversation.
  • Do you know about the study groups in FutureLearn?
  • Yes, they’ve started to do study groups and it works like a first person shooter online game, where you queue up and join a group and go on. We haven’t actually run any on our MOOCs, but they have been discussing it a lot at FLAN meetings.
  • We used to do something like this on the photography course from the OU. It was a non-accredited learning course that did that dynamic grouping. Students loved that course. Because the new improved version doesn’t do those groupings, we have to redo the VLE-like grouping for the whole course. It’s a very different dynamic in the groups now. Because we work on a regional basis to cluster them, they’ve also started to do meet ups in real life.
  • Collaborative groups in schooling is probably the most hated by the students. At an exam level, it’s scary. What we’ve built culturally into our assembly line school system is counter productive to MOOC learning. MOOC learners just don’t see the point of it. It’s their journey and that’s what we’ve trained them to think.
  • Is that a failure of assessment?
  • More a failure of trust. We’ve built a system where they don’t trust collaborative learning. In a large group, you also don’t get to know anyone in the course. You don’t get comfortable with dealing with them. Why throw out a comment to thousands that will invite hecklers?
  • If you thought of it more as social media, then loads of people like that. It goes back to how similar are MOOCs to formal education versus entertainment.
  • I think it depends on the culture of the platform. For instance, students will talk about their issues with a course on the course’s Facebook group but not on the VLE because they don’t want to look stupid. We need to make people feel they can engage and not clam up. That’s the problem with a large population.
  • But was the Facebook group with no tutors?
  • Tutors could go in if they wanted to, it was available to everyone. Because of the culture of Facebook, though, they felt they could share. If you go into the VLE, it’s a classroom. There’s an educator and a facilitator there and you have to say something smart.
  • Also something in that is the mindset of the students. In Kahn Academic, they put a growth mindset quote at the top of the page and they saw a growth in performance. Walking into a context like this, you need a mindset that can help you get into the circumstances.
  • But how do you do that with 10,000 people?
  • At Kahn Academy it was just one quote at the top of the page that helped.
  • When I first started teaching, in my cohort of students there were some that were elderly and got a lot of fun out of doing the course and weren’t doing it for a qualification. With the change in funding, those sort of people stopped appearing. They may have moved on to MOOCs to fill that void.
  • Is there any knowledge that those types of learners have gone on into MOOCs to avoid the fee structure?
  • I did a survey to ask about motivations to participate in our MOOC, and didn’t mention anything about fees. At the bottom, I left a box open for comment and everyone said they were doing it because it was free. But at the same time, that means they don’t want to finish it because it’s free. Instead, they’re learning a bit through leisure learning and going on.
  • Have they done explicit research on this? People not completing because it was free? In my country formal education is free and most people still finish.
  • But you’re getting a degree out of it. You aren’t getting a pay raise because you did a MOOC.
  • But you’re learning something that might help you get there.
  • With MOOCs, the motivation doesn’t have to be professional. It can be social and personal
  • There’s also a cost side to formal education, not just money. It’s about the investment you put in to attend. If you go to university, even if you aren’t paying for it, you’re investing time and there’s an incentive to finish.
  • But the completion rate of 16 week MOOCs are the same as those that are shorter. There’s no logic to it.
  • There is a logic. If it’s a long course, you may end up investing more time in it and that makes you want to finish to make that time worth something.
  • Or you might just get frustrated and drop out.
  • Shortening it reduces the committment.
  • When the learners start to drop off is important. My assumption is after the first week or two weeks? So it doesn’t matter how long the course is.
  • They have a click and round and say “No, it’s not for me.” One big problem is that you can sign up too far in advance, and you get to the day and you aren’t feeling it anymore. People want to know about something NOW, not in three weeks’ time. Why would we expect the Google generation to do anything different?
  • I’ve signed up for lots of MOOCs in order to build my knowledge outside my knowledge area. But I’ve never completed any of them, so it makes me look like a 100% failure according to the data.
  • But do you consider yourself a failure on the courses?
  • No, but if you read my statistics, I joined and didn’t stick around. But I was happy with what I got out of it.regardless, I’m a failure in the data.
  • Learners just see it as”I’ll get back to it.” I interviewed learners from MOOCs 2 years ago, and none of them actually finished. I asked why they failed (purposefully using negative terms like that), and they said they didn’t. They said they wanted to learn a little bit more about something they already knew. They weren’t failures in their minds.
  • That’s where we get too hung up on the data with MOOCs.
  • It’s interesting because there’s a general thread that’s said “MOOCs are amazing” and all that Gartner Hype Cycle, then more on to say they’re horrible and useless. From this conversation, people seem to feel learners are getting something out of it at leisure levels, and that completion doesn’t matter. If that’s the case, then there are others, like education institutions, that will questions about whether MOOCs are worth it.
  • Because of their own emphasis they’ve put on them, and the beliefs they’ve developed on the purpose of MOOCs.
  • We’re generalizing the purpose of MOOCs, when it seems like there are so many different populations that use them for different reasons. MOOCs as a social good seem to perform poorly, but as leisure learning, they seem to perform great.




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