MOOCs and stats, comparing cows and chickens

I’ve recently completed my first MOOC (massively open online course) – an introductory Cryptography course on coursera.org, created by Professor Dan Boneh of Stanford. The course, in general, was excellent. It offered much more than a taster of the subject (for those of us who completed it), and I plan to take part in the follow-up course that is due to start in April.

There are many claims being made about MOOCs, both positive and negative, and of course there are differences between taking a course as a relatively anonymous online user, than the standard experience of enrolling at a college or university. I intend to get around to writing something fuller on these at a later point.

However, I want to address one criticism that keeps on being made – the high “dropout” rate from free online courses. This is a criticism that I believe is invalid, because it is not comparing like with like.

I suppose, before going on, I should come clean and admit that I have been one of these dropouts (on several courses). In one case, I started the course intending to complete it, but decided that I did not have the time to devote to it at that point. In other cases, though, I enrolled simply to get a better idea of what the course was like, and help me decide which course I really wanted to be doing.

I would argue that this is more similar to browsing books in a library or a bookstore, than it is to enrolling on (and dropping out of) a traditional course. Standard university or college courses usually require some commitment (monetary, or in application time), to enroll. For a MOOC, it just takes a few clicks of the mouse. And I think it’s likely that the better idea students have about the level and requirements of a course, the greater probability they will have of completing it successfully when they really do commit.

More fine-grained data is needed about the motivations and circumstances of students signing up for such courses, before any valid comparisons can be made about retention and completion rates. MOOCs are certainly not an educational panacera, but they are a welcome newcomer to the neighbourhood.

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