Improv skills lead to success

My Experiences Thus Far with MOOCs

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I’m an information forager, someone who wanders among topics picking up bits and pieces of knowledge as I go. If you offer me a good way to gain information and experience, you’ll get my attention.

I’ve sort of fallen in love with the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) offerings from Coursera. I’ve successfully completed seven of the courses, ranging from an easy introductory course on geospatial information and mapping to a challenging course on machine learning. I bit off substantially more than I could chew when I signed up for a natural language processing class, but at least I had the good sense to pack it in when I saw I didn’t have the skills to complete the assignments.

One of my just-completed courses was Model Thinking, by Professor Scott Page from the University of Michigan and the Santa Fe Institute. This session was the second time the course was offered and, as it turned out, it was an exact repeat of the first session. Dr. Page and his assistants didn’t update any of the lectures (or even edit out coughs and other flubs from original recording), participate in the class’s discussion forums, tweet from the advertised Twitter account, or update the class’s Facebook page or blog. As befits a summer offering, the class ran entirely on autopilot.

We’re very early in the days of MOOC development, so there are a lot of experiments going on as professors and institutions determine how to present MOOCs and incorporate them into university curricula. One of the big problems MOOC providers have to face is the immense number of individuals who sign up for the class but never watch a single movie. In some cases, only a third of students who sign up for a MOOC watch even one lecture, and most courses have pass rates of less than 10% (7% is typical). Part of the problem is that there’s no real penalty for not finishing the course — you know you didn’t do the work, but there’s no social stigma attached to it. And besides, you can always download the movies and watch them at your leisure.

Dr. Page seemed to address this dropout issue by making the Model Thinking class very easy to pass. Grades were calculated by adding 50% of your quiz scores (dropping the lowest two) and 50% of your exam scores, with everyone who scored a total of 75% or higher receiving a certificate. But here’s the kicker: you got three attempts at each quiz and the system displayed the correct answers after you took the quiz for the first time. All students had to do was write down the answers and re-take the quiz to get a perfect score.

Like the quizzes, you got three shots at the mid-term and final, but the system didn’t display the correct answers. It did tell you where to find the information required to answer the question, but you had to figure out the answer for yourself. Even so, if you received a perfect score on the quizzes (hard not to), you only had to get half the exam questions right to pass. The only reason a mildly attentive student couldn’t pass the course would be a lack of time to take the quizzes and exams. You barely needed to watch the lecture movies.

Is this strategy a good way to improve MOOC completion rates? Yes, if that’s your only goal. I would be very interested to learn how this Model Thinking class session’s completion and engagement rates compare to those of other MOOCs, but I wonder how much material students who took the easy route retained. If there’s no significant marginal cost per technically passing but unengaged student, perhaps it’s OK if they take little or no knowledge from the course. At the very least, it’s a worthwhile experiment.


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