Educational and social hurdles for MOOCs

The big buzz word in education today is MOOC and a lot of people see it as a big threat to higher education. Recently Dave Cormier predicted that MOOCs will kill Higher Education in a couple of years time. Others like William G. Bowen point at what we must retain when we start using more online learning in universities. So I decided to look at some of the educational and social hurdles MOOCs still have to overcome before they are a threat to Higher Education.

As a starting point to write about the hurdles that MOOCs still have to overcome I take the model from Vincent Tinto‘s book “Leaving College: Rethinking the Causes and Cures of Student Attrition“. The model will not be explained in full as most educators will be familiar with it. The book itself is not available online but Ian McCubbin wrote a good Examination of Criticisms of Tinto’s model that also explains it. The model is displayed below and for all the main aspects I will discuss if and how they are a hurdle to the success of MOOCs.

Pre entry attributes

What does the theory say

The model posits that factors like family background, skills and abilities and prior schooling shape a students goals and commitments and therefore the likelihood of his persistence or drop-out from college. Family background and prior schooling seem self explanatory. Readiness theory gives a good idea what the important skills and abilities to be successful in higher education might be:

  1. Academic skills like reading, writing, math, technology and so on;
  2. Time management, the ability to devote the right amount of time to your education and keep a good balance between that and other commitments you have;
  3. The ability to focus on a goal
  4. The ability to speak up for oneself and to seek help when you need it

What is happening in MOOCs

MOOCs are open to everybody without any selection on pre entry attributes. The question is if students without the literacies required to take a Higher Education degree are able to successfully “wade through swathes of video lectures and online recources?”   Also the information given up-front about what you need to know to be successful is meager: “some experience with statistics will also be helpful” Furthermore the MOOCs that I am familiar with (some from Coursera, some from Edx, ETMOOC) do not seem to gather much information about the background of the people that enroll in the course. It seems as if it is the responsibility of the student to know if his/her background is sufficient for completing the course. Some say that MOOCs are moving into the direction of offering introductory courses for first year students as an alternative to doing those courses in a brick and mortar university. Because most MOOCs require students to have an understanding how Higher Education works that does not seem possible without training in the skills and abilities described above.

The most likely effect this has is that a lot of people enter the MOOC with a background that gives them little chance to succeed. In one of the few evaluations that are available about experiences of students in MOOCs it was reported that insufficient math knowledge was a reason for students to stop participating.

Can it be solved?

The easiest way to solve this is to do a pre-entry test that you have to pass before you are allowed to enter the MOOC. But that would strip MOOCs of the Open and most likely also of the Massive in its name. Alternatively a preparatory course with all the knowledge and skills you need to be successful could be offered in a MOOC-way to all participants by the organizations that offer them.  Not hard to envision but this would reduce the openness of MOOCs also.

Goals and Commitments

What does the theory say

The model posits that the more a student is committed to the goal of college completion and to the specific college he/she is attending the bigger the chance that the student will finish his degree. Those strong goals and commitments are especially important in the transition phase between high school and college. The intentions of the student are about what the student wants to achieve and what he/she expects to encounter in his/her study based upon prior educational experience. Apart from the educational commitments the student has to cope with external commitments that seize part of his/her available time.

What is happening in MOOCs

Moocs seem to require new goal specifications from students. One can see this in the emerging student patterns in MOOCs that differ from the student patterns you see in a brick and mortar university. At this moment you cannot take a complete degree with a MOOC the question is how this fits in with what students think about getting a higher education degree. Commitment to an institution is also different with MOOCs. Some MOOCs are clearly related to a specific institution but others are not because they are part of a new type of higher education institute (Coursera, Udacity). Brick and mortar universities seem to shield students from an overload of external commitments. In a MOOC setting one would expect and finds that the chance of external commitments that conflict with the commitment to finish the MOOC is higher.

Can it be solved?

What MOOC providers must achieve is that potential students see what they offer as just as reliable and worthwhile as brick and mortar universities. After the initial and predictable hype and that is now going on this will not be easy, especially if drop out rates remain as they are. They must also let the students see that the future labor or future knowledge goal they have is realistically achievable through taking the MOOC. My guess will be that this is mainly dependent on the question if a MOOC degree leads to a job.

Institutional experience

What does the theory say

Starting as a student in a university leads to interaction with the academic world and with the social system of the university. The interaction in the academic world is in the form of the grades you get and your interaction with faculty. The interaction with the social system is in the form of your contacts with your fellow students and the extra curricular activities you undertake. These interaction have an effect on your goals and commitments and on the level of integration you feel with the academic and the social system.

What is happening in MOOCs

In MOOCs a lot of interaction is going but only by a limited amount of the participants enrolled in the MOOC. For those interacting participants the key question is if they experience those interactions as equally intense as face to face interactions. The massive character of the MOOC must have an effect on how anonymous you feel especially in the sense of being seen by the professor of the course. MOOCs lack a social system like a university campus in which they function so for students to experience interaction with a social system they have to create that system themselves. Which is happening around MOOCs in several Facebook groups.

Can it be solved?

This will be a tough nut to crack for MOOCs. In theory its easy to set up all types of interactions in a MOOC but how they are experienced in practice and if those interactions really take place remains unclear. The available data seems to point out that only about 20% of the people that enroll in a MOOC become active participants. The lack of a social system could maybe be solved by looking at how this is done in Massively multiplayer online role-playing games. In one survey, 39.4% of males and 53.3% of females felt that their MMORPG companions were comparable to or even better than their real world friends.

Personal/normative integration

What does the theory say

The interaction the student has with the academic and the social system leads to a level of integration with those systems. The more satisfactory those interactions are (higher grades, positive feelings about interaction with staff and other students) the higher the level of integration. There is also an interaction between your social and academic integration. To much social integration leads to a (chance of) lower academic integration as an example. The lower the level of integration the bigger the chance of drop-out.

What is happening in MOOCs

In MOOC’s there is a high level of drop-out a recent article in the chronicle puts the drop-out rate at 92.5%. So until now MOOCs did not succeed in reaching a level of integration that made most students stay and complete the course. Of course taken into account has to be the initial commitment with which the students entered the MOOC maybe it was never their intention to finish. But the data so far is not encouraging as most students hardly show any activity in a MOOC in which they enroll. This seems to me the key factor where MOOCs have to improve. If they don’t succeed in giving students a sense of belonging the drop out rates will remain high.

Can it be solved?

Those cMOOCs where the main goal is not the course itself but the building of a Personal Learning Network or a Community of Practice is, might give an idea what could lead to a higher level of integration. On the other hand this seems like an abstract goal for a lot of high school graduates. The MMORPG example might also be worthwhile to look at but there the question is if education will ever give a student the same kind of intense cooperative experience games can do.


Much is still open for research and discussion but the intense enthusiasm that is displayed be many of the MOOC evangelists seems a bit premature. For now I agree with the title of  William G Bowen’s article: Walk Deliberately, Don’t Run, Toward Online Education.

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4 Responses to Educational and social hurdles for MOOCs

  1. studentforce says:

    Reblogged this on hireED4HigherEd and commented:
    Interesting analysis of the affect MOOCs have on retention and student success. Not addressed are logistical issues. The proliferation of alternative course distribution models create SILOs of Academic achievement and activity data that students must track. One platform is required to enable students ease of use, consistency and portability.

  2. I’m not sure i quite ‘predicted’ that it would kill higher ed. I suggested that it is a possible future… but no matter.

    The issue of drop out rates is one that seems to be the focus of many criticisms. I wonder if you aren’t using the words ‘student’ a little narrowly. For the people who’ve enrolled in MOOCs that i’ve spoken with, there are as many different ideas of what they were looking for. For some lurking and just poking around IS success. I might look into another professional’s course just to see what resources they use… and then you would call me ‘a dropout’. Applying institutional concepts to MOOCs can be useful for comparisons, but it is also easy to get to the point where you are comparing dissimilar things.

    cheers… and nice post.


  3. louwarnoud says:

    Thanks for your response. The reason for applying institutional concepts is that a lot of people claim that MOOCs will in some way replace the current situation in Higher Education. You make that claim for the introductory courses others make claims that go way further. That being the case I think it is justified to apply an institutional concept like that of Tinto to see how it works out in the case of MOOCs. Not to say that MOOCs can’t work but to get an idea what they are providing now and what they should provide if the replace part of what is now current.
    In another post I claimed that most of the people that can succeed in a MOOC already have a Higher Education degree. So that one of the reasons for drop out most like also is that participants can’t cope with the work the have to do in the MOOC. Otherwise it’s of course true that many people just enter to see or do some part of the MOOC.

  4. Pingback: Educational and social hurdles for MOOCs | cMOOC xMOOC review |

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