The Confusing Thing About MOOCs

Here are statements and questions about MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) that are the product of confused thinking. For example:

If our online courses had completion rates similar to MOOCs, I'd be put in jail. Could you provide the completion rate for your MOOCs by country? How can we demonstrate that people learn as well/as much in MOOCs as in our "traditional" online college courses?

Well, the confusion in all of these statements or questions is that a MOOC is a college course, and therefore one is entitled to speak of metrics like "completion rate" or assess learning in a comparative way. Right now, in May 2013, MOOCs are not college courses. Comparing college courses to MOOCs is comparing apples to oranges. Fruits, yes. But different in very important ways.

MOOCs serve a different audience, and the intentions of this audience appear to be different than the traditional college audience. As of this writing, it appears that people who take MOOCs are largely the elite of world societies -- they are very educated (most have college degrees already, over 30% have master's degrees), they have internet access of course, and have computers and the time to take courses. A relatively small percentage of students are actually college-age people who do not yet have a college degree, and are trying to pursue a degree. This may change if more for-credit offerings are made available. But clearly, there are a large number of people who are "just auditing" the course, have paid nothing, and nevertheless possibly count toward the completion rate of the course.

I suppose people forget, or would like to forget, that the reason that most students take courses is so they can get a degree. When you offer free courses online, not tied to a degree, it's hard to impose the institution's "intentionality" on a course -- hey students, take this course, learn these things, do this work, etc. Without that incentive, some people are free to come by and audit the course however they like -- drop in, watch a few videos, make a few comments in the discussions, move on. As more credentials are tied to completing MOOCs, this is likely to change. People will have a reason to complete the course, and more completers will stick around to the end.

Assessing learning in MOOCs has the same difficulties as defining completion rates. Different audience. Different intentions for being there. Colleges may present the same materials as in their traditional online courses, but comparing effectiveness between MOOC and traditional online course on campus is an apples & oranges exercise.