MOOCs, or massive open online courses, are quickly becoming technology darlings. Companies like Coursera, Udacity, edX and others provide college-caliber online courses taught by professors from the most prestigious universities. Millions of students interested in pursuing inexpensive post-secondary education can take classes on anything from nutritional health to machine learning—right from the comfort of their own home.
It’s not just about learning new skills. “Graduates” of these classes can receive paid course certificates or accreditation, which is always great to showcase on LinkedIn. Some organizations, like Udacity, have even partnered with universities to create entirely MOOC-based degrees.
I registered for a five-week course on Coursera, Terrorism and Counterterrorism: Comparing Theory And Practice. I’m interested in global politics and how the definition and scope of terrorism has changed since September 11, 2001, and since the topic was equally intriguing and different from the tech community I’m knee-deep in, I figured this class would provide a good introduction to massive open online courses.
The course was available under Coursera’s “Signature Track” program, so I paid $49 to receive a certificate of completion when I passed the class. It was a waste of $49.
I failed my first MOOC.
It wasn’t for lack of trying. When I first signed up, I took it very seriously.
MOOCs Are Not A Substitute For College
I’ve argued, and still believe, the traditional university lecture is dead. As online education programs skyrocket in popularity, brick-and-mortar universities are embracing aspects of the online college lecture, like interactive videos and online discussion forums.
The difference is, MOOC professors are teaching thousands of students—hundreds of thousands in some cases—thus eliminating the intimacy of one-on-one interactions that are so beneficial in most offline classroom settings.
My Coursera professor, Edwin Bakker from Leiden University in the Netherlands, taught the course via video lectures. He provided great insight, paired it with interesting required readings, and led Google Hangouts throughout the course, though only a handful of students were able to participate. Time zone differences and limited space ultimately resulted in a select few students receiving the opportunity to participate in this more intimate online setting.
Furthermore, the MOOC system for reviewing and grading submitted material is still imperfect. Granted, automatically-graded quizzes make it easy to keep track of one’s marks, and instructors or teaching assistants are good at providing feedback through discussion forums or otherwise, but assignments that required me to submit essays or complex answers beyond multiple-choice questions weren’t graded by the instructor—which, in my case, turned out to be detrimental to the overall class experience.
You Just Can’t Trust The Internet
In my entire college career, I never failed a class. I pulled all-nighters to study for tests and write essays, and all the work I put in eventually paid off. My Coursera class was a totally different story.
I’ll admit it: I had minimal motivation. Sure, I didn’t want to waste $49, but I certainly didn’t stay up all night finishing a 600-word essay—the goal of receiving a course completion certificate just wasn’t appealing enough.
Students on the Signature Track were required to submit two essays and pass multiple quizzes. The quizzes were easy—we were given multiple attempts to get a perfect score—but the essays were a different story. Since the professor was unable to grade them himself, each student was subject to peer reviews—five of them. And each review impacted your grade.
Students were given a rubric to follow, and the graders would base their assessment off that. To pass, we needed to get 60% on each essay—this would account for 30% of the final grade.
I failed my first essay. All but one reviewer gave me a failing grade, for reasons unknown.
One reviewer claimed my using Fox News as a source rendered all my other sources meaningless. (Normally I would agree with the commenter, however it was an essay about the Oklahoma City Bombing, and I linked to bomber Timothy McVeigh’s letter to Fox News. You can read my essay here.)
Admittedly, the essay was not my best work. When I’m taking a college-level course without paying college-level prices, or getting anything in return besides knowledge or a completion certificate, I simply won’t try as hard. But I did follow the rubric and met all the requirements for a passing grade.
In true Internet fashion, these peer reviews were totally anonymous. I couldn’t discuss with my reviewer why he or she thought my essay was lousy, and I couldn’t defend my link to Fox News. I felt uncomfortable and powerless. Stupid. This is not an environment that encourages productive learning.
To achieve certification, students must finish both essays and grade other students’ contributions. I knew my next essay would be just as bad as the first one, considering the amount of time I spent writing it, and knowing I couldn’t give anymore of my already busy schedule to this class, I failed.
A Probability Of Failure
I wish I could say my experience was unique. But if you sign up for a massive open online course, chances are you won’t finish it.
On Coursera, the average student retention rate is just four percent. No more than 51 percent of students passed Udacity’s online math program offered at San Jose State University. And according to a study released in May 2013, the average MOOC completion rate was just 6.8 percent, and the six most-completed courses relied on automatic testing, not peer review grading.
Completion rates for MOOCs are so poor, Udacity’s founder Sebastian Thrun admitted his company doesn’t educate people the way he intended.
In an effort to combat abysmal completition rates, Coursera is creating degree-like programs that give paying students a more substantial certificate of completion after passing all the classes in a specialization certificate group.
“We do believe doing a capstone project and earning a specialization certificate will provide greater incentive and motivation for students to complete,” Coursera cofounder and co-CEO Andrew Ng told ReadWrite earlier this year.
As much as I wanted to finish my course, the time restrictions and the grading process turned me off. And thus, I became just another one of the vast majority of students who fail massive open online courses.
How MOOCs Can Succeed
There are a variety of factors that, if implemented, would make me want to take another online course.
For starters, anonymous grading should not determine the students’ success—at least not by itself. If I had the ability to defend myself and possibly change a grade, I might be more inclined to get actively involved. In college, I was always allowed, if not encouraged, to meet with the professor or teaching assistant who graded my work to challenge or ask questions if I didn’t agree with the final grade. Even if I didn’t change someone’s mind, chatting with someone made feel more at ease.
YouTube, one of the world’s leading online social platforms, recently nixed anonymous comments; now, anyone who chooses to leave feedback on a video must do so with their Google+ profile attached to it. If comments on cat videos require a personal identity, then I think essays for online courses should, too.
One reason MOOCs are so popular is because they’re so cheap. While this is good for many students that can’t afford a traditional college route, other students require further incentive. The price point for certificates of completion is relatively inexpensive—unlike universities that cost an arm and a leg.
A former Coursera student told me earlier this year that he would rather pay $600 for a class offered through a university than take a similar subject online, simply because he knew he would be more inclined to finish it with a significant investment. Coursera’s initiative into specialty courses are aiming to do this: By charging more money for a more comprehensive program, students are incentivized to finish the courses they paid good money for, and the program becomes more well-rounded, too.
MOOCs provide invaluable resources for continuing education and opportunities for students to take courses they might not have otherwise taken. But when I compare my experience, albeit just one course, to the education I received at a traditional university, I wouldn’t trade my in-person college career for a suite of online class credentials, no matter how many university heavyweights stand behind them.
Lead image by Adriana Lee for ReadWrite.