Written on March 11, 2013 by Rolf Strom-Olsen in Arts & Cultures & Societies

rolf-strom-olsenBy Rolf Strom-Olsen, Academic Director for the Humanities at IE School of Arts and Humanities

I have to admit that until very recently the sound “mooc” made me think, not of some bold experiment in democratising educational opportunity, but rather of the great Mookie Wilson, who, despite being a Met, was one of the great ballplayers of the eighties and, incidentally, the batter whose ground ball ended up defining the 1986 World Series (yes, we’re still looking at you Bill Buckner!).

But move over Mookie, the world of the Massive Open Online Course has arrived. And not that long ago either. If we excavate on Wikipedia, as the site for internet archaeology, we find that the term garners an article only in 2011, and, for a long time thereafter, is tended to by only a few ardent enthusiasts (there is even the obligatory suggested deletion for new articles of uncertain value). However, the MOOC has had a fast ascent into the world of higher education since then, propelled by:
(1) the remarkable success of several high profile sites that have become focal points for online course in drawing offerings from very reputable institutions;
(2) angst-ridden hand-wringing about the very future of the academy, largely playing out in the pages of publications like the CHE; and
(3) apparently significant public buy-in.

When I was approached by my institution to offer a class in the uncertain world of MOOCs, it was this last point – public interest – that was largely unknown to me. I mean, how many people are there that want to follow an online class in Aboriginal Worldviews and Education or Combinatorial Game Theory?

Ok, so I know the answer to that now. Lots! Really an astonishingly large number, as in (cf. Douglas Adams) vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly large. Coursera, the platform on which my class appears, generates enrolments of certainly tens, and for some of the more popular courses, perhaps hundreds of thousands of participants. Now the drop out rate is also very high – which makes sense, since the model encourages more or less blanket enrolment for any class that seems even remotely appealing, followed by mass exodus when the reality of listening to people like me for six weeks kicks in.  But when you have 50,000 people signed up, even a 95% dropout rate leaves you with 2,500 following the class. Which makes such courses an order of magnitude bigger than the typical large college lecture class.

If the enrolment pattern of my course were to continue based on the week since it went live, not that I have been obsessively looking, it would have an enrolment of 100,000! Now last month, there was an incident in which a business professor at UC Irvine decided to walk away from the MOOC experiment after lamenting what he saw as anaemic interest in his online course. Although 37,000 had signed up, “less than 40 percent of students logged in to the class and only a fourth of the students had watched a single video lecture. Less than two percent of the students were actively engaged in the discussions.” Frankly, those seem like huge numbers to me: 15,000 actually logged into the class, 9,000 watched one of the videos, and over 700 were involved on the discussion board. This may represent only a tiny fraction of the initial enrolment, but that is still one busy course.

Now, this wouldn’t make much difference except for the crucial difference between the model of coursera and something like the open Yale courses: graded work in a nominally supervised environment. I surely cannot be the only one pondering the particulars of how to create a graded environment for such large numbers of people that justifies the exercise. For a humanities, or perhaps better put humanities-inf(l)ected, class like mine that seeks to provide evaluation on qualitative analytical skills, this is one of the biggest challenges that such courses pose.

Will it work? I’ll have to mooc and see.


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