Paths through MOOCs

2 minute read

I’ve been doing a lot of tracking of massive open online courses, including enrolling in several of them, as research for my upcoming course, “Human Evolution Past and Future”.

A new site, “MOOC News and Reviews” has begun reporting on a range of MOOCs and research surrounding them. A recent post reports on the pathways that different students take through courses, in terms of watching videos, completing quizzes and assignments, and tracking the course’s progress week by week: “Not All Online Students Are the Same: A Summary of Stanfords MOOC User Study.

Using these tags, the researchers were able to predict how many would take the final exam within an accuracy of 9%. The graphic above illustrates some of the prototypical trajectories that students followed, but Kizelcec et al. identified over 20,000 different trajectories through a single course! As the graphic below shows, a student could audit the first lessons, fall behind for one and then track a few, drop out for one and then audit the next before taking the final.

I find this to be one of the most empowering aspects of teaching a MOOC. People can engage in the content at the level that makes sense for their own level of interest and preparation. Also, the huge range of skills and interests in people taking these courses may enable new networks of learning. As the linked article suggests:

The researchers leave unanswered a question that might make the biggest difference to anyone who is taking a large online class. What if the class itself can be considered a resource as opposed to a course? Will we be seeing mobile apps and news streams from our classmates, coming soon?

That’s how I’m approaching my class. Every part of the content may be reused outside the course, and most will be useful far beyond the enrolled students. We’ll be making materials available for use in many contexts including for K-12 students and teachers. Most of the videos will be useful as stand-alone introductions to topics in human evolution, and lab materials can be used in other courses. In other words, it’s the ultimate mix-and-match.

Meanwhile, the NY Times has an article that is moderately skeptical of MOOCs, from the perspective of a student: “Two Cheers for Web U!”.

The professor is, in most cases, out of students reach, only slightly more accessible than the pope or Thomas Pynchon. Several of my Coursera courses begin by warning students not to e-mail the professor. We are told not to friend the professor on Facebook. If you happen to see the professor on the street, avoid all eye contact (well, that last one is more implied than stated). There are, after all, often tens of thousands of students and just one top instructor.
Perhaps my modern history professor, Philip D. Zelikow, of the University of Virginia, put it best in his course introduction, explaining that his class would be a series of conversations in which were going to talk about this course one to one except that one side (the students) doesnt get to talk back directly. Im not sure this fits the traditional definition of a conversation.

The article is worth reading for its trenchant remarks on the personalities of the professors.