MOOCs and student learning

Now that the MOOC on Copyright for Educators and Librarians has finished its first run, it seems like a good time to post some reflections on what I learned from the experience.

The first thing I learned is that offering a MOOC takes a lot of work, and it is easier when that work is shared.  In my case, I was working with two wonderful colleagues — Anne Gilliland from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and Lisa Macklin from Emory — who made the effort of putting the course together much more pleasant.  Both are lawyers and librarians with lots of experience teaching the issues we were dealing with, and we are all friends as well, which made the whole process a lot easier.  We also benefited from the terrific support we got from consultants working for Duke’s Center for Instructional Technology, which may be the single most MOOC-savvy group at any university.

That we had a great team was not really a surprise.  I was a bit more surprised however, and quite pleasantly, by the quality of the student discussion in our MOOC.  I had heard from other instructors about how effective the online discussion forums could be, but was just a bit skeptical.  Then I was able to watch as MOOC participants would pose difficult questions or struggle with the application of copyright law to a particular situation, and repeatedly the other course participants would work through the problem in the forums and arrive at surprisingly good answers. Peer-to-peer teaching is a reality in MOOCs, and is certainly among the best features of these courses.

One thing we know about MOOCs is that they often have participants with considerable background in the topic; often they have enrolled for a refresher or to see how someone else teaches the topic.  These people are a great asset in the MOOC.  Even if they are not amongst the most-likely participants to complete a course according to whatever formula for completion is in place, they are tremendously important to the success of the course because of the contribution they make to peer-learning in the discussion forums.

Acknowledging the contribution of “expert students” also offers a reminder to MOOC instructors to take a more humble approach to the standards we set for completion of our courses.  The open and online nature of these courses means that students enroll with a wide variety of goals in mind.  As I just said, some are experts looking to see how others teach the topic.  Completion of quizzes and such may be unimportant to such participants, even though they are getting valuable career or personal development from the course.

Along these lines, I agree wholeheartedly with this essay by Jeff Pomerantz about apologies for failing to complete a course.  Like Jeff, my colleagues and I got multiple e-mails in which participants explained their “failure” to complete the course.  Like Jeff, we often smiled to ourselves and chocked those messages up to a misunderstanding of what MOOCs are.  And like Jeff, we learned that there are so many reasons for taking a course, so many different goals that participants bring to their involvement, that it is more likely we instructors who need to get a better understanding of MOOCs.

Many of the participants in our specific course were librarians and educators; they were our target audiences, so that makes sense.  These are groups that take assignments and course completion very seriously, which was reflected in our very high completion rate (over 15%).  But it also means that these were folks who wanted to explain to us when they were not going to complete the course according to official standards.  Maybe they did not realize that we were unable to track participation at an individual level due to the technology and the volume of students.  Nevertheless, we needed to treat their desire to explain with respect, and to recognize that many of those who did not earn a certificate of completion probably got what they wanted from the course, and also very likely made important contributions to what other participants learned.

Last week I attended a meeting of Duke’s MOOC instructors, which focused on discussions about how we can use data available about the MOOCs to learn more about the teaching and learning process.  It was a fascinating meeting on several levels, but one thing I got from it was two stories about the kinds of goals that MOOC participants might have.

  • One faculty member who had taught a MOOC explained incidentally his own motivation for taking a different online course.  His own career as a student had been so focused on his own specialty that he had never gotten a chance to take a basic course in a different field that had always interested him.  “There was so much to learn,” he said, “and so little time.” A MOOC gave him a chance to fill that long-felt gap, and I will bet that he was a valuable student to have in the course; very highly motivated, like so many MOOC participants, whether or not he finished the assignments that lead to completion.
  • One of the administrators of Duke’s online initiative told about overhearing two students discussing the fact that each was taking a MOOC, and interrupting the conversation to ask why each had enrolled.  One of the women was a Ph.D. student who explained that there were certain areas of study or skills that she needed to complete her dissertation that were most efficiently gained by taking parts of a MOOC or two.  She registered in order to listen to selected videos that have relevance for her specific research.  She is a perfect example of someone who will not count toward a completion statistic but who is gaining something very valuable through her participation.

The other thing I learned from this meeting about potential research enabled by MOOCs is the myriad ways that these online courses can help improve teaching and learning on our own campus.  Duke has said all along that improving the experience of our own students was an important goal of our involvement with MOOCs.  When I heard this, I usually thought about flipped classrooms.  But that is a very small part of what MOOCs can do for us, I discovered.  I was privileged to listen to a comprehensive discussion about how the data we gather from MOOCs can be used to improve the student experience in our regular classrooms.  Very specific questions were posed about the role of cohorts, the impact of positive and negative feedback, how we can harness the creative ideas students raise during courses, and how to better assess the degree to which individual students have met the unique goals they brought to the course.  All of this has obvious application well beyond the specific MOOC context.

The most important thing I learned from the experience of teaching a MOOC actually has little to do with online courses as such.  It is a renewed respect for the complexity and diversity of the learning process itself, and a sense of awe at being allowed to play a small role in it.



10 thoughts on “MOOCs and student learning”

  1. If the completion rates were around 95%, I am certain the open-access cheerleaders would go wild with the data and use it to certify the popular appeal of MOOCS and the success of open culture.

    Instead, the completion rate is a paltry “above 15%” which the blogger gilds by using the term “above” and by describing it as “our very high completion rate.”

    While it’s true that some may have had valid reasons for failing to complete the course, there are probably also some who failed to complete it because it was a free, online course, removed from the traditional social context in which classroom education occurs.

    In other words, some likely did not complete the course because MOOCs are not all that successful, as the data clearly show.

    1. @Jeffrey Beall,

      Re: “…because MOOCs are not all that successful…”

      How do you define success? If my purpose for participating in a MOOC is to browse, gain additional knowledge or complete part of the course, then I have been successful according to the goals I set for myself, even if I do not ‘complete’ the course.

      Kevin does not state how many people participated in the course, but let’s say it was 1,000. I can easily envision that about 150 (15%) individuals intended to fully participate and complete all course requirements. I can also envision that about 850 other individuals were curious, did not want to delve as deeply into the content, or joined the MOOC for the experience. We can say that 150 individuals fully engaged with and completed the entire course. And, as a side effect, 850 other individuals benefited from the course in their own way and in ways that would not have been possible in a traditional online or onsite course. That sounds like nearly a 100% success rate to me!

      I believe we need to think more broadly about how learning occurs and how people work at gaining knowledge. We cannot apply traditional measures of completion or success to open education.

      1. Floyd seems to get the point I was trying to make — the MOOC “succeeded” for many people even if they did not receive a certificate of completion If folks learned something useful to them, that is what we cared about and why we put in the work to create the course. We need a more expansive and, frankly, humble view of our artificial and internally-focused measures of success.

        For the record, however, we had a final tally of 10,138 participants, 1,584 of whom received the formal certificate of completion, meaning they earned enough points through quizzes and other assignments to meet the threshold we set. That is a 15.6% completion rate.

        Even if we assumed that only those 1584 participants got anything out of the course — an obviously absurd assumption — the chance to teach copyright to over 1,500 people at one time is remarkable, especially in the professional development context where we cannot gather everyone together into a lecture theater. But obviously we actually reached a much larger group than that.

  2. Jeffrey Beall, I don’t understand your logic. 15% cared enough to complete the course (though it is unlikely anyone required them to do so). Quite a number of other folks apparently wanted to complete the course, but something in life (illness, work emergency, etc) intervened. The others did not “finish” it, but perhaps they had no need to. Kevin gave several examples of reasons why people do not finish MOOCs. They get what they want from it and stop. You are right–some people probably did not finish because it was a MOOC. Maybe it was their first time in an online environment and they found they didn’t have the techno knowledge or they just didn’t enjoy the online environment. What is wrong with that? Students drop our of face-to-face courses all the time. They don’t like the prof, the class is going to be harder than they expected, they become ill. In other words, not terribly different. This particular course was very successful for me and the (what appeared to be) thousands who wrote copious posts debating fine points of copyright law in order to understand it better. I “finished” this course, but I hope to take more MOOCs in the future, and I know some of them I will intend to finish, others I will not intend to finish. I like face-to-face, traditional classrooms–I teach in one; but that doesn’t mean that online, open courses cannot be successful as well.

  3. I’m a PhD student and I catch up with the course and when it ended I was at the end of week 2 video lectures then the course admins just removed the videos! I wish I had some time to at least look at week 3 videos
    is there any way to see the content please? I’m a half copyright maven and want to finish what I’ve started even with no certificate. actually I did very well in the tests when time allowed me to do..
    thanks anyway for changing my way to looking to copyrights

  4. I just want to chime in and say that I thought this MOOC was very successful. I learned a ton, and I had already completed the CIP certification program (just before they shut the doors). Any opportunity for reinforcing what I have already learned about copyright is good, but this course was excellent. I too, did not “complete” the course; I don’t need CE credit or anything like that, because I’m mid-career. What I needed was the learning, and got that in spades. The videos were good (although some additional graphics or visuals might be helpful to break up the talking), the quizzes were interesting, and the forums were thought-provoking. I did wonder about some of the misinformation forum users spread and would have liked to see those addressed, but there were 1000s of posts! Hard to do in such a short time frame, and with only three instructors. Maybe some TAs or something to monitor forums?

    Anyway, I couldn’t disagree with Jeffrey more – in a different format a standard for participation and completion may have to be different, not really comparable with a face-to-face situation. This was an excellent course, thanks to all three instructors.

  5. I took the MOOC and completed it (!) during a very busy 4 weeks in my life. I am still patting myself on the back. But seriously, I thought this MOOC was excellent. As someone who teaches copyright, I was most interested to see the approach to the content, given 4 short weeks. Choosing where to begin is easy, but where to take the course and where to end it are harder decisions. The fairly low completion rate doesn’t surprise me. There are plenty of studies showing low completion rates with online learning. As a practitioner, I know many librarians do follow online courses even if they can’t complete assignments, so I don’t worry about the completion rate. Much of what attendees take away from a course may be immeasurable. Above all, the course gave me a new appreciation of what my own online students experience, and I am in awe of the fact that they have the perseverance to complete 16 weeks. It’s humbling to be a student. Thank you so much Duke, Kevin, Anne and Lisa, this was a wonderful response to a well identified need in our community. A true public good. (I feel so guilty I didn’t spend more time on the discussion board).

  6. I also took this course and found it very useful. Kevin you and your colleagues Anne and Lisa did a fine job of conveying the concepts and practicalities of copyright. I took the course to compare the knowledge I have gained working with IP attorneys to a formal curriculum. Thankfully, I found that my on the job experience had covered a good deal of the material. I also chose to complete the course as i personally wanted formal closure on the experience.

    Having said that, I gained a new perspective on MOOCs from this column. The fact that the course instructors are comfortable with a large number of “auditng” students is helping me decide to take more courses in subjects of interest that aren’t job related.

  7. I am also a participant of this particular MOOC. I was amazed at the number of students involved, from all around the world. And, as Chris LeBeau stated, I wished that I could have participated more in the discussions but with over 10,000 participants if became a daunting task. (I can only image what is was like for Kevin, Anne and Lisa.)
    I would love to participate in future copyright MOOCs, especially with these 3 Copyright Mavens.

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