Three MOOC readings and the (almost) end of English Composition I

The end of English Composition I from Coursera/Duke is near, and I’ll be sure to write something up about that in the next week or so– probably after the Computers and Writing Conference coming up this weekend. The short version for now is it has been a struggle for me to keep up at the end, both in terms of the way in which the class has been paced/the work has piled up, but also just in terms of basic motivations of the “why am I here in the first place” variety, feelings that surly fuel the dropout rate of these kinds of classes. More on that below when I talk about the Koller et al essay.

But in the meantime and while I get ready to leave town, I thought I’d start a post about three MOOC readings amongst the many that have been piling up around me. As is usually the case, this is mostly useful to me so I can come back later, but some of this might be useful to others too.

But before I even get to that, I am pleased and proud to point to my June 2013 College Composition and Communication piece “MOOC Response about ‘Listening to World Music,'” which is part of a special “symposium” section of the journal. (That link is behind a firewall just for NCTE members, though I might put a version out on this web site sooner than later for everyone to read.) I think it turned out well, though I would have preferred a more interesting title and I’m surprised that this is just two pieces, mine and one by Jeff Rice (his essay is at the same link as mine). What I also think works well is that both Jeff and I are both writing about the “Listening to World Music” MOOC, and I think our commentaries overlap and diverge in interesting ways.

Okay, on to three MOOC readings after the break.

The MOOC readings are too much for anyone to keep up with (well, unless you’re Stephen Downes), so I’ll concentrate here on three relatively recent pieces. First, as reported in CHE, “In Deals With 10 Public Universities, Coursera Bids for Role in Credit Courses” (and this helpful contract with one of those universities, the University of Kentucky).  Let me quote here at length:

The deals mark a shift for Coursera, which until now has focused on making free, online versions of courses taught by professors at elite colleges.

Daphne Koller, a co-founder of Coursera, acknowledged that the company was venturing into new terrain. After studying their MOOC users, the company realized that most of them had already earned college degrees, said Ms. Koller. That was well and good, but it suggested to Coursera’s founders that MOOCs would not be sufficient to achieve their ambitions.

“If you’re looking to really move the needle on fundamental educational problems, inside and outside the United States, you’re going to need to help people reach the first milestone, which is getting their degrees to begin with,” Ms. Koller said.

The company’s new partners are the State University of New York system, the Tennessee Board of Regents and the University of Tennessee systems, the University of Colorado system, the University of Houston system, the University of Kentucky, the University of Nebraska system, the University of New Mexico system, the University System of Georgia, and West Virginia University.

Now, the goals of Coursera are not necessarily the goals of its new “partner” institutions. It might be better to say that Coursera has some particular hopes and dreams of what might come from such deals, while the universities involved (at least some of the folks the CHE talked to at the University of Kentucky) seem to have more of a “wait and see” attitude about it all.  By the way, Jeff Rice has had a few things to say about the lack of transparency regarding all this at UK, and perhaps he’ll end up blogging about it.

In the next/other corner, we have “Retention and Intention in Massive Open Online Courses: In Depth,” which is in EDUCAUSE Review and was written by Daphne Koller, Andrew Ng, Chuong Do, and Zhenghao Chen, all of whom are key folks at Coursera.  On the one hand, Koller et al are really the only ones who have “rich data” on students in Coursera courses (they haven’t released all this data for others to study, at least as far as I can tell), so they have something to say. On the other hand, since Coursera is the biggest MOOC player and (probably) the worst offender in terms of retention, a lot of what’s here seems to be research along the lines of the Tobacco Institute. Well, sort of– I don’t think Coursera is as ill-intentioned as the Tobacco Institute was.

The first passage/claim that raised flags for me comes early in the essay under “Understanding Learner Intent:”

The vast majority of students who enroll in traditional university classes enter with the explicit intent of earning a credential. When students do not receive a credential, either the student, the system, or some combination of both has failed. MOOCs, however, cater to a substantially more diverse audience. Some students enroll on a whim, to see what a course is about, to figure out whether a particular topic might be worth pursuing, or out of curiosity regarding online education in general.

I don’t think those first two sentences are universally true, at least in terms of our students at EMU:  that is, I think a lot of students enroll at EMU not really sure what they want to do and the idea of earning a degree is really just a fuzzy possibility/wish along the lines of “I want to be rich and famous.”  I’ve also seen many examples where not getting a degree is not the same as failure; for example, the student who comes to EMU and decides what they really want to do is learn how to weld and work in a machine shop or something.

Those second two sentences seem to set Coursera MOOCs up as something that ought to not be held to the same level of accountability as regular universities– certainly in terms of the numbers of students enrolled– since the folks who sign up for MOOCs are so often so different from regular college students and also because people sign up for MOOCs just on a whim and sort of like bookmarking a web site. I think that’s true, but that to me seems to be at odds with what Koller has to say about the arrangement Coursera is brokering with UK and those other institutions to help students “reach the first milestone” of a degree in the first-place. What I’m getting at is this is a tension I think Coursera needs to reconcile: I don’t think they can be both a collection of courses offered just for curious (and mostly already educated) learners on a whim and as something structured enough to be counted for college credit to high schoolers and others striving to reach that first milestone.

The other problem that comes here again and again is this Koller et al’s reading of participation in Coursera courses as being synonymous with leaner intent. They want to do this in part to argue that the retention rate for MOOCs is so low because most of the people who sign up for them never intend to stick with the courses in the first place. That’s probably somewhat true (though it’s not like there’s a lot of survey data asking students what they intended when they signed up), but that also means that the hype Coursera et al have promoted– “200,000 students signed up for a course in XYZ!”– is largely meaningless.

And it also seems to me that Koller et al are ignoring some other likely participant reactions/intentions that factor into the poor retention rates. An example of what I mean:

Of course, even within the group of passive lecture watchers, students may vary considerably in their level of commitment to a class. For example, figure 2 depicts the decline in lecture video watching over the duration of The University of Pennsylvania’s “Modern and Contemporary American Poetry” class, taught by Professor Al Filreis. If attrition in lecture watching were primarily due to random life events, such as an unexpected business trip or a crisis at work, then the proportion of students watching a certain number of lecture video hours or more would roughly follow an exponential distribution, where students randomly leave the course at a fixed rate.

Figure 2 is a “long tail” curve that shows a pretty steep decline of the number of participants who watched more than five hours of video lectures. Now, certainly “random life” events are a likely factor here; but isn’t it as likely/more likely that a lot of these participants just found the course boring or otherwise not useful and they just left?

But they do have some interesting observations and data. They group participants into three categories– passive participants, active participants, and community contributors– and they have some other observations here that make a lot of sense to me.  For example:

There are also significant variations in the retention rates across different types of courses. For example, figure 3 shows that classes with programming assignments have significantly higher retention rates (p < 0.01) in the highly committed population than do classes with other types of assignment structure. A similar (but marginally nonsignificant, p = 0.077) effect is seen when restricting analysis to comparisons among computer-science classes with and without programming assignments. Furthermore, classes with programming assignments have a significantly higher estimated proportion of highly committed students than courses without programming assignments, an observation which still holds when restricting analysis to computer-science classes only (p < 0.01, p = 0.031, respectively). On the other hand, classes with peer grading have a broader spectrum of hourly retention rates in both subpopulations, and these retention rates tend to be correlated among the two populations, suggesting greater variability among peer-grading classes in their effectiveness at engaging students in an online platform.

The emphasis is mine, and I think that completely makes sense, especially in light of the less than robust peer review/grading happening on Coursera.  And:

Signing up for Signature Track is a clear statement by students that they intend to complete the course and earn a credential. In the first Signature Track class, “Nutrition for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention” taught by Professor Katie Ferraro from the University of California, San Francisco, the completion rate among paying Signature Track students was 74 percent compared to 9 percent in the non-Signature Track population (figure 4). Moreover, among students who indicated a strong intent to finish in a survey administered one month into the course, after the Signature Track signup deadline, completion rates were higher in the paying group (96 percent vs. 84 percent, p = 0.0009), suggesting that having a financial stake may provide an additional incentive to finish.

Which is to say that students who were willing and able to pay something up-front so that the course might ultimately “count” for something (presumably credit) were far more likely to stick to it. And vice-versa: students wouldn’t pay something up front if they didn’t think it was something they would want to complete.

That’s sort of the situation I find myself in with the English Composition I MOOC: I didn’t pay anything for it of course, but I kind of feel like I have to finish it at this point because of this blogging, because of other scholarly work I might do on blogging in the not so distant future.

Finally, there’s Patrick J. Deneen’s CHE commentary, “We’re All to Blame for MOOCs.” This is behind the CHE firewall, but several colleagues who were willing to “stick it to the man” sent it to me via email after I asked on the WPA-L mailing list.

I have to say I was disappointed and it is another one of those pieces that CHE and IHE absolutely love because it gets everyone riled up.  Deneen’s piece might as well be called “We’re All Going to Hell in a Handbasket and I’ve Been Telling You People that for a Decade!” It reads to me more as a rant against everything in higher education nowadays and MOOCs just happen to be the target of the day.

Here are the last two paragraphs after all of this ranting:

Think of Providence or Belmont Abbey among Roman Catholic institutions, or St. Olaf or Baylor among Protestant ones—all rightly anticipating that nondescript and indistinguishable institutions will be easy victims of the logic of standardization. This artisanal direction requires hiring faculty who expressly share a commitment to the institutional mission and attracting students who seek a distinctive education. Consider Hillsdale College, with its traditionalist emphasis on core curriculum and Western civilization, and a growing number of institutions that combine a liberal-arts education with some training in “trades” or manual labor, such as Deep Springs College, in California. (Try to teach baling hay via MOOC.)

If it is indeed time to “get big or get out” — or, better put, “get online or get an identity”—then I’m for the artisanal, the local, the educational equivalent of farmer’s markets. The irony is that while most professors embrace the ideal embodied in farmer’s markets, they have supported the evisceration of local institutional educational identity. It’s time to insist not only on locally grown food, but on local knowledge. I’d rather make and share my own beer than encourage my students to guzzle Budweiser.

By the “artisanal” or “farmer’s market” version of higher education, Deneen means very expensive and exclusive institutions: Notre Dame (where he teaches), St. Olaf, Providence, Baylor, Hillsdale College, not of one of which (I am sure) has a sticker price of less than $40K a year for all expenses. Deep Springs College has 26 students. He’s trying to argue that somehow MOOCs are a threat to the elite. That’s bullshit, much in the same way that no one is drinking Budweiser nowadays when they could/want to drink a decent beer.

And Deneen also completely ignores big, comprehensive, regional, and opportunity-granting institutions like EMU (not to mention community colleges), places that have been a lot closer to the “Walmarts” of the world for a long long time. And by the way, the upside of the Walmarts of the world– both as an educational metaphor and as the actual stores– is they provide goods/services that people on the lower half of the income scale can actually afford. Much in the same way that people who can afford to not shop at Walmart don’t.

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