Monday, December 23, 2013

How to Mislead the Public on MOOCs

An amazing thing happens when you free information from the fetters of expensive institutions where only the world's elite can access it.  People begin to learn things that they would never have the opportunity to learn otherwise.  'Student' begins to refer to more than just an 18-22 year old working towards a degree.  Knowledge and skills are acquired in one's free time and positive ripples flow outward.  Or, at least that's how many view it.  But, recently, I've seen a lot of negative press surrounding the efforts of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) like Udacity, EdX, and Coursera.  I'm referring to articles like this that point to the high dropout rate on MOOC courses or the demographics, which are mostly educated citizens of industrialized nations.  But who is right?  Are MOOCs heaven sent, or angels in disguise?

Missing the Point
While it is true that high completion rates are better than low completion rates, this is far from being the whole story.   If we look at the absolute number of students that complete a course then the picture changes.  I enjoyed participating in the first AI MOOC offered by Thrun and Norvig, which attracted over 100K participants.  Of those, only a little over 20K (if I recall correctly) completed the course.  If we look only at percentages, it would be easy to call that a failure.  But look again and see that over 20,000 people completed a full-length introductory course on AI, which included challenging homework and tests!  20K+ people were able to take that knowledge with them and begin applying it to problems around them. 

And what of those who didn't?  An exit poll would best address this question, but we can speculate.  Many likely realized that they didn't have the time.  Others realized that the coursework was beyond their currently level and more prereqs would be needed.  Still others may have joined with no intention of completing the course.  They may have joined simply to audit the lectures.  Or perhaps they joined so that they could download the lectures to their hard-drive for later when they do have time.  There are many reasons to not complete a course, but the beauty of a well-designed MOOC is that the number of drop outs does not change the experience for those who do complete the course.  In other words, what's the big deal?

Finding a Lost World
One of the missions of the founders of MOOCs is to educate many of the marginalized across the world who would never have access to this information.  This goal may not be completely realized yet, but this does not mean failure either.  Columbus did not fail when his hope of finding a new route to India did not pan out.  Instead, he encountered a lost world and changed history forever.

I speak from experience when I say that MOOCs are changing the lives of people by opening doors and expanding their minds.  Perhaps already-educated suburbanites are not the target market of Coursera founders, but reaching the untapped potential of housewives, retirees, students who got the wrong degree, and people with demanding jobs (or kids) may be equally exciting.  And, I believe in time, the goal of reaching the poor around the globe will also see its day. 

We can all agree that improvements should be made to increase accessibility to the opportunities provided by MOOCs and that more work needs to be done to create greater engagement in these courses.  But, let's not exaggerate these issues to the point of labeling these courses as failures.  Thousands of people around the world have and continue to benefit tremendously from these courses.  The light that a single course switches on in someone's mind may illuminate the world around them for years to come.