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Creating Content for Many to Access a Few

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March 7, 2014

This article originally appeared on PSMag.com on March 6, 2014.

By Todd Murphy

Stanford University President John Hennessy said recently that two words are wrong in MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses). Those words are “massive and open.”

Hennessy’s critique lies in the discouraging retention statistics for MOOCs: Many online course students do not finish the course. Typically half of the students who sign up never show up, and often a dismal four to five percent of students actually finish the coursework.

However, the focus of the debate about online courses should not be on attrition; instead, we should focus on whether MOOCs improve access to higher education, particularly for high school students. The debate then comes down to who is included in the four to five percent who stayed rather than who is among the large percentage of students who left.

I created and ran a MOOC through Coursera in fall 2013: “Everything Is The Same: Modeling Engineered Systems.” The eight-week course is based on a first-year engineering class at Northwestern University.

The class began with 18,000 enrolled students. Only 9,000 ever “came” to class, or logged in. By week eight, only 600 students took the final exam. Of those, only 17 students earned “Distinction,” meaning they not only completed the homework and took the exam, but did experiments at home.

So is the retention rate for my class 17/18,000? Is it 600/18,000—still only a little more than three percent?

Using percentages as the foundation of a discussion of the potential importance of online teaching makes me wonder if such numbers are relevant to understanding the value of MOOCs. Perhaps instead of lamenting the attrition of often empowered students, we should focus on the number of students who benefited from the access MOOCs were intended to provide.

From responses posted in discussion forums, I understand many students took my MOOC for reasons we have come to expect: preparing for job interviews, going back to school, and also for having fun.

Some expressed irritation at the retention debate. For many students, life interfered with their original intention to be fully engaged while the class was running, so they downloaded videos, notes, and homework sets to be looked at later.

But then there was another, smaller group—high school students who took my MOOC in order to get a glimpse of university life.

My MOOC is mathematically intensive for a first-year undergraduate course and challenges our Northwestern students.  High school students generally do not have the technical background to take the course, so navigating the entire class is an accomplishment.

Yet, more than 10 percent of the students who took the final exam were in high school. Notably, some of them were in vocational technology programs in their high schools. And one group of high school students enrolled in Chicago Public Schools took the class as part of an engineering club.

One of those students—a talented, naturally gifted student coming from a low-income family, faced with substantial environmental and social obstacles that have interfered with traditional academic success—applied to Northwestern as a result. I am confident that without the MOOC, he would have thought Northwestern and other top institutions were out of his reach for a college experience.

Since the founding of Coursera in 2011 and EdX in 2012, MOOCs were intended to expand access to non-traditional students, and certainly getting high school students to apply to the university is a start.

But challenges remain for non-traditional students to have access to online courses. MOOC students need to have access to broadband Internet—reliably and during non-school hours. Not all public libraries offer this and not every home has it, even though many high school students have access to wireless Internet through their cell phones.

President Barack Obama’s plans for mobile broadband may address this gap, particularly combined with efforts like those of Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel.

Moving forward, MOOCs need to be designed for mobile devices. And the content needs to be reliable on mobile technology. Even with reliable Internet access, other costs can arise.

My course had free course notes, but included three at-home experiments (that all had to be completed for “Distinction”). Two could be completed for free with common household goods, but one required purchasing roughly $30 in materials. For many households, $30 is in the financial noise, but for some, $30 could be a significant burden.

What is more, even when a great student has access to content, is engaged by it, and applies for admission as a result, it is not clear that admissions policies at elite schools will be able to respond to performance in a MOOC. The talents needed for my MOOC—and my more traditional Northwestern classroom—are not necessarily the same as those needed for standardized tests, and this may lead to students who would excel in the classroom not necessarily being admitted.

Implicit in John Hennessy’s comments is the idea that a MOOC should deliver classroom content online as effectively as in person, thereby expanding access to the level of rigorous study a student at Stanford enjoys.

While we can debate whether or not online education competes with residential experiences of a traditional campus, there is no question in my mind that MOOCs are about access.

They are as much about higher education’s access to students as they are about students’ access to higher education.

Even if a MOOC only finds and encourages a handful of bright and disciplined students who would have otherwise never gone to university, MOOCs have value. If 10,000 others incidentally get value out of MOOCs, so much the better.

- Todd Murphy is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Northwestern University.