Friday, March 21, 2014

Like Reading a Newspaper

I've stated this in many times in talks and interviews, but I can't find it anywhere in my actual text-based materials, so let's get it on the record so people can have something to cite, should they want to.

It has to do with MOOC completion rates, and the oft-cited criticism that MOOCs have low completion rates. Here's a citation:

The average completion rate of xMOOCs is 7.6%, with a minimum of 0.67% and a maximum of 19.2%. The 19.2% appears to be an outlier from Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, although it may be worth figuring out how they got their rate so high.

Other people have argued that there is a very lartge number of people who sign up and never return, and that completion rates are much better if we look at the numbner of people participating after the first rate. But that's fine; let's stipulate that completgion rates are abysmally low.

My response is that this argument misunderstands the nature of MOOCs (and certainly, MOOCs as we've designed them in the connectivist world).

The traditional course is designed like a book - it is intended to run in a sequence, the latter bits build on the first bits, and if you start a book and abandon it p[art way through there is a real sense in which you can say the book has failed, because the whole point of a book is to read it from beginning to end.

But our MOOCs are not designed like that. Though they have a beginning and an end and a range of topics in between, they're not designed to be consumed in a linear fashio the way a book it. Rather, they're much more like a magazine or a newspaper (or an atlas or a city map or a phone book). The idea is that there's probably more content than you want, and that you're supposed to pick and choose from the items, selecting those that are useful and relevant to your present purpose.

And so here's the response to completion rates: nobody ever complained that newspapers have low completion rates. And yet no doubt they do,. probably far below the 'abyssmal' MOOC completion rates (especially if you include real estate listings and classified ads). People don't read a newspaper to complete it, they read a newspaper to find out what's important.

This, indeed, is the model for most media, and most things. I've made similar analogies many times:

- nobody says the restaurant has failed if a person doesn't eat all the foods in a buffet
- nobody says a map has failed if a person doesn't look at or reference every street name in the gazeteer
- nobody says that a hockey or football game is a failure if you didn't watch every play from every player beginning to end
- nobody says a grocery store is a failure because a person doesn't complete the food selection available
- nopbody says a television channel is a failure if people don't watch the entire run of p[rogramming from sign-on to the national anthem
- nobody says a Lego set is a failure if a person does not build every model in the guidebook

It's actually very rare to find media of any sort that is intended to be consumed in its entirely. Most of the time, in most things, we pick and choose what is important to us. That is the normal mode of interacting with content, and it is the normal mode of interacting with a MOOC.

I know that the book-people think completion is very important. But theirs is in fact a very small words. And even in the case of books, nobody thinks a library a failure if you don't read everything in the collection, or an author a failure if you don't read their entire corpus. And just so with MOOCs.

Update March 23, 2014 - some Twitter interactions

‏@mweller Mar 21: Like reading a newspaper - @downes with a nice MOOC analogy (blogged partly at my request, ta Stephen) http://halfanhour.blogspot.ca/2014/03/like-reading-newspaper.html …

@mdeimann Mar 21: but still such an argument does not work for education where there is a lot of obligatory content to know.

‏@mweller Mar 21: yes, i don't think Stephen is saying all education needs to be this way, but for moocs as he envisages them

‏@mdeimann Mar 21: ok MOOCs should not be portrayed as an opposite to trad. education but as vehicle that helps engaging people into it.

@downes Mar 22

Why? Why shouldn't MOOCs, especially as I see them, not be considered an alternative to traditional education? People talk of necessary content that must be learned. Even given this, why can't a MOOC provide it? Why must we be led? Moreover, where is the argument that there is core content that must be learned in any (let alone all) courses? The lack of common standards, and difficulty transferring credit, argue the is no core content, and if not cMOOCs can replace traditional ed


‏@mdeimann Mar 21: but still such an argument does not work for education where there is a lot of obligatory content to know.

@mweller Mar 21: yes, i don't think Stephen is saying all education needs to be this way, but for moocs as he envisages them

‏@mdeimann Mar 21: ok MOOCs should not be portrayed as an opposite to trad. education but as vehicle that helps engaging people into it.

22 Mar 2014 @downes

Even if these are pre-requisites there isn't eactly one way to study them, not exactly one body of materials to study. and even if there is exactly one way to study (still not granted), the evidence is most universities get it wrong... I recall my own calculus class in uni, for example - a prof with a thick accent, an impenetrable text, chaotic tutorials.  But in fact, knowledge has neither an internal order nor a socially constructed order; there are at best conventions...