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Multilitteratus Incognitus

Traversing the path of the doctoral degree

MOOC Completion...according to whom?

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The other day I had an interesting (but brief exchange) with Kelvin Bentley on twitter about MOOC completion.  This isn't really a topic that I come back to often, given that completion-rates for MOOCs, as a topic, seems to have kind of died down, but it is fun to come back to it. To my knowledge, no one has come up with some sort of taxonomy of the different degrees of completion of a MOOC†.

But let me rewind for a second.  How did we get to the topic of MOOC completion?  Well, I've been attempting to make my extended CV more accessible (to me).  In the past, I used a WYSIWYG HTML publishing platform to manage my extended CV‡.  The idea was that I could easily export it and just push it on the web.  In practice, I never did this, and when I changed computers it became a hassle to maintain. So, I moved everything over to google docs for cleanup (and easier updates).  In cleaning up my CV sections (I am not done, btw!), I did make a startling self-discovery. In the time-period 2013-2016, I binged on a lot of xMOOCs!😅  The most notable platforms were Coursera, Edx, Udacity, but there were others such as the now-defunct Janux (Oklahoma University) and Open2Study (Australia Open University), as well as overseas platforms like MiriadaX and FutureLearn.  In the time period 2011-2012 I didn't have a lot of MOOCs, mostly because during this period a lot were cMOOCs and xMOOCs hadn't really spread like wildfire.

This realization now begs the question: "How many did you complete?" (and you guessed it, Kelvin asked it...).  My answer comes in the form of a question "based on whose metrics and measures?".  When you sign up for a paid course (e.g., professional development seminar, college course, certification prep course, etc.) I think that there is an unspoken assumption that the goals of the course mirror, to a greater or lesser extent, the goals of the learner♠.  Can this assumption be something that transfers over into the world of a free MOOC?  I personally don't think so.  I've long said that the course completion metric (as measured by completing all assignments with a passing grade) is a poor metric.  One very obvious reason to me was that people simply window-shop; and since there is no disincentive to unenroll, people don't take that extra step to leave the course formally, as they would with a paid course where they could receive a refund. I've been saying this since xMOOC completion rates were touted as an issue, but few people listened. Luckily it seems that people are changing their minds about that (or just don't care 😜). I guess George Siemen's advice to Dave Cormier holds true for my own rantings and ravings: publish those thoughts in a peer-reviewed journal or they don't exist 🤪 (paraphrased from a recent podcast interview with Dave).

Assuming that we exclude window-shoppers from our list of completion categories♣, what remains?  Well, instead of thinking of distinct categories (which might give us a giant list), let's think of completion in terms of whose perspective we are examining.  On the one extreme, we have the learner's perspective.  The extreme learner's perspective is characterized by total control by the learner as to what the goals are. In this perspective, the learner can be in a course and complete a certain percentage of what's there and still consider the course as done. Why?  The learner might have prior knowledge, and what they are looking for is to supplement what they already know without going through the hoops of any or all assessments in the course. They've probably evaluated the materials in the course, but if they already know something, why spent a lot of time on something already known? Or, an item that should be done to obtain 100% completion is only available in the paid version (some FutureLearn courses are like this), and are inaccessible to learners on the free tier.

On the other extreme, we have the perspective of the course designer. This is the perspective that most research studies on completion seem to adopt. The course designer is working with an abstracted learner population, with abstracted goals.  The outcomes of the course might be based on actual research into a learner group, they might be based on the intuition of the course designer, or they might just be whatever the course designer has an interest in preparing (sort of like the Chef's soup of the day, it's there, you can have it, but it doesn't mean that this is what you came into the restaurant for).  In a traditional course (the ones you pay and get credentialed for) it makes sense that a learner could simply go along for the (educational) ride because they are paying and (presumably) they've done some research about the course, and it meets their goals. In a free offering, why would a learner conform to the designer's assumptions as to what the learner needs? Especially when a free offering can (and probably does) gather the interest of not just aspiring professionals, but people in the profession (who presumably have some additional or previous knowledge), as well as hobbyists who are free-range learning?

Given those two extremes of the spectrum, I would say that there is a mid-point.  The mid-point is where the power dynamic between the learner and the designer is at equilibrium.  The educational goals (and what hoops the learner is willing to jump through) 100% coincide with what the designer designed. Both parties are entering the teaching/learning relationship on equal footing.  If you lean over a little to one side (learner side), the designer might consider the course incomplete, and if you lean over to the other side (the designer side) the learner might start to feel a bit annoyed because they have to jump through hoops that they feel are not worth their while. Some might begrudgingly do it, others not, it really depends on what the carrot is at the end of that hoop.  For me, a free certificate or badge did the trick most times. The threat of being marked as a non-completer (or more recently the threat of losing access to the course altogether 😭) however does not motivate me to "complete" the course on the designer's terms.

That said, what about my experience?  Well... my own behaviors have changed a bit over the years.  When xMOOCs first hit the scene I was willing to go through and jump through all the hoops for the official completion mark.  I did get a certificate at the end; and even though it didn't really carry much (or any?) weight, it was a nice memento of the learning experience. Badges were custom made (if there were badges), and the certificates were each unique to the MOOC that offered them.   Back in the day, Coursera had certificates of completion (you earned the minimum grade to pass), and certificates of completion with distinction (you basically earned an "A").  It was motivating to strive for that, even though it didn't mean much. It was also encouraging when MOOC content was available beyond the course's official end, so you could go back and review, re-experience, or even start a bit late.  As we know, things in the MOOC world changed over the years.  Certificates became something you had to pay for.  Sometimes even the assessment itself was something you had to pay for - you can see it in the MOOC but you can't access it.  Peer essay grading on coursera wasn't something that I found particularly useful, but I was willing to jump through the hoops if it meant a free moment at the end of the course (achievement, badge, certificate, whatever). Once things started having definitive start- and end- dates♪ , and content disappeared after that when certificates (which still we're worth much to the broader world) started costing money, the jumping through the same silly hoops (AES, CPR, MCEs, etc.) it just didn't feel worthwhile to go above my own learning goals and jump through someone else's hoops.

So, did I complete all those MOOCs?  Yup, but based on my own metrics, needs, and values.

What are your thoughts on MOOC completion?  Do you have a different scale? Or perhaps defined categories?





Marginalia:
† There may be some article there somewhere that I've missed, but in my mission to read all of the MOOC literature that I can get access to, I haven't found anything.

‡ What's an extended CV?  It's something that contains everything and the kitchen sink.  That workshop I did back in 1999 for that defunct software?  Yup, that's there...because I did it, and I need a way to remember it. It's not necessarily about the individual workshops, but about the documenting of the learning journey.  The regular CV is somewhat cleaner.

♠ Maybe this assumption on my part is wrong, but I can't really picture very many reasons (other than "secret shopper") that someone would pay money to sign-up for a course that doesn't meet their goals.

♣ Window-shoppers I define as people who enroll to have a look around, but either have no specific educational goals they are trying to meet (e.g., lookie-loos), or have goals to meet, but they deem the MOOC to not meet them (e.g., "thanks, but not what I am looking for"). Either way, they don't learn anything from the content or peers in the MOOC, but at the same time, they don't unenroll since there is no incentive to do so (e.g., a refund of the course course).

♪ e.g., module tests deactivating after the week was over and you couldn't take them - AT ALL if you missed that window
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MOOC Completion rates matter?

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A while back I came across a post by Martin Weller titled MOOC Completion rates DO matter. Because my Pocket account was overflowing with some great content (including this one), I thought it was high time that I read this article ;-).  In this short post Martin writes that completion rates do matter in MOOCs, taking the opposite view of some cMOOC folks. 

He goes on to tackle the analogy that MOOCs are like newspapers and that people don't necessarily read all sections, or even visit all sections.  As someone who doesn't really read physical newspapers that often any more (I only bought one last summer so I could get the Asterix comic that came with it), the analogy only gets me so far.

I don't know what sort of analogy is valid for MOOC participant behaviors.  After pondering this a bit, I don't think that there is one analogy that will encompass all behaviors.  At the beginning of the MOOC I think the analogy of window shopping is most appropriate for everything leading up to the conclusion of the first (or maybe even the second) week of the course.  I think that there are many people who are curious about the course and join it, regardless of their intents for the course.  Coursera and EdX have gotten a little smarter these past few months and query their users to see what their intents are for the course right at the beginning of the course.  Are they interested in just browsing the content? browsing the content and taking some quizzes? doing the assignments? going full force into the course?  I think this is smart, because at the onset of the course you have idea of what the participants in the course are intending to do (assuming that they are truthful in their answers).

This only goes so far, however.  Back in the days of Change11 I had pondered about having a nag-system (for lack of a better term) that would keep track of user logons in the system, and track their patterns of participation.  If they weren't active the system would send them a reminder email about the course, and see if they would like to unenroll, so there would be a perpetual Opt-In function for people who are not active. I think at this point I would also augment the system with highlights of upvoted posts and interesting discussions happening so as to entice people to come in and say something (or at least if they don't contribute something, they will be seen by the system as being active). Lurking isn't bad, everyone lurks from time to time, it's not possible to fully engaged all the time, in each course you take.  You do need time to let things steep.  Especially in MOOCs you might have multiple conflicting priorities and need to put the MOOC on the back burner for a few days. That said, the point of the system is to separate those who are passive participants (aka lurkers), from those who are checked out (and not coming back), and from those who are on leave (not active for a week, but intend on coming back).

Then, at the end, it would be useful to have participants self-assess.  Those who took the initial survey should be surveyed again to see if they met their own expectations, or if they did or did not meet their own levels of engagement in the course.  The other points to ponder are theses:
  • Under whose rubric do we measure completion? The course designer certainly has some ideas about what it means to complete a course, however in an open course you don't control for enrollment, so you might have some people who are very under-prepared for the course, and some where the course is too basic for them.
  • Does completion equate with learning?  These two aren't necessarily the same. Going back to the case where the participants already have the knowledge, but don't know it here's something from my own experience:  I was in two courses, one in coursera, and one in edx.  I signed up to learn something new, only to find out at the end of Week 1 that things seemed a bit basic.  I ended up taking the quizzes for these two courses in advance for subsequent weeks (they were available) and I passed with high 90s without viewing any subsequent lectures past week 1.  I completed the courses, but did I learn anything (new)?  The answer is no.
  • Who does completion matter to? I know institutions who subsidize these want to see some ROI, but ultimate, in an open course (where there is no formal grade or credit for that grade), doesn't the participant sit in the drive seat to determine whether they've completed the course or not (to their own satisfaction)?

Do completion rates matter?  I think they do, however in certain specific contexts.  Not all contexts are the same!  What do you think?




comic from: http://completelyseriouscomics.com/comics/2011-01-29-Pondering.jpg
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The finish line

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This is it!

Today is the day!

Spring classes are over. The papers have been written. They've been proof-read and edited many, many, many times, and the projects have been completed.

The papers will be handed in today!

I suppose that there is that issue of that one final exam that I have to do for next week, but eh...I'll celebrate today :-)
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