The disruptive impact of transistor radios, the meaning of a £5 note, an imaginary Pearson-Udacity-Starbucks collaboration – the presentations at the #design4learning conference hosted by the Open University in November were varied, creative and thought-provoking. Inevitably perhaps there was much focus on the MOOC phenomenon. Peter de Vries talked excitedly about his team’s experiences at TU Delft, but Ale Armellini from the University of Northampton wasn’t alone in thinking that much so-called “pedagogic innovation” could be described as “old wine in new bottles”.
Innovative or not, with typical dropout rates estimated at 85-95%, some were sceptical about MOOCs’ impact and during the panel discussion hosted by the Higher Education Academy, attention turned to the question of how we might incentivise course completion. Would learners go the whole distance if we dangled a certificate in front of them? Or some credits?
The general feeling was that the kind of people who participated in MOOCs weren’t interested in credits or certificates. They might be retired people looking for something to do with their new-found freedom, or secondary school students getting a taste for what university would be like. And if that’s the case, how important is it that they complete the course? If someone has learned something by participating for 9 weeks out of 10, can that really be seen as a failure?
At this point, let me hold my hands up and admit that I’ve enrolled on several MOOCs, only to drop out without attending a single virtual lecture or completing a single assignment. Personally, the biggest issue I have with MOOCs is the lack of flexibility. Sadly no longer a student and not quite at retirement age, I struggle to find the time to take part in a MOOC which demands several hours of my attention each week. I’m more likely to engage with something like Code Academy where I can dip in and out as my schedule allows.
If I had a pound for every time I’ve said “Every university takes a different approach to implementation”, I would probably be sunning myself in the Bahamas and sipping a pina colada right now, rather than drinking lukewarm tea in Essex. When it comes to Epigeum’s online courses, we see a real spectrum of strategies – from optional resources, to mandatory certificated training or bespoke blended programmes.
For me, the key thing is setting learner expectations and getting the message right. Last week I visited a UK university to discuss plans for implementing our Research Skills Master Programme and my principal contact there described how he envisaged PGRs using the courses. He spoke about PhD students having the opportunity to reflect on their developmental needs and choose those courses most relevant to them. He mentioned the great advantage of online content which PGRs could revisit when they needed to refresh their knowledge. But had that message been communicated to the students? No. Faced with a list of eighteen courses, with no clear instructions or framing materials, students might feel overwhelmed or lost – but that can be rectified with clearly-communicated expectations in the form of a downloadable document, a short video intro or a presentation during induction.
There are universities where the Research Skills courses are compulsory or credit-bearing, where students are expected to pass the end-of-course quiz and print a certificate which then acts as a ticket to a face-to-face workshop – and we’ve seen this work very well. But there are also universities where students are allowed and even encouraged to take a more flexible approach, picking out courses according to their needs and engaging with them at a time and place that suits them, whether that means working through a full course on research ethics or just looking at a couple of screens on presentation skills to pick up some last-minute tips before they walk out on stage at a conference. And if that’s the approach your university takes, then course completion rates obviously won’t tell the full story.
Every university takes a different approach to implementation – kerching! – and therefore each should have its own approach to measuring impact. Completion rates are one measurement, but you can also track how many people have accessed the courses and which screens they have looked at. Perhaps more importantly, using an online survey or setting up a working group to gather feedback from learners can help you to understand more clearly how they are engaging with the content, what they find most useful and what kinds of additional support they might benefit from.