Instructional technology / distance education

Essay calls for an end to apologies about MOOC dropouts

Much to the consternation of my wife, I'm not a big fan of apologies. I'm not interested in hearing public figures apologize. And I don't generally want people to apologize to me: if you've done me wrong, well, just don't do it again. The damage is done and we all need to move on. Even with my kids, I'd rather have them promise to try not to do something again, than apologize for doing it. (Note to parents: The jury is still out on this as a parenting strategy.)

My personal anti-apology bias aside, though, there really is one thing that you absolutely don't need to apologize for: dropping out of my MOOC.

By way of background: I’m currently teaching the second offering of a massive open online course about metadata for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, offered through Coursera.

One of the concerns heard from faculty, back when MOOCs were a new idea (all of two years ago), was that they couldn’t possibly keep up with the barrage of emails that would result from having thousands of students. But my experience has been that a MOOC actually results in surprisingly few emails, given that my baseline was the email-to-student ratio from my “traditional” classroom courses. Of the emails I receive from students in my MOOC, however, one of the most common types is the apology for dropping out.

In these emails, complete strangers introduce themselves to me, explain that they were taking my MOOC and enjoying it very much, but that they had to drop out. These individuals were always very apologetic, and expressed regret, remorse, and not a little guilt over having to drop the course.

One student had taken on new responsibilities at work. One student’s family life had become too busy to accommodate time for the course. One student was going to be traveling to a remote part of the world with limited Internet access for several weeks in the middle of the course. One student had a parent who died. Work-life balance was invoked by several students. In other words: life intervened, as it does.

The first two or three emails like this that I received, I thought: “Boy, these students really don’t get it. If they’d just dropped out and not said anything, I would never have noticed. They’re fundamentally misunderstanding how MOOCs work.”

And it’s true, I would never have noticed, not with north of 14,000 active students.

I received emails like this once or twice a week throughout the duration of the first offering of the eight-week course, and the same is holding true for the second. And while that amounts to a vanishingly small percentage of the students in the course, I’m sad that these particular students dropped out. In part this is because, out of the faceless sea of students, these individuals suddenly emerged with names and life stories and tragedies. But in part it’s because, if it weren't for these life stories and tragedies, I feel certain that these students would have completed the course, and done well in it.

MOOCs are a relatively new development in online teaching and learning, and research on them is still emerging. But a very interesting research agenda is evolving  to articulate a classification of student “engagement trajectories.” This work shows that the largest group of those registering for a MOOC are “no-shows”: people who register for but never login to the course. The smallest group are those who actively participate in and complete the course. There’s also a large group of students who “disengage”: students who start the course, but whose level of engagement (viewing videos, participating in the discussion forums, etc.) decreases throughout the course. Some of these students disengage completely, and can be considered “dropouts.” Some students simply “audit”: watch videos, but don’t participate in the discussion forums or do the assignments. These categories emerge as a result of each individual student’s engagement decisions.

A common (and I believe justified) criticism of MOOCs, and of online courses in general, is that they favor the self-motivated student. Most MOOCs are free, so money is not on the table. Most MOOCs are not for credit, so a grade is not on the table. Most MOOCs are not part of a larger program of study, so graduation is not on the table. The external motivations traditionally embedded in postsecondary education do not, for the most part, apply to MOOCs. And in the absence of external motivations, only the internally motivated will thrive.

And those for whom life did not intervene.

The absence of external motivations is one of the best features of MOOCs. What instructor wouldn’t want a class full of internally motivated students? What student wouldn’t want to be free from grades and tuition, and the pressures that come along with them?

Before I taught my MOOC, I took one as a student: Introduction to Astronomy, taught by Ronen Plesser at Duke University, through Coursera. I stopped doing the homework after week three, because my algebra is, let’s just say, a little rusty and the homework simply became too time-consuming for me. I do not apologize for auditing Dr. Plesser’s course; I got out of it what I wanted, which was eight weeks of intellectual enjoyment. I do not believe that Dr. Plesser needs to apologize for the students that disengaged or audited; every individual student makes their own engagement decisions. And I do not believe that Coursera or any MOOC provider needs to apologize for low completion rates of the MOOCs that they host; the absence of external motivations is one of the best features of MOOCs.

Though I disengaged from the homeworks for Introduction to Astronomy, I watched every video for the course, and I believe that I got a lot out of it. Could I have gotten more out of it? Certainly. Did I get enough out of it to satisfy me? Yes. Given the absence of external motivations, there was no penalty for me to disengage and audit the course. So it’s ironic that in thinking like an instructor while teaching my MOOC, I forgot to think like a student.

Here’s part of what I wrote in reply to these first few students’ emails: “MOOCs aren't graded or for credit, so there's absolutely no penalty for dropping out – you won't fail, you just won't receive a certificate of completion.”

But after receiving a few more emails like this, I realized that I was the one who really didn’t get it. It wasn’t these students who were fundamentally misunderstanding MOOCs, it was me. These students were never in it for the certificate of completion; they were in it for the personal edification. These students weren’t concerned about receiving a failing grade; they felt that they had failed themselves.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into these emails from students. But I don’t think so.

You don’t need to apologize for having a life. You don’t need to apologize for getting a new job; congratulations. You don’t need to apologize for your parent dying; my condolences. You don’t need to apologize for traveling to a remote part of the world with limited internet access for several weeks; I’m envious.

So I say unto these students, and all students enrolled in a MOOC: you don't need to apologize for dropping out. If you started a MOOC intending to engage with it, then I, as an educator, have nothing but admiration for you. You started a course for the personal edification, in the absence of the traditional external motivations of postsecondary education. Even if you don’t complete it, I have nothing but admiration for you. I think I speak for all educators everywhere when I say: we wish we had more students like you in our traditional courses.

Jeffrey Pomerantz teaches in the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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Essay calls for end to charging online students same as in-person students

Several hundred incoming Georgia Tech students made history this spring as the first cohort in the institution’s online master’s program in computer science.  While today it is hardly noteworthy that a prestigious university like Georgia Tech is offering a graduate degree online, the university’s decision to price it more than 80 percent less than the on-campus option is truly groundbreaking. At $6,600, the online program is one-sixth the cost of the on-campus one, a fact that higher education leaders should be examining closely.

Georgia Tech’s decision is indeed significant, given that more than 60 percent of large public U.S. universities typically charge online students a campus-equivalent tuition rate, while 36 percent command a premium, according to a 2013 report from the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and the Learning House. Not only is Georgia Tech challenging the status quo in online tuition pricing, but it is also shedding new light on the true cost of serving online students.

These days, two out of three students attending on-campus programs receive some form of generous subsidy or discount, while their online counterparts, generally ineligible for such assistance, foot the full sticker price even though they do not benefit from all the amenities of the revered campus life, do not take up parking spaces, inflict wear and tear on facilities, or take up as much instructor time. Instead of embracing these online learners who produce considerable incremental revenue for institutions, colleges and universities are penalizing them, which has troubling implications not only for students’ bank accounts, but also for universities’ own vaunted views of fairness. By introducing e-tuition, which is appropriately lower than the on-campus price tag, universities could easily capitalize on the scale, brand extension, and new revenue synonymous with online learning while maintaining far more equitable pricing for online students.

In his book Generation on a Tightrope, Woodrow Wilson Foundation head Arthur Levine writes that most nontraditional, online students shop around before choosing a university at which to enroll.  He says they look for low tuitions and fees, but more importantly, they want to be treated fairly and pay a fee commensurate with the benefits they obtain from an institution. However, this is not what is typically happening. For example, students in the Villanova University’s online MBA program will pay nearly 25 percent more for their education than their on-campus counterparts, $1,240 per credit hour versus $1,000 for residential students. While the differential may be less profound at other institutions, the fact that such a disparity exists is confounding and unfair.

Although a rapidly increasing number of universities see online programs as a means of expanding their footprint and a way to capitalize on the principles of scale — adding more students without adding more on-the-ground resources to serve them — the pricing dilemma has not been fairly addressed. 

Some universities, including several in Texas that Academic Partnerships represents, have found another way. Early adopters of online degree programs, Texas public universities have enrolled thousands of students at prices far lower than comparable on-campus options, substantially increasing their market share within two years and retaining that lead six years later.  One such institution now boasts the nation’s largest online public nursing program, while another is home to one of the largest online education programs in all of American public higher education.

Several of these universities have seen their online enrollments increase the total student body by more than 30 percent, with the new revenue generated by online programs allowing some of them to offer faculty raises as other campuses in their systems have tightened budgets.

Though there is some cost associated with launching online degree programs, it pales in comparison to the benefits they can bring as students from all over the world converge through the cloud. Program enrollment of a few hundred can scale by five- or tenfold at a very low incremental cost to the university, while, at the same time, on-campus enrollment increases due to universitywide brand-building driven by intense online marketing effort associated with a successful online rollout.

While higher education is struggling with leaner budgets, the growing wave of digital students creates a meaningful financial opportunity for institutions, especially when online programs are priced at fair e-tuition rates that drive scale. Online learning allows institutions to expand into new markets, extend their brand and prestige beyond regional borders, while at the same time allowing them to tap into legions of new students, building their global alumni base and seeding future fund-raising efforts.

The benefits of online learning are many, and so too are the beneficiaries. E-tuition is both a boon to students and a potential windfall for higher education.

Randy Best is the chairman and CEO of Academic Partnerships (AP). AP strongly encourages its partner universities to offer e-tuition rates to students enrolled in online degree programs.


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