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The coming challenge for MOOCs

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MOOCs have undoubtedly come an awfully long way in 2013 with interest in courses, from both institutions and students, growing at a remarkable pace.  I’m an unabashed fan of the format so see this growth as a tremendous thing for society.  There are however going to be some challenges for the industry in 2014.

The first of these is the completion rate of courses.  Last summer the Times Educational Supplement reported completion rates on the average MOOC course was around 7%, which is something the industry will have to work hard to improve upon if they are to fulfill their potential.  Coursera announced recently for instance that they will be looking to support and develop offline study groups to help learners support one another through the course.

Initially the learning hubs will be offered for free to students, with Coursera teaming up with local organisations willing to provide such spaces free of charge.  The largest such partner thus far is the US Department of State.

They’re also hoping to work more closely with employers so that the online courses become part of an employees professional development.  Central to this move you would imagine is therefore the utility of the courses themselves.  Employers will only be willing to back MOOCs if they can be shown to deliver excellent learning to employees.

A new study therefore should be of concern to MOOC platforms.  It suggested that students undertaking online courses performed worse than those taking an offline equivalent.

Although students who take online courses in community colleges tend to be better prepared and more motivated than their classmates, a study by Di Xu and Shanna Smith Jaggars of Columbia University shows that the online format has a significant negative impact on students’ persistence in sticking with courses and on their course grades.

For the typical student, taking a course online rather than in person would decrease his or her likelihood of course persistence by 7 percentage points, and if the student continued to the end of the course, would lower his or her final grade by more than 0.3 points on a 4-point scale.

The researchers suggest that a substantial reason behind this is that students lack both time management skills and independent learning skills, both of which are key to successful completion of online courses.

If MOOCs are to fulfill their undoubted potential therefore, maybe they need to provide more support for students in those areas.

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