By conventional education standards, UW-Madison’s first round of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, had an extremely rough start.
The interest was indeed massive, with more than 135,000 students worldwide signing up for the four classes rolled out last year, the school’s first dive into higher education’s new frontier.
But once the initial euphoria subsided, officials were hit with a more sobering number: just 4,309 finished and earned a certificate of completion. That’s 3.2 percent.
The numbers are in line with similarly tiny completion rates for MOOCs offered at other universities nationally and continue a debate in higher education: Do completion rates matter in this new world?
“There’s a lot of handwringing about completion,” said Joshua Morrill, senior evaluator in the university’s academic technology office. “I don’t think that’s where it’s at. I think it’s providing the information that people need, making it modular enough that people can go in and out easily and come back to it in the future. It’s thinking differently about education.”
He pointed to the example of a MOOC the university offered about video games and learning. A lot of participants were parents eager to learn more about the gizmos their kids play with and what educational value might come from them. Most of the parents likely never finished the MOOC, he said, but got a quick, easily accessible education, and familiarity with UW-Madison, that helped them in their daily lives.
Students don’t pay for MOOCs and don’t get credit for them, removing the incentive to finish. Anyone with a good Internet connection and computer can take them, removing geographic and socioeconomic barriers.
When the MOOCs were rolled out, then-University of Wisconsin System president Kevin Reilly pointed to the “FOMO factor,” or “fear of missing out.” Students can choose from an ever-growing number of courses offered by universities throughout the world.
Coursera, the private company that UW-Madison partners with to deliver the MOOCs, now offers more than 400 courses from 100 universities worldwide, including nine of the 14 schools in the newly expanded Big 10 Conference.
UW-Madison is going forward with another round of six new MOOCs that will start next January but with what it calls significant changes based on what it learned from the first time.
For one thing, the courses will be shorter. And while the reach will remain worldwide, course subjects will be targeted specifically to Wisconsin residents. The six subjects are framed around issues of sustainability and health, with one course focused on Wisconsin environmental pioneer Aldo Leopold and another on the Great Lakes.
Morrill said to expect kick-off events for new MOOCs in state and partnerships with public libraries and theater groups in Wisconsin, who will work with UW-Madison professors to help raise the profile of the courses for state residents and in turn increase the organizations’ own profiles.
Wisconsin residents made up fewer than 5 percent of the students in the first round of MOOCs, dwarfed by residents of both U.S. coasts and many foreign countries. Britain, Brazil and India led the way.
Going forward, the university will be less interested in sheer number of people who sign up for MOOCs and more focused on who signs up.
“We’re not going to exclude the world, but if we (reach too far) at the expense of the state, that’s a problem,” Morrill said.
The first round of courses were six to eight weeks, and dropouts increase significantly after four weeks, Morrill said. Hence the move to four-week classes in the next round.
Professors also came to understand that their offerings needed to be less comprehensive survey courses and more a series of “greatest hits,” with each week’s course content able to stand on its own for students with limited time or interest in the topic.
Morrill said it’s understood that most students will MOOC-hop, popping into different courses as time allows and their interest is piqued, and move on without the guilt one might normally feel about dropping out before the course is over.
The promise of MOOCs as an educational equalizer that would bring nontraditional students into the university’s fold did not fully materialize.
Of all MOOC participants in the first round, 58 percent were men. Two of the courses, on human evolution and globalizing higher education, had equal or greater interest among women, while MOOCs on video games and financial markets slanted heavily male.
Participants were already well-educated, with three-quarters holding at least a bachelor’s degree. Despite enrollees being from dozens of foreign countries, the overwhelming majority reported being fluent or nearly so in English.
Morrill said the demographics are similar to those of most universities offering MOOCs through Coursera.
One major issue, he said, comes from the somewhat limited availability of high-speed Internet access not just in developing countries but also some parts of the U.S., rural America in particular.
It’s a problem the university can do little about worldwide. But in Wisconsin, the university intends to help bridge that “digital divide” in the next round by partnering with public libraries throughout the state, which often have high-speed, reliable Internet connections in communities where people may lack them in their homes.