The Coursera dropout

What I oppose is foolish and fact-free hyperbole about MOOC’s, higher education, and technology. I wish pundits would stop declaring that MOOC’s are revolutionary when they are merely interesting (not that there is anything wrong with that).

What’s the Matter with MOOC’s, Siva Vaidhyanathan

Despite my best intentions and efforts, I became a cliched Coursera dropout at the fifth and very last week of my Human-Computer Interaction course. While I feel mildly put to shame next to all the inspirational stories of self-motivation & uncovered geniuses around every corner of the world, I learned ample from my experience in terms of what worked for me and what did not. This was the first MOOC course that I tried in earnest to comply with its rigid schedule and deadlines; prior to this I have been a reverent disciple of opencourseware, and I have been spoiled by he flexibility of video lectures and assignments at your own pace.

So what went wrong? In the end, it boiled down to the

1) method and dynamics of delivery
2) rigid scheduling coupled with lack of infrastructure + the context of everyday life
3) the experimental nature of the assignments + the substantial differential in the depth of quizzes vs. assignments

On 1), the method and dynamics of delivery– simply put, I felt like I was forced to sit through a very awkward one-way conversation in almost every video. I have tremendous respect for Scott Klemmer, prior to this course I watched hours and hours of HCI seminar videos available on iTunesU and you can always tell that you are dealing with a very smart guy every time he appeared on the screen. In a natural setting, he is charismatic, spontaneously clever, human– but sitting by himself in front of a camera, it quite inevitably becomes an awkwardly paced monologue into the camera. This is not a problem endemic to him, I have traversed through numerous other Courseracity videos to the same conclusion. The content of what was spoken on the screen was always interesting on a technical level, but I could always only barely sit through the strange, forced pace of these videos. In the end, I always went back to my various Opencourseware videos which were filmed in physical classrooms and conveyed the real-life charms of the professors, rather than their robotic alter-egoes.

The second point, the constraints of a rigid schedule against real life chaos,  is a dead horse that has been well beaten past its time by the cynics. The dropout rate is abysmally high, often due to the fact that it is just so difficult to keep up with these courses when they run on a very rigid schedule against the chaos of your life– and without the support or motivational pull of an instructor in your proximity. In the first week of instruction, I was flying between Berlin, London, and Taiwan– and it would’ve been quite exhausting for me to complete the peer-evaluated assignments despite my best intentions. If I could complete the assignment the next week, then I would’ve been okay, but alas, that is not the deal of the MOOC’s and their school-like deadlines.

Though I still refuse to believe that it is not something that can be overcome with some good-ol-fashioned will power, and that it is not always the education-provider’s responsibility to make things easy for you, I came out of the course understanding that this should be properly addressed as a limitation to be addressed if we want MOOC’s to reach their full potential. From Audrey Watters @ Hack Education:

While aspiring to learn is, indeed, worth celebrating, I can’t imagine anyone seriously argue that aspiring to learn is sufficient. Yet The Atlantic suggests the low success rates are “a sign of the system’s efficiency.”

And perhaps as these MOOCs are all just experiments – hyped experiments, but experiments nonetheless – we can shrug and say it’s great folks want to learn and, alas, it’s a pity when they don’t. Perhaps. But when we praise the failure to complete a class (a failure to learn) as “efficiency” and simply stop there, then I’m not sure what we’re building with MOOCs even rises to the level of what Dean Dad calls a “useful extra.”

I am on the fence about how much I believe that MOOC’s are somehow failing just because they are only able to retain a meager percentage of their enrollees in each course. After all, they have only been around for less than a year and they are also learning as we are learning– about what constitutes as an effective experience and platform. I have never believed that MOOC’s are the next big thing that revolutionize higher education, but after the class I understood even more of its limitations against real life scenarios. It is simply really difficult to be a student when your primary responsibility in life is not to be a student anymore. Still, I fully believe that these are simply logistics that could be tweaked with some careful imagination.

The third, on the depth of the assignments, is also a favorite point against the MOOC’s. I didn’t go through the pioneered peer evaluation process, so I honestly do not know what that would’ve been like– though I imagine that it would’ve been a rich-enough learning experience simply because you are forced to build something. I cannot comment on whether it is frustrating to rely on peer evaluations, nor whether there is any friction in the logistics or expectations of that process. I opted for the quizzes-only track because of my schedule and found that it was it was a very uninvolved way to test my knowledge. There was a huge gap in the level of involvement between assignments and quizzes. The assignments took up huge portions of your life while the quizzes barely skimmed the surface– does it have to be this way? It seems like there ought to be a remedial middle ground. The assignments from the opencourseware were usually a crystallization of years of real-life instructional experience and built on the mistakes and feedback of previous students; even though Courseracity assignments are very often borrowed from these professors’ classroom ones, they had an unmistakable experimental component given the necessary adjustment to the new format.

So, in the end, I became a statistic like many of my fellow “classmates”. Like I said earlier on in the post, I have never been one of the “technolibertarians” (in the wise words of Ian Bogost) that placed unrealistic faith in the transformative power of “MOOC’s”, but I am still grateful that for whatever reasons these “elite” institutions have decided to pour millions to give me an opportunity to expand my world view. At some point, we will need to evaluate whether the millions can be better spent elsewhere to enable opportunities of learning for those most in need— but for now, I am glad that the mere 4 weeks of HCI course gave me a chance to crash the IxDA-SF meeting with less trepidation.


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