TMTpost: Where Are MOOC Platforms Heading For?

Perhaps, the high dropout rate is only an indicator of some of the innate defects of MOOCs, which are the fundamental reasons why many colleges and professors began to cast doubt on MOOCs.

Editor’s Note:
It takes only a few years for MOOCs to become popular overnight and then discarded by users. In this article, Chang Ning, at first a user of MOOCs and then a researcher on MOOCs, spent two months in finishing this article. After taking part in a series of trainings, meetings and seminars on MOOC as a college professor, Chang Ning came to find out the answers to several key questions: Why is dropout rate so high in any MOOC platform? Why can’t MOOC platforms attract a good number of long-term users with lots of brilliant courses?

Two months ago, driven by the increasingly requirement of my lecturing and my own interest, I began to study a course on statistics and data analysis through a MOOC (massive open online courses) platform.

However, after following the course for three consecutive days, I was interrupted by all kinds of odds and quitted the course at last. I did want to resume the course several times, but I never found enough time.

Besides me, lots of MOOCers might have encountered similar situations: although MOOCers generally signed up and followed courses with great zeal, most of them ended up quitting the course due to the lack of motivation, laziness and distraction in everyday lives, which contributed to the high dropout rate overall.

Such phenomenon is worthy of our discussion and reflection. Last August, a major Chinese MOOC platform conducted a survey and found that although the number of registered users jumped to 650,000 last year, the overall dropout rate reached as high as 75%: half of registered users quitted all the courses, and only a quarter of registered users finished all the courses.

Then how is the situation abroad? A well-circulated survey among foreign media suggested that 90% of registered MOOCers dropped the course halfway, while Pennsylvania University’s research suggested that the dropout rate already reached 96%.

Despite slight margin of error, both Chinese and overseas MOOC platforms are suffering from the high dropout rate.

1. The rising concern over MOOCs

At first, the developers of MOOC have attempted to help ordinary people get access to high-quality courses and enjoy higher education via MOOCs. MOOCs were entitled so great a purpose as to be applauded by the media as “overthrowing traditional education”, “lowering the cost of education”, or “promoting equality of education”, etc. However, when MOOCs really became part of our lives and even a new business, problems ensued. That’s why three years after the idea MOOCs were first put forward, the media began to cast doubt on it.

A case in point is The New York Times’ shift of attitudes towards MOOC. It declared 2012 to be “The Year of MOOCs”, and spoke high of MOOCs in headline articles at the beginning of 2013. Later on, however, four out of five scholars published articles on NYT and suggested that the development of MOOCs would be hampered by the innate defect of MOOC itself. Sarcastically, NYT again focused its attention on MOOC at the end of 2013 and published a series of articles on the defects and deficiencies of MOOCs. These articles stated quite clear that the effect of MOOCs was far from satisfactory and further called on the public to figure out a better way for college educators to make use of the Internet.

Meanwhile, San Jose State University conducted an experiment to test the dropout rate of three of its online courses on a MOOC platform. Although these courses were attached great importance and announced by the Governor of California in a press conference, the effect of these courses remained far from satisfactory and most participants failed to grasp all details of the courses as they would have done in classrooms.

At the same time, criticism over MOOCs began to rise. Michael Sander, a well-known professor on justice from Harvard University, compared the abuse of MOOCs as “the compromise of college education” in an open letter. 60% of students and teaching staff of Amherst College voted against putting their courses online on MOOC platforms. Moreover, 58 professors from Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences jointly signed a letter and ask the faculty to set up a special committee to cope with issues caused by MOOCs.

Both the media’s shift of attitudes and rising problems colleges encountered as they put their courses on MOOC platforms suggested that people have calmed down and begun to rethink the meaning of MOOCs to the mankind.

However, it is exactly around this time that Chinese MOOC platforms began to emerge one after another.

2. MOOC platforms were established either by universities or private parties

Coursera, Udacity and edX are currently the three biggest MOOC platforms around the world. While Coursera and edX were established by colleges (the former by Stanford University, and the latter by Harvard University and MIT), Udacity was set up as a commercial platform by Sebastian Thrun, the developer of Google’s automatic driving technology.

While Coursera and edX set pretty high standards and mainly cooperated with key universities in China, Udacity hasn’t entered China yet. While Coursera has already cooperated with universities such as Peking University, Nanjing University and Shanghai Jiao Tong University (CJTU), edX’s standards are even higher and only provide a limited number of courses from PKU and THU.

Driven by the booming of MOOCs overseas, a number of Chinese MOOC platforms were set up one after another. These platforms can also be classified into two categories: some were established by universities, such as THU’s MOOC, CJTU’s CNMOOC, PKU’s Chinese MOOCs, others were semi-commercial and semi-official, including iCourse, Guokr MOOC, MOOC China, Zhihuishu (wisdom tree) MOOC, Chaoxing MOOC, etc. Some of these platforms have already teamed up with Coursera and edX and been sharing their courses.

Although MOOC platforms keep emerging in China, all of them are suffering from high dropout rate and thinking hard to find methods for keeping MOOCers following their courses and ensuring high learning quality and efficiency on MOOCs.

Perhaps, the high dropout rate is only an indicator of some of the innate defects of MOOCs, which are the fundamental reasons why many colleges and professors began to cast doubt on MOOCs. Some of the problems college professors might be worrying about may include: How to strike a balance between their cost and return? How can the quality of education on MOOC platforms equal that in classrooms? How can MOOCers’ credits on MOOC be acknowledged by the market, colleges and society? How can MOOCs replace face-to-face education?

Worse still, the development of MOOCs might be further blocked since no effective business model has been set up to maintain a MOOC platform. There were some attempts: Coursera made profit by charging certificates, Udacity gained money by selling e-courses and conferring e-degrees, and some Chinese MOOC platforms adopted similar approaches to making tiny profit. Still, no effective business model has been found to satisfy both MOOC platform owners and MOOCers.

3. The four inescapable challenges

To help illustrate, I made a sketch of the operation mechanism of MOOCs as follows:

As is shown in the above diagram, “Course quality” lies at the core of the entire system, “MOOCers’ motivation” is the driving force, “Study quality and effect” is the direct result, “Course certificate” is the indirect result, while “Social recognition” is the ultimate goal. To achieve high social recognition, both the government, enterprises and universities need to overcome their prejudice and recognize MOOCs.

Several pairs of factors in this diagram are inter-related. For example, while “MOOCers’ motivation” is the driving force, adequate “Social recognition” will in turn boost “MOOCers’ motivation”. At the same time, “Course certificate” will be conferred based on a higher standard with the increase of “Social recognition”. Consequently, MOOCers will get aware of the importance of MOOCs and increase their “Study quality and effect”, which will in turn receive higher “Social recognition”. If all these factors function well in the above diagram, then MOOC platforms should have developed quite well.

In reality, however, MOOC platforms face a series of long-term and key challenges, both of which will have negative impact on the development of MOOC platforms.

(1) MOOC platforms and course instructors need do their fair part of the job

Theoretically, since MOOCers signed up and attended courses with great zeal, they should value “Course quality” the most. Harvard professor Eric Mazur once delivered a report at Tsinghua University and suggested that MOOCers paid more attention to the content of a course, not whether a course was in good format or not. If so, then I can say for sure that course developers shouldn’t spare much effort in polishing and improving the format of their courses and what they really need to do is provide useful and good content in their courses.

Now that “Course quality” is the key factor whether a MOOCer likes a course or not, higher standards need to be set up to make sure that the quality of MOOCs are as well-constructed and instructive as those in classrooms. But how? Both MOOC platforms and course instructors need to take on their responsibility and do their own part of the job:

First of all, MOOC platforms need to make detailed course introduction plans and formulated strict selection rules so as to select the most popular and high-quality courses and to recommend these courses to MOOCers.

Secondly, instructors need to devote enough time and effort and carefully design the structure, content of their courses.

Still, what makes a high-quality course? The more view times, or the more eloquent and charming the instructor is? The more sophisticated the course is, or the more lucid and clear? The higher homework quality, or else? MOOC platforms need to really think hard on these issues and decide what the best set of standards they would like to adopt is. No matter how many courses are there on a MOOC platform, MOOCers will inevitably quit if there are few high-quality course there.

(2) Online peer study can’t replace face-to-face interaction after all

To achieve a good study quality, not only should courses be of good quality, MOOCers also need to be motivated enough. One of the key reasons why many MOOCers quit half way is that as the course progressed, they began to feel separate and no sense of belonging. MOOC developers were aware of this fact and carried out “Peer study” function to unite MOOCers of the same course. For example, not only will course instructors review students’ homework, other MOOCers of the same course are also encouraged to take part in and help review homework. Moreover, some platforms would set up a special online summit for MOOCers to communicate. Both methods were used to encourage MOOCers to complete their courses.

However, these methods seemed not to work well considering the low course completion rate. How come? For one thing, online summits can’t, after all, replace face-to-face conversations; for another, the interaction between course instructors and MOOCers remains poor. What’s really lacking and making MOOCers feel separate in is actually interaction between MOOCers and course instructors, not their peers.

“Peer study” function was initially come up with to shoulder course instructors’ responsibility since they don’t have enough time to interact with every MOOCer. In reality, however, interaction with peers can’t fundamentally boost MOOCers’ motivation and, after all, replace that with course instructors.

“A really competent instructor should know that they are not only passing on knowledge to students, but also enthusiasm and effective methods to learn. In this sense, teaching methods should vary a lot for different types of students and a single teaching method is far from enough to teach a bunch of students,” Kean University professor Allen Robins spoke quite frankly in his article on MOOCs on the NYT. Obviously, Professor Allen was speaking highly of face-to-face interaction between course instructors and students.

Of course, an increasing number of people are turning to online education for help and online education has already become the must-trend of future education industry. Yet, there is still a long way to go before online education can replace traditional lecture-style education

After realizing the limitations of online education, Sebastian Thrun, one of the co-founder of Udacity, changed his mind and shift Udacity’s focus from educating the general public and overthrowing traditional education to merely training employees of enterprises.

(3) The impact of “Course certificate” and “Social recognition” on “Study quality and effect”

From the above diagram, we can see very clearly that ideally, if MOOCers are self-motivated enough and MOOCs of high-quality, then MOOCers would have achieved a good “Study quality and effect”. In reality, however, “Course certificate” and “Social recognition” can have a huge impact on the “Study quality and effect” of MOOCers.

(a) Course certificate
Ideally, if course certificate is hard to receive, then those who receives one must have excelled at the course and society should recognize their efforts in getting the certificate. In reality, however, course certificate is quite easy to get, and those who are willing to pay a small sum of money may even get a paper certificate. In this case, getting a certificate means no great deal.

When a course certificate is easy to get, MOOCers will attach lower importance to it, while the value and validity of the certificate will decrease, no wonder social recognition of MOOCs remains low.

As is shown above, “Course certificate” will influence both “Study quality and effect” and “Social recognition”. If course certificate is easy to get, then both MOOCers’ motivation and social recognition will become low. In this case, it is high time MOOC platforms raise their standards to get a course certificate.

(b) Social recognition
Social recognition has a huge impact on the function of the whole MOOCs Dynamics. A higher social recognition will boost MOOCers’ motivation and encourage MOOCers to achieve better “Study quality and effect”.

Although study is fundamentally motivated by one’s own interest, the benefits of learning have a huge impact on people’s motivation.

To achieve high social recognition, governments, enterprises and universities need to overcome their prejudice, recognize and even embrace MOOC.

At present, only a few overseas universities recognize MOOCers’ credits on MOOC platforms and are willing to translate these credits to real credits in these universities. For example, students from community colleges can get the credit from a well-known university if they completed a course provided by that university on MOOC platforms. Back in China, although advocates have always been promoting such exchange of credits, only a few universities are willing to translate their students’ credit on MOOC platforms to real credits in universities. As a matter of fact, MOOC platforms become more like another source of optional courses for students to choose and the only difference is that they are instructed online

Besides, if enterprises are willing to recognize applicants’ credits on MOOC platforms, and treat MOOCers equally with college graduates, then MOOCers will also be motivated a great deal to complete their courses on MOOC platforms.

However, government policies and support are the most crucial forces to boost MOOCers’ motivation. In China, if MOOC platforms aim to transform traditional education, thrive and even replace lecture-style education, then they will have to first get the support of Chinese government. When the government is supporting MOOCs, universities will also be willing to recognize MOOCs, and enterprises will also be accustomed to recruiting self-motivated MOOCers.

4. A practical but real problem

As is shown in the diagram, the more effort is spared in a course, the higher quality it will be. To shoot a short video of several minutes, course instructors will have to spend large sum of time and effort in designing course structure, preparing for the content, combining sound, text and picture and shooting the lecture. While enterprise-based MOOC platforms will need a special producing team to shoot new lectures, college-based MOOC platforms tend to set up a special team with adequate devices to shoot lectures of professors from their own universities.

Huge efforts need to be spared to shoot a new course. Course structures, whether volunteered or are forced, have to both teach at universities and take time preparing for shooting their courses for free. Some enterprise-based MOOC platforms did pay professors, but most college-based platforms give no subsidies to professors. For example, Peking University plans to shoot 100 more courses on MOOC platforms and is encouraging professors to take part in voluntarily.

Of course, some professors attracted large crowds of “fans” and became well-known with their courses, most professor didn’t. For them, passing on knowledge, experiences and learning methods to students and being recognized by society, instead of becoming famous, is the ultimate goal. Professors who cooperated with enterprise-based MOOC platforms might have one more goal, that is, to earn extra money/

Only a small number of professors can become famous with their courses on MOOC platforms, while most professors won’t. That’s why some professors might feel frustrated since their lectures were as instructive as those of star professors but they might fail to deliver courses in a more attractive and interesting way. Moreover, since these professors spend a great deal of time and effort in shooting these courses, it is fair to repay them with an adequate sum of money.

Otherwise, college professors might feel less and less motivated to take part in and shoot their own courses. This is a practical issue, and is worthy of attention from MOOC platforms, since courses of motivated professors are the very foundation of any MOOC platform.

As is suggested by a lecturer from a university in Hu’nan province in a training conference on MOOCs:

“Shooting courses with merely enthusiasm and no repay can’t last long.”

He is speaking the truth. Only an adequate sum of subsidy can attract more college professors to take part in. If not, then less and less professors will be willing to shoot new courses.

Nevertheless, we can’t deny the contribution of MOOCs on people’s lives and work. I wrote this article not to deny MOOCs, but to help the Chinese online education industry develop better in the future. It is high time we got rid of the miscalculation towards MOOCs and became more practical in solving the existing problems in the development of MOOCs and really helping more people get access to higher education with lower cost.

Besides, enthusiasm of course instructors is not enough to support MOOC platforms, so MOOC platform developers should start to change their mindset and pay course instructors. This problem is practical, and real.

[The article is published and edited with authorization from the author @Chang Ning, please note source and hyperlink when reproduce.]

Translated by Levin Feng (Senior Translator at ECHO), working for TMTpost.

(Chinese Version)

Originally published at

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