Are online courses for the ‘extraordinarily’ dedicated?

For the first three weeks of teaching a massive open online course (MOOC) about comic books and graphic novels, William Kuskin felt as disconnected from his thousands of students as David Bowie’s floating astronaut, Major Tom.

coursesBut in the fourth week, the University of Colorado (CU) English professor began to feel more globally connected than he’d ever felt before. Every day from that point on, his “students” from around the world flooded his inbox with thoughts about his MOOC on Coursera, the platform that offers free online courses around the world.

After CU’s first semester offering MOOCs to the world last fall, the resounding feeling among faculty who participated was that it was a worthwhile experience and one that they’ll spend the spring assessing and discussing.

In all, 125,399 people enrolled in the four MOOCs CU offered through Coursera. Of those who enrolled, 2,720 completed the four courses.

Kuskin, who chairs the CU-Boulder MOOC working group, said he was both surprised and challenged when teaching his MOOC, “Comic Books and Graphic Novels.”

“This turned out to be among the greatest teaching experiences I’ve ever had,” Kuskin said. “It forced me to think about who I am as a teacher. Anytime you reflect on your own practice is great. This made me think about what I do.”

Physical campus still necessary for many students

CU physics professor Mike Dubson taught his MOOC “Introduction to Physics” while also teaching a class by the same name on the CU campus, a “brick and mortar” version of the online course, he said.

He tried to make the courses identical so he could compare their outcomes, much like an experiment, he said.

As expected, the brick-and-mortar course was made up of mostly 18- and 19-year-olds who were pursuing a four-year degree.

Dubson’s online students were generally older and most already had a bachelor’s degree — they were “lifelong learners” taking the course to gain knowledge.

Though only about two percent of the online students completed the course, those who did had an almost identical exam score distribution to the on-campus students.

The 2 percent who finished the online course had something the other online learners didn’t, Dubson said — grit.

“My conclusion is that online education works for about 2 percent of students, namely those who have this extraordinarily strong sense of dedication and self-discipline,” he said. “For them, online education works. For the vast majority, no.”