New qualitative research reveals students may know more about MOOCs than institutions think; have doubts on reliability.

MOOC-concerns-studentsMOOCs have the potential to reach learners who otherwise may not have access to postsecondary education, but they have a long way to go in proving reliability of information and quality of content.

That may sound like a researcher or wary administrator’s perspective, but these sentiments are strongly expressed by today’s college students.

In a new qualitative data report, Communication Instructor Dr. Andrew Cole at Waukesha County Technical College and Dr. C. Erik Timmerman, associate professor at the Department of Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, reveal the thoughts of one large university’s current college students toward MOOCs.

“Despite the fact that college students presumably would be greatly affected by widespread adoption of MOOCs in higher education, very little attention is paid to current college students’ perceptions and attitudes toward MOOCs,” write the authors. “It is heretofore unclear how familiar college students are with the MOOC concept and how they view MOOCs as a source of learning.”

Another reason the researchers say gauging student perceptions of MOOCs is critical is to try and determine their long-term success.

“Much research into MOOC learners focuses on experiences within MOOC courses. However, students currently enrolled in MOOCs constitute a population of early adopters of a new technology,” note the authors. “For MOOCs to be widely accepted as effective means of education, MOOCs must achieve a critical mass of users to either align with, or overcome, prevalent existing students’ attitudes toward higher education.”

The authors emphasize that, “at a minimum,” efforts to market MOOCs must address the concerns that potential users may raise about this mode of learning.

(Next page: Conducting the survey; survey results)

Qualitative data via an online survey was collected from 84 undergraduate students recruited from a variety of courses at a large, urban Midwestern university. The majority of participants fell between ages 18-24, 62 percent were women, and 81 percent of participants attended public school prior to attending the current university. The authors explain that this represents a “fairly typical cross section of traditional college students with varied degrees of familiarity with the concept of a MOOC.”

Two research questions were used to guide the authors during their research: 1) What are the common perceptions among college students about the nature of MOOCs; and 2) How do current college students’ perceptions and attitudes toward MOOCs compare with press discussions on MOOCs?

Thematic analysis on the qualitative data (the authors asked students to respond to eight open-ended questions about MOOCs) revealed six primary themes concerning MOOC perceptions: Reliability, accessibility, content, learning, communication, and outcomes.

The authors state that as the themes identified mirror previously published MOOC commentaries, “pedagogical discussion of MOOCs should move beyond polarized evaluations and incorporate student perspectives in further empirical investigation of MOOCs as a learning environment.”

Students may be the most wary

According to the qualitative data, of the students surveyed:

  • 81 percent had some concerns over reliability of MOOCs as a form of instruction. “While much of the information is correct, I wouldn’t use it much past basic facts and dates,” said one student. “I believe they will get the information correct on a man or woman’s date of birth, where they were raised, etc., but all the analysis is strictly a random person’s perspective on history that is not necessarily peer reviewed by an academic on the issue.”
  • 58 percent had thoughts on accessibility of MOOCs, which were mainly positive thanks to the open nature of this mode of learning. “I like the idea that such concepts are making education and knowledge more accessible than ever before. People who do not, for example, have enough money to attend a college or university can now progress their education,” said one student.”
  • 52 percent had more concerns over MOOC content, which largely went hand-in-hand with reliability concerns. “The thing that I like and dislike about MOOCs is the same thing, essentially,” noted one student. “I like the fact that everyone who has even a little bit of information about a topic can share that information with others. You don’t have to be an expert in the field to put your two cents in somewhere. However, that is also a downfall, because when someone is looking for a reliable source of information for a class, these sites won’t be useful. People are so obsessed with them, though, that they try to rationalize using them anyways.”
  • 49 percent had thoughts on MOOCs’ capacity to facilitate learning. Many students had concerns over “instructional quality,” and what the authors say is the lack of guidance from instructors. “I would expect the instructor to be pretty overwhelmed with e-mails and questions from a much larger group of students,” said one student. “I think this would also take away from the instructor’s ability to keep the class on course. They would also need to be able to work with a more diverse group of students and understanding of their potential special needs.” Another student notes that though some students might do well in MOOCs, it all depends “on the student and their learning style. For me, personally, I would rather have the personal relationship with the professor and my classmates; it enhances my learning.”
  • 40 percent had large concerns over the lack of communication options via MOOCs. “[I would expect the instructor] not to perform pre-rehearsed lectures but instead be available to actually help students one-on-one, and to monitor areas where the class as a whole could use improvement and altering the course to match those needs,” said one student.
  • 21 percent revealed that outcomes were also a major concern with MOOCs, specifically around the issue of course credit as the most important criterion to establish the legitimacy of MOOCs. However, some responses were positive, noting that even without course credits, MOOCs could have valuable outcomes. “A MOOC should always provide a learning experience because it allows students to learn accessing different websites, programs, and software, allowing them to have that new experience and be able to apply it to their daily lives, such in future jobs and careers,” said one student.

(Next page: 3 takeaways from the data)

According to the report’s authors, there are three primary conclusions that can be drawn from the data:

1. Many students feel the information available through MOOCs, in particular c-MOOCs (peer-based MOOCs), is not of the same quality as the information they receive in a formally structured, traditional college course, and this feeling is often accompanied by a concern over the lack of college credit. Many students also feel that interactions available through MOOCs are limited in depth and breadth to the interaction available as an enrolled student in a traditional face-to-face or online course at a university.

2. Accreditation was a common concern crossing over a range of thematic categories. “Students often commented on the benefits of MOOCs to lifelong learning but, since higher education traditionally reflects a credit hour standard, students see the lack of course credit in MOOCs as a hallmark of lesser quality,” note the authors. The authors also write that it’s surprising that very few students viewed MOOCs as a learning tool that could assist them in the college courses they are currently taking.

3. The findings from this analysis shed light on low completion rates in MOOCs. “For reasons not directly clear, many students in this study felt feedback from MOOC instructors should be more prompt than from instructors in their current college courses,” conclude the authors. If new MOOC students enter a MOOC with expectations similar to many of the students in this study, “they would quickly learn that the course is not what they expected. Such realizations and resultant drop outs may contribute to the low completion rates currently observed in MOOCs,” say the authors.

For more information on the study, including limitations of the study and future research potential, read the full report, “What do current college students think about MOOCs?”


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