There is a real problem with the way MOOCs and online courses in general are made available to students. In fact, I don’t think it’s too much to say that the entire system is broken. The problem is the failure to complete MOOCs.
If it were possible to solve the issues that stop 95% of MOOC students from completing online courses, the potential of MOOCs for all would be greatly increased. They would become more cost effective, content providers would get a better return on investment, and students would be much more satisfied.
But before we look at the main reasons for the present situation, let’s look at the less important reasons. Then we’ll look at some other causes, but really, when you boil everything down, there’s only one real problem.
Lack of Genuine Interest in the Course
Firstly, we should look at the more obvious, and less complex, reasons why people have a problem finishing online courses because, well, they’re obvious and less complex.
MOOCs are generally free, so many people join on a whim. You see something you like the sound of; for example, “Become a Superstar Hacker in 3 Months”, and assume you’re going to be hacking into the Pentagon by Christmas. You soon realise you won’t even know how to hack your partner’s laptop, when it’s on the same network and it doesn’t even have a password, and you quickly move on to the next course.
Or you join a course that is exactly what you’re looking for. However, after a couple of weeks, you realise that it is too difficult (or too easy), and you look for something more appropriate. Or you may have joined the course by mistake. You thought it was one thing, and it turned out to be something different. I don’t know. You signed up for a course called “Python Something or Other” and you thought it was going to be about big snakes, not computer coding.
Don’t feel bad for any of the above scenarios, by the way. All of them have happened to me, well not the big snake example. Not finishing online courses is not a crime, or even a big deal; it’s the reason behind the failure to complete MOOCs that we are interested in. Now let’s move onto the reasons that are more difficult to fix.
Motivation and the Failure to Complete MOOCs
Even the most cursory of searches makes it obvious what the main problem is with MOOCs; almost all students struggle with motivation.
It seems a bit strange to think of adults having problems with motivation. I mean, if you’re an adult and you need to take a course, then why would you need to be motivated? Surely, the prospect of getting a better job and better money would be motivation enough. But in general, people’s brains don’t work like that. People need motivation and positive reinforcement. They need the feeling that they are doing a good job and that they are ‘getting there’.
In my opinion, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. When I were a teacher, almost my entire reason to teach was based on positive reinforcement; that’s the type of person I am, and it’s the driving force for most teachers. After all, if you’re a teacher earning crap money and getting little respect from anyone, positive reinforcement is pretty much all you got.
Still I’m digressing. If it were possible to fix this issue of motivation, I don’t think it would be an overstatement to say that the problems of e-learning would completely vanish. But let’s not worry about solutions at the moment, let’s keep looking at why motivation is such a deciding factor in people’s failure to complete MOOCs.
Availability of Instructors for Online Instructors
One of the most obvious differences between real-world and online studying is the instructors. Of course, both have instructors but instructors in the real-world are ever-present. If a student has a problem, they can go and see their instructor.
Generally, instructors are available whenever a student needs help. Often they are friendly and accessible, willing to spend time clearing up any problems their students may be having.
While online instructors may have many of the same qualities of a university lecturer or professor, the fact of the matter is that there is no way that an online instructor can give the same attention to their students as a real-world teacher.
Most MOOC students understand this and do their best not to contact the instructor unnecessarily, which is where a lot of the feelings of isolation in students come from. If online students were more inclined to bother instructors or other students, maybe there would be less failure to complete MOOCs.
Companionship and the Art of Peer Pressure
The feelings of a lack of companionship when studying MOOCs is very similar to the feelings of a lack of support from instructors. One of the best things about being a student at a real-world university is the amount of people who are in your situation, suffering from the same anxieties and lack of confidence as you are. That is a powerful driving force to inspire you to continue studying.
Of course, there is a complete lack of this companionship when studying MOOCs. It’s true that you have instructors and peers but they may be very far from you; in different countries and even different time zones.
Although it is easy to contact anyone in the world if you’re having problems understanding something, having to wait for hours, or maybe even days, to get a reply.
It’s also true that many MOOCs now have student forums, but this still doesn’t replace traditional peer-to-peer support found in the real world. If feelings of isolation could be solved, we would definitely be moving int he right direction.
Online Courses Are Generally Boring
It is very hard to make an online course interesting. First of all, it’s the format. Most courses only have a few options for delivering the content: video, PDF, text document, maybe a couple of other ways, but in general, whatever the delivery method is, the chances are you’re doing the same thing again and again.
And before I get any comments complaining that I am treating online course providers unfairly, I am a course provider myself. You can sign up for my TOEFL writing course here, and come back and tell me what you think. It’s free by the way, so you’re not risking your next week’s pay cheque.
The solution to the boredom factor is to make everything more interactive. The problem is that everyone says that courses need to be more interactive but at the moment, no one is coming up with any real solutions. True, there are ideas like gamification, but I think we have a long way to go before we can make all online courses interactive enough to hold the attention of students.
Online Courses Are Supplementary Material
One interesting fact, or at least I find it interesting, is that many people do not take online courses to learn something from scratch. Many people take online courses for supplementary material, dipping into them when they need. You may be one of them. Maybe you just needed to learn something new, to fill in a gap in your knowledge, so to speak. Or to remind yourself of something you studied before.
And it may not just be to fill in a gap. I bought an entire course on coding the other day because I wanted to learn how to do CSS. Technically, I didn’t finish the course, but I did finish the part of the course that I wanted to do. So, in my mind, I did complete what I wanted to do.
Wrapping the Failure to Complete MOOCs Up
I was going to continue with a list of solutions, but I think I have gone on long enough just talking about some of the reasons why students experience failure to complete MOOCs. In this article, I will look at some of the solutions to the problem of uncompleted online courses and how we can get a better completion rate.