Here is some personal prejudice: I don’t love online courses.
I love learning in community, even in online communities, but online courses rarely feel like community.
To be clear, by online courses I mean the kind that have been around almost since the start of the internet, the kind that were amplified into the “Future of Education™” in the form of MOOCs, and which continue today in a structure that would be easily recognized by someone defrosted after three decades in cold storage.
These courses are divided into modules. Each module has a resource like a video or a conversation prompt. Students are then told to respond to the resource or prompt in threaded comments. You’re often told to make sure you respond to a couple of other people’s responses. This is community in online courses.
The reality is that your comment falls quickly down a long list as other people comment, a problem that grows in proportion to the number of students in the course. The more people who enroll, the less attention your ideas receive and consequently you’re less interested in contributing your ideas, a negative feedback loop which offers some insight into the question, “Why doesn’t anybody finish these online courses?”
I don’t love online courses but maybe that’s just me. Two years ago, the ShadowCon organizers and myself, created four online courses to extend the community and ideas around four 10-minute talks from the NCTM annual conference. We hosted the courses using some of the most popular online course software.
The talks were really good. The assignments were really good. There’s always room for improvement but the facilitators would have had to quit their day jobs to increase the quality even 10%.
And still retention was terrible. 3% of participants finished the fourth week’s assignment who finished the first week’s.
The organizers and I had two hypotheses:
- The size of the course enrollment inhibited community formation and consequently retention.
- Teachers had to remember another login and website in order to participate in the course, creating friction that decreased retention.
For the following year’s online conference extensions, we wanted smaller groups and we wanted to go to the people, to whatever software they were already using, rather than make the people come to us.
So we used technology that’s even older than online course software, technology that is woven tightly into every teacher’s daily routine: email.
Teachers signed up for the courses. They signed up in affinity groups – coaches, K-5 teachers, or 6-12 teachers.
The assignments and resources they would have received in a forum posting, they received in an email CC’d to two or three other participants, as well as the instructor. They had their conversation in that small group rather than in a massive forum.
Of course this meant that participants wouldn’t see all their classmates’ responses in the massive forum, including potentially helpful insights.
So the role of the instructors in this work wasn’t to respond to every email but rather to keep an eye out for interesting questions and helpful insights from participants. Then they’d preface the next email assignment with a digest of interesting responses from course participants.
To be clear, the two trials featured different content, different instructors, different participants, and different grouping strategies. They took place in different years and different calendar months in those years. Both courses were free and about math, but there are plenty of variables that confound a direct comparison of the media.
So consider it merely interesting that average course retention was nearly 5x when the medium was email rather than online course software.
It’s also just interesting, and still not dispositive, that the length of the responses in emails were 2x the length of the responses in the online course software.
People wrote more and stuck around longer for email than for the online course software. That says nothing about the quality of their responses, just the quantity. It says nothing about the degree to which participants in either medium were building on each other’s ideas rather than simply speaking their own truth into the void.
But it does make me wonder, again, if large online courses are the right medium for creating an accessible community around important ideas in our field, or in any field.
What do you notice about this data? What does it make you wonder?
By the way, the Global Math Department has a similar issue with sign-ups versus attendance. Our attendance rate is typically 5%-10% of those who sign up. Of course, we do have the videos and the transcript of the chat. So, we have made it easy for people to participate in their own time. Partipating in PD by watching a video though is never the same thing as collaborating during a live event – virtually or face-to-face. It’s like learning in a flipped classroom. Sure, you can learn something, but you miss out on the richness of the learning that really can only happen in a face-to-face classroom of collaboration.
At our school now, when we try out new parent-teacher communication methods, we center them in e-mail, not our student information system. It’s more personal and more deeply woven into the teachers’ lives. It affords the opportunity for response and conversation in a way that a form-sent e-mail doesn’t.
At the risk of sounding cliché or boastful about reaching “that one student”, how does one represent a “data point” like this one within that tiny 3%? For me, it became 100% of the reason and reward for all of the work involved. I know, I know, I’m a sappy teacher :-)
Justin Reich is extremely thoughtful about MOOCs and online education and offered an excellent summary of some recent work.