Monday, 22 April 2013

A bold suggestion - My essay for Coursera's Beginner's Guide to Irrational Behaviour

There are a few misconceptions about what following a MOOC entails so, in a spirit of openness, I have posted below my entire essay in which I raise the issue of dropout rates and make a bold suggestion about monetization...

You and I are blessed to be taking part in the wonderful adventure of the Massive Online Open Course (MOOC). For the first time, through this new phenomenon of free and open online education, the increasing proportion of the World population with a connection to the Internet can not only access raw data, information but can also access knowledge and learn how to learn.
Companies have raised millions of dollars from venture capitalists with the hope of figuring out how to make money in this new field while non-for profit endeavours like edX have also sprung up.
There are problems plaguing free and open online education however. The main problems have to do with monetization and student retention.

In the seminal AI class launched in September 2011, less than 20% of the students enrolled earned a certificate. Although course’s dropout rates may vary and data is hard to come by, a figure of 90% can be considered conservative. Duke University’s first MOOC, A Quantitative Approach to Bioelectricity saw 346 students take the final exam and 313 pass it, when 12,735 had registered (Inside Higher Ed, Measuring the MOOC Dropout Rate by Ry Richards).

I believe monetization and student retention to be closely linked issues and will focus on the latter in this essay. The dismal student retention is problematic because of the unrealised potential of individual dropouts as well as because of its implication for MOOCs to be truly taken seriously as a force to be reckoned with in the future of education.

Let’s now see if the existing research could shed some light on this issue of high dropout rates in MOOCs. What existing research could be relevant to this behavior?

First of all, registering for courses is presently free and as Professor Ariely explained (Video Lecture 2.8, 2:50), the psychological effect of “the price of free” is such that people fomrget rational comparison between two desirable products. For instance when invited to choose between a 25 cents chocolate truffle and a 1 cent piece of chocolate most people choose the truffle. However, when choosing between a 24 cents truffle and a free chocolate, the vast majority goes for the free option, even though the price difference hasn’t changed. It is fair to assume that something similar is going on with MOOCs, most people would think hard between an expensive college class and a relatively cheap online version of it but enrolling for free in a MOOC seems a no-brainer.

Secondly, as describe by Professor Ariely (Week 2 Office Hours, 2:30) as MOOCs are a new phenomenon for which the quality hasn’t yet been established, there is a significant risk of students inferring from the current price (free) that the quality must be very low. It is therefore likely that this phenomenon leads to students not perceiving the full quality of MOOCs and eventually dropping out.

Finally, another factor that might be contributing to the high dropout rate of MOOCs compared to traditional on campus university courses or even fee-based online courses is cognitive dissonance. Professor Ariely describes the Feltzinger experiment (Video Lecture 4.6, 2:30) in which after doing a tedious task, subjects who were well paid admitted to the task being boring whilst subjects who were paid poorly convinced themselves they had found some intellectual stimulation from it. It is similarly easier for students enrolled in a MOOC to drop out because of a lack of interest than it would be for students of expensive courses to admit to themselves that they paid for something they do not deem useful anymore.

What solution could we propose to reduce the dropout rates in MOOCs?

I believe the best strategy to be for the MOOCs organisers to charge for registration but guarantee students the option to get their money back at graduation.
This solution addresses the negative implications for perceived quality of the price of free whilst allowing poor students to still graduate at no cost.

Furthermore, I believe that the courses could be engineered to make the IKEA effect as described by Professor Ariely (Video Lecture 4.4, 3:10) come into play. As participants in the experiment valued their own origami more depending on the effort spent on it, students who will have gone all the way through the course will have the greatest appreciation for its value.

Making students feel part of the course through peer-grading, forum participation and other means should not only ensure that the graduating students have learnt a lot from the course but also that they feel they own it and place a sufficiently high value on it that the vast majority will not exercise the ‘money back’ option at graduation.

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