Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Confessions of a MOOC Dropout

A.  Mea Culpa
I am a MOOC dropout. There. I've said it. Now the whole world knows that I have become one of the millions of MOOC dropouts, the 80 to 90 percent of MOOC enrollees who don't finish their courses. No doubt the dreaded High Demons of MOOC will burn a scarlet "D" in the middle of my forehead while I'm asleep tonight ... :-(

OK, just kidding. But I really am deeply disappointed that I couldn't complete the "Health in Numbers: Quantitative Methods in Clinical & Public Heal Research" (PH207x) course offered by the Harvard branch of the edX consortium that I enrolled in last October. Although the course officially ends at 11:59 pm this coming Friday evening, I threw in my towel this morning because I knew that I only had about a 40 percent chance to obtain the required passing grade of 85, despite the fact that I entered the final exam with a 93 average based on nine weeks of detailed homework assignments.

B. Why I Enrolled
As readers of this blog may recall, in real life I am the Director of Howard-Online, an initiative that was launched two years ago to develop plans that would enable Howard University, a prominent HBCU, to offer a comprehensive array of online and blended degree & certificate programs for non-traditional students. So, of course, I was fascinated by MOOCs.
    I enrolled in my first MOOC last spring, the so-called "MOOC MOOC" which was a MOOC that explained what MOOCs were really all about ... Correction: the MOOC MOOC explained what the pioneers who developed this exciting course delivery methodology a few years ago were trying to achieve. To my delight, the MOOC MOOC was one of the most satisfying learning experiences I ever had in my life.  Believing that one good MOOC deserves another, I was on the lookout for a MOOC that would deepen my understanding of this powerful new educational medium.
  • Policy Notes on this Blog
    Readers of this blog are aware that I sometimes publish notes that analyze the latest data related to policy issues of importance to the HBCU community.  As the years have gone by, I have found myself becoming more and more concerned about issues that would require the application of far more powerful analytical procedures than simple tabular summaries. Sooner or later I would have to brush up on regression analysis and other multivariate statistical techniques ... but my career path since graduate school had required more knowledge of operating systems and applications development ... Of course I would have to review basic statistics before swimming back into the advanced techniques at the deep end of the pool.
  • Harvard's Introduction to Biostatistics
    It occurred to me that if I reviewed basic statistics in the context of sociology or economics, the contexts in which I had first learned statistics many decades ago as a graduate student, that I would find myself nodding "Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah" in false boredom too often because I might be confusing barely remembered concepts with current understanding. Perusing the list of courses offered by the edX consortium, Harvard's introduction to biostatistics caught my eye. I was only vaguely familiar with the public health issues that would be analyzed. And having used SPSS and SAS off and on for the last few decades, I had never heard of Stata, the statistical package the course would use. All in all, the course would provide the challenges I needed to stay alert as it moved across once familiar statistical ground.
C. What Went Right
There were many good things to be said about this course, including a few of the things that went wrong. The "wrong" things were useful reminders that MOOCs are still very new animals in the education zoo, animals that have not been fully tamed yet ... :-)
  • Well Organized + Competent Instructors
    The course was well organized. Its syllabus laid out clearly defined learning objectives and provided a detailed summary of the topics that would be covered each week. The statistics module was taught by the author of the course's excellent textbook in statistics. The epidemiology modules were taught by a professor who was a highly experienced analyst of public health issues.
  • Stata Freebie
    The course provided a free version of Stata to which access would expire when the course ended. But I came to like this statistical package so much that I will use my course discount to purchase a permanent copy for my personal use. Although Stata contains some modules that are customized to compute the particular statistics favored by epidemiologists, it is a powerful, easy to learn, and easy to use package that could be used to analyze policy issues in just about any context.
  • High Speed Audios
    The videos had a really neat feature. One could watch/listen to them at normal speed (1.0 X), at slower speed (0.75 X), at faster-than-normal speed (1.25 X), and at high speed (1.50 X). I quickly became addicted to the high speed option. No, the speakers didn't sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks. The technology merely deletes all the pauses we make in normal speech between sentences, words, and syllables. After a couple of sessions at high speed, I found myself crawling up the walls inside my skull if I tried to listen to the instructors at normal speed. While listening to the course videos, normal speech suddenly seemed sooooooooo S .... L .... O .... W ...
  • Annoyances
    One of the things I found "wrong" about this course was its use of lecture capture technology for its videos. As everyone knows, lecture capture enables an instructor to record lectures in a face-to-face class and make them available for subsequent viewing online. OK, that's the sales hype. But in the context of online courses, lecture capture is just a crutch for "older" instructors who don't feel comfortable delivering their lectures by looking into the cameras on their laptops. 

    In this course, the instructors stood behind a podium and "preached" to a camera. There were no students in the room. (The videos sometimes reminded me of Congressmen on C-Span declaiming eloquent policy pronouncements to the TV cameraman in an otherwise empty chamber of the House of Representatives.)  Occasionally the instructors turned to point to "stuff" they had written on the blackboard behind them -- just as they would have done if they were lecturing to a classroom full of students.

    Here's what bugged me. After I see what an instructor looks like at the start of a lecture, I really don't need to see his face at any point thereafter. I would prefer to listen to his audio while seeing a clear image of the "stuff" on the board. Instead, the camera in this course would show a clear image of the instructor pointing to "stuff" on the board behind him that was out of focus. From time to time, the screen just showed the "stuff" he was talking about ... but that's what it should have been showing all of the time. In other words, as a student I want to see the learning objects, not the instructor's happy smiles or furrowed brows ... :-(
D. What Went Wrong ... for Me
I misread the syllabus ... and the instructors changed the rules:
  • The syllabus said that there would be eleven homework assignments, but that the lowest two grades would be dropped ... so far, so good.
  • Given that the course began in October 2012 and ended in January 2013, it spanned the Christmas holiday. (No class during Christmas week.)  I worked hard enough every week for the first nine weeks  that I ran a 93 percent average on the first nine assignments.
  • I (mis)read the syllabus to mean that the homeworks would count for 60 percent of the grade and the final would count for 40 percent. This meant that I only needed to earn a 73 on the final exam to earn the 85 required to pass the course. And the syllabus stated that we would have five days to do the final exam. No sweat.
  • As the holidays approached, developments occurred on my job that would require me to work during the holidays. No problem for my course grade because I was running such a high average. No sweat, even if I didn't have time to study the material in the course's last two or three weeks. What could they possibly ask about this material that I couldn't learn well enough to answer a couple of questions in five days?
  • I didn't finish my current work assignment until this past weekend. When I logged onto the course on Monday, I received two shocks:

    -- First, over the holidays the instructors had decided to only give the students three hours for the final exam, not five days. Their announcement indicated that felt that students shouldn't need more than three hours. Just three hours.

    -- Second, I realized that I had misread the syllabus. Homework would only count for 40 percent of the grade; the final would count for 60 percent. This meant that I would have to receive a 79 on the final to earn the passing 85 minimum ... in just three hours
I spent a few hours yesterday cramming the last modules of the course that I had not studied before. But this morning my job "interfered" with my studies again. My two year planning project had entered its endgame just before the holidays and the stakes are high, too high for me to risk spending all of my reserve energies trying to compensate for misreading the syllabus of a course that I'm not taking for credit.

As I tossed in my mental towel, I wondered how many of the millions of other MOOC drop-outs had faced similar choices between their jobs and their non-credit MOOCs or between their family obligations and their non-credit MOOCS ... and had made the same choice that I just made.

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