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Study of MOOCs Suggests Dropping the Label ‘Dropout’

Way back in 1978, Frenchy in Grease was unceremoniously dubbed a beauty-school dropout. But what if she took a MOOC today on midcentury follicular art? Might we call her a beauty-school “collector”? What about a beauty-school “bystander”?

Maybe, thanks to a new quantitative study of MOOC engagement released on Wednesday by Cornell and Stanford Universities. After tracking the behavior patterns of more than 300,000 students enrolled in Stanford-based Coursera courses, the authors created a “taxonomy of engagement” to differentiate between different types of MOOC participants.

In this new paradigm there are five broad types of MOOC students.

Viewers “watch lectures, handing in few if any assignments.” Solvers “hand in assignments for a grade, viewing few if any lectures.” All-Rounders “balance the watching of lectures with the handing in of assignments.” Collectors “primarily download lectures.” And bystanders are “registered for the course, but their total activity is below a very low threshold.”

The study found that pasting the “dropout” label on everyone who fails to complete a MOOC misses key distinctions and fails to acknowledge the spectrum of learning goals that students bring to open online courses. A student who engages with the material but does not turn in all assignments should not, the researchers argue, be considered a failure. Nor should it be assumed the MOOC wasn’t useful.

They write:

This range of engagement styles shows that while the issue of students “dropping out” of MOOCs points to a genuine and important distinction in types of student activity, it is arguably a distinction being made at too superficial a level. Indeed, even asking whether a student “completes” an online course is a question already based on the assumption that there is a single notion of completion.

Coursera has talked before of upending the pass-fail dichotomy when evaluating MOOC participants. Indeed, this new “conceptual framework for understanding how users currently engage with MOOCs” may help online providers rebut critics who cite high attrition rates as an endemic flaw of cybereducation.

Ashton Anderson, a Ph.D. student at Stanford who is one of the paper’s authors, says the researchers had those critics in mind by the time they published their findings. “Hopefully it will change the way people think about MOOCs,” Mr. Anderson says. “That’s part of the reason we wrote this paper.”

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