School's Out

Study Finds Online Courses Only Really Serving 10 Percent of Users

Turns out, we all have different learning styles. Who would have thought?
Not all students are made alike, but at least in a physical classroom, you can actually observe them. (Photo via Mike Fernwood)

Not all students are made alike, but at least in a physical classroom, you can actually observe them. (Photo via Mike Fernwood)

Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are a relatively young industry, and like anything that makes the jump from analog to digital — gaming, print news, television, social interaction — the rules for teaching courses in the ol’ brick-and-mortar classroom don’t always apply online.

So, in order to find out how people are really using online courses, an academic research team conducted the most comprehensive online course study to date. They found that people who actually take the classes like normal students are just small minority.

For the study, Cornell and Stanford teamed up to look at six classes they offer through Coursera, evaluating over 300,000 student records. Some immediate takeaways were obvious: that gamification increases participation or that people have different learning styles is no surprise to anyone who’s heard a TED Talk before.

But the research team wanted to really map out what was going on with students taking online courses, so out of all the students they looked at, they identified four major “engagement styles” for online learning:

  • All-rounders: Or the “traditional student” who is watching lectures, turning in assignments and attempting to pass the class.
  • Viewers: These guys watch all of the materials like one long, boring TV show, soaking it all in without doing homework.
  • Solvers: People who just take the tests without reviewing any of the materials, likely just keeping on top of their skills with a little challenge.
  • Collectors: The pack-rats who come in, download the course materials, and are never heard from again.

In addition to those four archetypes were the “Bystanders,” who hardly count as a learning style, because they simply sign up for a class and then do nothing.

Turns out, “All-rounders” are often only about 10 percent of active students, vastly outnumbered by Viewers and Collectors, who sometimes make up 35 to 40 percent of the students enrolled.

“As someone who creates this material, it’s good to have in mind the different types of audiences you might have,” Daniel Huttenlocher, Dean of Cornell Tech, told Betabeat.

When building online courses, he says, schools should forget what they know about building traditional curriculums for the All-rounders. In online courses, all of the traditional rules and structures break down, and patterns outside of the normal university experience emerge.

For example, in the case of MOOCs, terms like “falling behind” and “dropping out” lose their relevance. After all, how can you call someone a “dropout” if they’ve watched hundreds of hours of video, but didn’t see the need to do the assignments, or simply downloaded it all and did it offline?

“Our whole idea of what these courses are is narrower than the experience people have of them,” Mr. Huttenlocher said. “I think we don’t understand the value and motivation for a large number of users.“

A year and a half ago, advocates of MOOCs thought they’d change everything we knew about traditional education, heralding — often celebrating — the impending death of traditional academia.

“Then there was a disillusionment period, where everyone thought 90 percent of people signing up for MOOCs were dropouts,” Mr. Huttenlocher said. “But both of those arguments are too shallow.”

The truth, Mr. Huttenlocher says, is that we won’t know the potential of MOOCs until they serve more than just one learning style.

Follow Jack Smith IV on Twitter or via RSS. jsmith@observer.com