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Why MOOCs Fail

MOOC 2.0 - that escalated quicklyA recent article in the New York Times has highlighted a number of disturbing statistics that shake the current craze for those free online educational courses known as MOOCs.

Basically put, an appalling number of students are dropping out. MOOCs are being abandoned in droves. But why is this happening and how can it be reversed?

  • about 50% of MOOC students don’t look at any material
  • about 96% of MOOC students don’t complete the course
  • about 80% of MOOC students are already college graduates

A few short years ago MOOCs were touted as the greatest step in education since the printing press; we were told that they would revolutionize education and bring learning to the masses.

But these statistics tell a different story. Simply put: students don’t engage with MOOCs; non-graduates don’t engage with MOOCs; MOOCs are not working.

In recent years universities and education companies have been falling over themselves to invest in MOOCs. Just like the dot.com boom/bubble some fifteen years ago, they are pouring money into an idea which seems great on paper but which simply hasn’t been thought through.

For a provider like ICAL TEFL who has been providing education online for over 15 years now, it’s obvious what is happening. At the risk of sounding smug we saw the rapid rise of MOOCs and saw schools and universities falling over themselves to join in and we knew it would fail because of several simple issues; issues we had experienced and overcome when we first set up but issues which MOOCs did not want to see.

Why MOOCs Fail – part 1

The first reason MOOCs are failing is obvious. Take a look at the statistics: 50% of MOOC students don’t even start the course; 96% of MOOC students don’t finish the course.

To paraphrase the marketing axiom: People Learn from People.

Quite simply, MOOCs lack the personal touch. A student in a MOOC is a single, irrelevant cog in a massive machine which does not care about them. (Otherwise why would so many abandon the course without a sound?) Students don’t feel valued and they feel as though their own presence on a course is irrelevant.

When ICAL TEFL first offered online education courses (back in 1998) we decided to give every single student a personal tutor to work with. No other online education provider had ever done this (and it would take many years before others would catch up with the idea) but we felt it was important for our students to feel part of a group and not an anonymous entity.

In this way, a personal tutor offers someone they can talk to, someone who is there to help, mentor, and yes, push a little to keep going.

Right from the start we saw incredibly high student engagement as the norm.The stats for MOOCs have just 4% of students completing the course; with the personal tutor model we offer we have almost 100%.

Just having impersonal videos and antiseptic material isn’t enough. If MOOCs want to survive then they need to offer a personal service and personal one-to-one contact to make their students feel valued and part of the learning community.

Why MOOCs Fail – part 2

Right now, MOOCs are free and this is partly why they are failing.

The problem is people’s perception of what “free” means. Let’s suppose your neighbor is moving away and they leave you their bicycle when they say goodbye. Chances are many people will use it, leave it out, not bother cleaning it, forget to lock it up and see it stolen. However, suppose you save up hundreds of dollars, spend weeks researching the kind of bike you want and finally put your hard earned cash down and buy yourself a bike. Almost certainly you’ll keep it locked up in the shed, you’ll clean it every time you use it, and you’ll be extra careful not to scratch it.

This is because to the majority of people, if something is free then it’s not worth much (if anything) and they feel they don’t have any responsibility for it. On the other hand, if someone pays for something then it has a value and they care for it.

MOOCs are free. People come to them, register and use them. But then many students will think that if the content is free than it can’t have cost anything to develop and therefore it isn’t worth anything. On the other hand, if a course costs money then it’s worth a lot more.

So if students have invested financially in something they feel (quite rightly) that they should get their money’s worth. In our experience this means that they use the resources we have provided, they push on with the course even when they might feel like quitting, they take full advantage of their personal tutor and everything else available because, after all, they’ve paid for it!

So quite simply students need to pay for MOOCs and this will ensure not only that they engage more with the course, but obviously they will receive more for their money: research, development, professional help, and regular updates to begin with!

The End of MOOCs?

So is this the end of MOOCs?

Not quite. Just the end of MOOCs as we know them now.

A lot of people have lost a lot of money investing in MOOCs and no doubt people will continue to do so. But if they are to survive then amongst a lot of other changes they need to make, they will need to provide a more wothwhile and valuable experience for their students.

We have done this and have been successful education providers for some 15 years now. Trust us – it works.

Useful Links

The New York Times – the original article which inspired this blog

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