Apples vs Oranges: MOOCs vs Brick-and-Mortar course (Mike Dubson #aaptsm14 #perc2014)

by Stephanie Chasteen on July 30, 2014


photoThe PERC bridging session was kicked off by my colleague Mike Dubson, regarding an experiment we ran at Colorado with a MOOC vs traditional university courses.

MOOCs have been hailed as revolutionary educational technology. What other revolutionary technologies have affected education? The printing press, the gasoline engine (allowing us to eliminate one-room schoolhouses). But there are many other “revolutionary” educational technologies: Movies, radio, television, personal computer, internet, and now… the MOOC. Why do we assume that a complex social issue such as education can be solved with a technological fix?

These all follow the Gartner hype cycle; we see a peak of inflated expectations, and then a trough of disillusionment, until we eventually reach a plateau of productivity. MOOCs are now near the trough of disillusionment; where will they settle out?

At CU Boulder, a MOOC provided an opportunity for an educational experiment. We taught our brock and mortar introductory course (PHYS1110) versus Coursera’s Physics 1. The two courses were made as similar as possible; a 50 minute lecture with clicker questions and clicker discussion. The lectures were thus edited down to about 30 minutes of lecture delivery and clicker questions. The reading assignments and schedule was the same, but the online course was 12 weeks. The same homework and exams were used for both. However, the MOOC students didn’t have a recitation meeting with the Washington Tutorials, or access to the physics helproom.

So, how did the two courses differ? The Coursera course, of course, had a much higher attrition rate; 41% of the students who attempted HW2 took the first exam, but the numbers continued to drop thereafter. (It’s been suggested to use the number of students who take the 2nd homework as a true measure of enrollment, as the number of enrollees is large and irrelevant). However, a lot of students watched all the lectures, even if they didn’t do the assignments.

They gave students the FMCE at the start and ending of the course. The FMCE pre-test scores were surprisingly similar between the two courses. The MOOC students are older, better educated, and more are international, and more are female.

The exam scores for MOOC students was slightly better than for the brick and mortar course, with a similar distribution. However, he found that because there was a small attribution rate in the brick and mortar course, the weaker students (as measured by FMCE pretest score), tend to stick around in the brick and mortar course, but drop out of the MOOC. The end result is at the end of the course, the MOOC students are better prepared than the students in the brick and mortar course. Understandably, then, the MOOC students better on the final exam, but they score as you would expect given their FMCE pre-test score. The FMCE post-test scores for the MOOC students was 80%, which is quite high.

So…   MOOCs are great, they can be very effective if the student is well-prepared and well-motivated. They’re like a new kind of public library. But students spend thousands of dollars to come to a brick and mortar campus because learning is hard, and they need to be immersed in an environment that supports and creates in them into a culture of learning. The job of teachers can’t be mechanized, even given all the hype.

Questions included:

  • What was the cost to do the MOOC? About $10,000 in equipment, and about $50,000 in faculty and staff time – which is unsustainably large. This was a full-time job. But the second time, it only required about 3 hours/week.
  • How was this as an educator, was it satisfying ? I was initially discouraged by the lack of contact with students, so was just concentrating on materials. But I gradually got drawn into the discussion boards, and felt that I was making contact with a few hundred dedicated students.
  • What is the percent of time spent in passive vs. active learning in the MOOC?   We are still mining that data, but I would guess it’s mostly passive due to the time to watch the videos.
  • Can we get an active learning experience like tutorials in the MOOC?   It would be difficult to get students organized to work together, but perhaps Google hangouts would be an option.  Students did organize Facebook study groups, which we didn’t join.
  • Why did students not persist, or fail?  We had a pre-survey regarding their interests and motivations.  People who interested they would stick with the course no matter what were likely to fail; but those who said they would try very hard were more likely to persist. The thing is that it’s difficult to get information about who dropped the course.

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