Since MOOCs are no longer the hot thing, in order to stay true to its contrarian spirit, Slate has decided to publish an essay by a superprofessor who teaches a MOOC on Buddhism (of all things) explaining why the high percentage of students dropping out of his course doesn’t really matter:
For starters, “enrolling” means you’ve clicked on a button that means, basically, “Sure, what the hell, send me an email when this course starts.” So it’s no surprise that, on average, nearly half of “enrolled” students don’t show up for class at all.
But even after that major culling, the downward slope continues to be pretty steep. So how steep is too steep? What’s an unacceptably high attrition rate? I maintain that there’s no such thing.
Here is what matters: How many students wind up absorbing how much material in your course? In my case the jury is still out, because the final lecture was posted a few days ago, and viewership for the lectures keeps growing for weeks. But it looks like, in the end, well more than 10,000 people will have watched all the lectures and about 20,000 will have watched half of them.
I’m sure my administration will use that line the next time our accrediting body visits campus. “Our drop out rates don’t matter. It’s the absorption rate that counts!” How can you tell what the absorption rate was? “Lot’s of people checked out video lectures from our library!”
Yet the most obvious evidence that this particular superprofessor is on a different planet than the rest of us is the way he discusses his written assignments:
How many will complete the final writing assignment? Those numbers aren’t in yet. But more than 2,000 finished the midterm assignment, and in a sense that number is amazingly high. These students not only had to write an 800-word essay; because these essays are “peer-assessed,” each student who decided to write the essay was agreeing to evaluate the essays of five other students. That’s a lot of work—which explains why courses that assign peer-assessed essays have lower completion rates than the average MOOC.
Actually, compared to any college class that I’ve ever been involved with that’s not much work at all (particularly, as seems to be true of every Coursera MOOC, there’s no required reading to go with that writing). And that comparison is the heart of the problem here. While an elite corps of superprofessors continuously wonder at how great it is to teach the under-educated masses all at once, Coursera and its ilk are plotting to make college irrelevant by doing everything they can to “ensure your [meaning their students'] certificate is as valuable as possible.”
This practice does harm to other hardworking professors who aren’t “super” because the fewer people who go to college, the less reason there is for universities to employ us. At the same time, the whole idea of MOOCs for credit anywhere lowers standards for those of us who care whether ALL of our students are actually getting the best education they can get. This is why the Princeton sociologist Mitchell Duneier became a MOOC conscientious objector.
Speaking of conscientious objectors, I thought the first rule of Buddhism is:
“Avoid killing, or harming any living thing.”
Does it really matter whether or not that harm is intentional?