Sunday, December 22, 2013

Student Motivation in MOOCs

I've just completed Programming Languages on Udacity with Wesley Weimar.  The goal of the class was to build a bare-bones HTML and JavaScript web-browser, thereby introducing lexing, parsing, and interpreting computer languages.  The final project involved building a non-deterministic finite-state machine that accepts the same language as a subset of regular expressions (using Python Lex-Yacc).

This is the first full-length course I've finished on Udacity.  When compared to something similar on Coursera--in both difficult and quality--I estimate that the course took 50 - 75% longer to complete. The reason is quite simple: there are no deadlines on Udacity, so I procrastinated more.

I speculated previously about retention rates, and it turns out that this is a big deal for Udacity.  This article in Fast Company mentions statistics from a recent study: the completion rate of MOOC-type classes is only 7%.  As a result, the article describes, Udacity is shifting its focus to courses that are more professionally oriented, many in partnership with tech companies.  Presumably, the idea is that the clear goal of potential employment will increase motivation and create value more directly.

At this early stage in online education, it's hard to say whether such changes are for better or for worse--or even to say just what exactly "better" or "worse" means.  On the topic of completion, though, I do think there's a fundamental human trait at play: we're generally curious and eager to learn, but we're not very good at completing tasks without external motivation.  Indeed, the low MOOC completion rate is hardly surprising, given that it's hard enough to get full-time college students paying $50,000 a year to attend lectures regularly.

For traditional colleges, of course, discipline and motivation constitute an important part of the education.  As this article about historical attempts to create radio-based education puts it:
While MOOCs expose students to information, that is not the most fundamental dimension of learning. Perhaps most central to an education are the habits of mental discipline and the motivation it instills. Traditional colleges offer engaged professors who care if students attend class, answer their questions, and help them stay focused. Colleges offer spaces for a type of sociability that broadcast radio and MOOCs have yet to replicate.
I'm not sure that there is a "most fundamental dimension of learning" per se, but it will be interesting to see how MOOCs handle the question of student motivation going forward.

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