How to Finish a MOOC

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) flooded higher education news sources in 2012, with some outlets touting them as the future. There are compelling reasons to participate in a MOOC. The oft-free price tag certainly appeals to most college students, and the Internet-based structure means time-crunched learners pick up the necessary lessons at a more independent pace. But if edtech enthusiasts hope to see MOOCs catch on permanently, they must address the less-than-impressive completion rates.

Luckier programs see 20% of enrollees finish their courses, but on average only 10% or fewer stay from beginning to end. Although 77% of professors and higher education administrators look favorably upon online classes on the whole, they remain largely skeptical of what MOOCs can offer. A mere 2.6% of colleges and universities currently offer MOOCs, while only 9.4% plan to experiment with the format.

However, it is worth noting that many individuals who sign up for MOOCs do not necessarily identify as students. Some supporters believe the retention and completion numbers should not garner as much concern as they do. Not all the hundreds of thousands of people who sign up for MOOCs do so for academic reasons. Many prefer dipping in and out of the casual atmosphere, treating it as a hobby as opposed to serious educational inquiry.

“MOOC platforms are an emerging technology,” says Barbara Truman, vice president of learning technologies at Academic Partnerships, which oversees the influential MOOC2Degree initiative. “Platform capabilities that provide rich, automated feedback, practice, social interaction, and assessment are being used and are explored for use in MOOCs. Regular learning management systems are being tested for their extensibility to support MOOCs.”

Road Blocks to Completion

Owing to MOOCs’ open, comparatively free-form nature, the main challenge to finishing online college courses is time management. No definitive due dates and no grades enable participants to fall behind in their studies.

“MOOCs lack the kinds of support services typically found in other classes,” StraighterLine founder Burck Smith says. To help overcome completion rate challenges, StraighterLine has measures in place to assist students in moving forward, such as tutoring and advising services. In turn, StraigherLine’s course completion rate is about 65%.

MOOC lovers and critics alike admit that higher levels of outreach will increase engagement and, from there, completion rates.

Dr. Jonathan Rees, a history professor at Colorado State University – Pueblo American, spent his sabbatical participating in a MOOC via Coursera. He believes that working underneath a more authoritative presence is key to the MOOC’s ultimate survival.

“More individual attention would greatly improve completion rates,” he says. “Regular online courses at least have a living, breathing professor on the other end of the computer screen whose job it is to help students succeed.”

When it comes to advice for students, Rees bluntly states, “Recognize going in that you have to be self-motivated in order to succeed. If you get frustrated, you’ll need to solve your own problems.”

How to Succeed

Because of their relatively new place in the higher education world, MOOCs still suffer from some growing pains. But that should not in and of itself turn students away. Ones passionate about the material, hoping to supplement a more traditional online or brick-and-mortar class, or desiring to pad their resumes a little should certainly consider signing up. They just need to keep a few things in mind to ensure completion.

Time and place management.

Whether daily, every other day, or weekly, set aside a specific, regular time to sit down and work diligently on that MOOC. Program or write the class into the calendar and treat it like it is any other appointment, assignment, or class. Students working alone need to set their own due dates for completing the course work. The most organized learners out there also draw up contingency plans in case of schedule disrupts.

Because of the MOOC’s self-directed nature, students get their work done on their own time, situating themselves anywhere with an Internet connection. Firing up the computer in a room full of distractions and discomforts will undeniably hinder progress. Don’t just schedule a specific time — schedule a specific place as well. Preferably somewhere with minimal disturbances and a pleasing atmosphere; anything else breaks focus and preclude productivity.

Join a study group.

Study groups meeting both in person and via Google Hangouts or Skype alleviate some of the loneliness of working alone. Not to mention the benefits of multiple perspectives. Organize or join up with one via the MOOC’s learning platform or Meetup.com if it might help with completing the course. A study group could also involve deadlines to help all participants remain on track when tackling their assignments.

Engaging with a group fosters healthier time management choices. Members of the more organized examples out there hold each other accountable for meeting deadlines.

“We encourage students to be proactive in utilizing peer-to-peer engagement options offered in MOOCs, including social networking. MOOCs provide a rich opportunity for a type of ‘crowd sourcing’ of feedback and support in a course, if a student is willing to participate,” says Truman, regarding what enrollees can do to stop themselves from dropping out. “If students want feedback and support in a MOOC, they can’t be passive and content to simply ‘sit’ in the back of the room.”

Create a personalized reward system.

Smith recommends “set[ing] personal rewards for completion or penalties for non-completion” when remaining on task. Along with increased support services such as tutoring, he believes a well-organized, personalized schedule of goals and rewards will help prevent distractions and keep learners from straying away.

With or without study groups offering their support, this method inspires learners to press forward. Just because a professor might not be available for feedback via grades and notes doesn’t mean participants must be left wanting for ways to improve their studies.

Self-discipline. Lots and lots and lots of self-discipline.

No matter what strategy a student takes to wrap up the MOOC experience, everything ultimately boils down to self-discipline. Lack it, and time is wasted. Have it, and congratulations.

What’s Being Done to Help Completion

As for motivation, while the onus falls largely on the learners, some enterprising professors have found ways to build modules keeping them focused. One psychology MOOC offered through Bryn Mawr College includes regular quizzes so students track their progress quantitatively. They do not have to rely on their peers to gauge their performance. While not quite the same as more one-on-one time with an instructor, this measure does give participants a comparatively more solid idea of their expectations.

“Professors are mindful of the responsibilities and time commitments that adult learners must manage to pursue their education. Professors who apply a learner-centered approach that achieves outreach to welcome learners, engaging them at their levels will promote curiosity,” she says.

“Increasing the readiness of faculty to develop MOOCs is underway by applying lessons learned from existing MOOC courses,” says Truman, who adds that feedback from current MOOC learners about the course expectations and experience will help develop better MOOC professors and instructors in the future.

MOOCs are in no way perfect, but they still make quality higher education far more accessible than before. There certainly exists a place for them, maybe even long term. It will take some experimenting, some trial-and-error, and some cooperation between students, professors, and learning platforms to perfect the system. Until that happens, driven participants must create a few different opportunities inspiring them to finish their courses. A little self-motivation and creativity will bolster retention and completion rates over time.

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