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Beyond Dropouts and Dabblers: A Broader View of Auditing MOOCs

There has been a great deal of discussion around the high drop-out (90% range) rates in MOOCs (and for the purposes of this article, I’ll concentrate on the xMOOCs, or those that are modeled on highly structured college courses). The first thing to note is that the sign-up process is so easy and devoid of commitment that “enrolling” might best be considered merely an indication of interest. However, even if you count the initial participants in other ways (those watching the first videos, stated intents to complete, etc.), there is no doubt that dropping out or disengagement is a significant phenomenon in most MOOCs.

Some of this is doubtless unfortunate and preventable, but some of it may be desirable and intended. There have been some efforts to define types of MOOC participants based on behaviors. (See, for example, John Duhring’s summary of a Stanford graduate paper on MOOC user behaviors.) But most of these efforts take a very simplistic view of participating, particularly of the intent to “audit” a class.

For now, I’ll use the term “auditing” broadly to refer to different ways of intentionally engaging in MOOCs at less than full participation to achieve learning objectives. Most observers talk about auditing in MOOCs as watching (most of) the videos, but not completing assignments or assessments, a definition carried over directly from in-person classes.

However, I think this definition is too restrictive because MOOC participants have more diverse learning goals than college-age students. They also have alternate resources available in the same medium (the web) that they can access. To illustrate some of the diverse ways one can participate in a MOOC, let me briefly share my experiences in three MOOCs that I “audited.” All three were hosted on the Coursera platform, though I’ve taken MOOCs on other platforms. (And I have also completed MOOCs, by the way.)

Three Cases:  Games, Language, and Sports

Audit #1 — Gamification, taught by Prof. Kevin Werbach, (University of Pennsylvania)

Gamification was the first MOOC I took, in September of 2012, when I was interested in finding out what MOOCs were all about. I was also very curious about gamification, which is the practice of incorporating play/competitive game elements into work processes or other activities in order to increase engagement and motivation. I found the course platform easy to use and the lectures informative. I wasn’t particularly focused on earning a certificate, but I did intend to do so, as it would seem strange to put in work for a “course” and not have explicit acknowledgement of it (ironically, a “gamification” element).

Despite the intention to keep up with the course, due to work commitments I fell behind. In fact, I would often forget about the course and only remember to check it periodically, at which point I’d already be close to a quiz or assignment deadline. Thus, I found a downside of not having scheduled class time is having to remember that I was taking a class at all! I later learned the simple practice of specifying a particular day or two during the week to check in on the course. At some point during the first third of the course, I had missed enough deadlines to make earning a certificate impossible, and this only served to depress my motivation further. After taking some initial quizzes, I only watched the lectures, as time allowed.

Audit #2 — Natural Language Processing (NLP), taught by Prof. Michael Collins (Columbia University)

In January of 2013, I took a MOOC on Natural Language Processing, which is the utilization of statistical algorithms to translate words/sentences from one language to another. I first became aware of the advances in NLP when I came across a mobile app which translated spoken language into one of 20 other languages in real time, with reasonable accuracy. Thus, when I saw this NLP course being offered, I eagerly signed up. I soon learned that the course was quite technical (Prof. Collins is evidently a pioneering star in this field), with lectures dedicated to covering different algorithms, incorporating a good deal of math.

I was not interested in learning the subject at this depth, I was more interested in the concepts behind NLP. But I did see that following the math at times aided understanding. I was definitely not interested in the assignments, which were applied programming exercises. Thus, I watched most of the lectures (skipping a few detailed technical ones), and learned from them, but since I didn’t follow all of the details, I often couldn’t resist multi-browser tasking (I found I could complete one USA Today crossword puzzle during a week’s set of lectures).

Audit #3 — Sports & Society, taught by Prof. Orin Starn (Duke University)

I had always been curious about the phenomenon of sports fandom (especially how biased fans can be on behalf of their home teams, even when they think they are being objective). Thus, I signed up for the Sports & Society MOOC, taught by a cultural anthropologist at Duke, in March of 2013. I knew from the outset that I wasn’t interested in the all the aspects of sports covered in this course. Thus, I only watched selected lectures. I was very interested in the lectures on fandom, the business of sports and sports & race, and I was less interested in lectures covering sports & politics, gender and extreme sports.

I enjoyed the lively lectures, but I didn’t do any of the readings or assignments. You could say that my level of interest was the same as that of coming across a good documentary on television. However, I appreciated the course as the means of learning, because I knew it was based on a well-grounded academic viewpoint.

Three styles of auditing MOOCs

All three of the above cases could be considered a situation where I “audited” the MOOC, but my learning objectives and behaviors were different in each. In Gamification, my participation declined (a clear case of disengagement), and if I could have stayed a little more organized, I would have gladly done the assignments, participated in the forums, and have undoubtedly gotten more out of the course.

With NLP, the content depth did not match my learning objectives, but I was satisfied with watching the videos. However, because I was not very focused on the details, I fell prey to the multi-tasking bug, which likely hindered my understanding of the content.

With Sports & Society, the content breadth did not match my learning objectives, but I was able to clearly find the content I was interested in. However, because I hopped around, I was not in synch with the class schedule and thus not really able to participate in the forums, which I think would have been quite interesting.

In summary, though I was mostly satisfied with my level of engagement with these MOOCs, I also recognize that there was room for improvement, and that there are advantages to pre-committing oneself in advance to a structured learning environment that pushes you at times to do things you might not otherwise be inclined to do.

Expanding Our View of Auditing MOOCs

What are the implications of this on how we should think about auditing MOOCs? First, when we talk about MOOC participation we need to move beyond the simple view of auditing as watching all of the lectures and that anything less than this is somehow a loss by definition. Second, as learners, as we become more accustomed to what MOOCs have to offer, we can be more specific about what and how we want to learn from them.

Other contributors to this site have given some good practical advice on how to succeed in a massive open online class and get the most from the experience, but I want to add some suggestions specifically for those auditing MOOCs:

  • Recognize the value of fully participating in a MOOC, and be clear about your reasons for auditing. If most of the material is of interest to you, or the topic could be an important building block for further studies, try to commit to fully take the MOOC.
  • It may be better to focus more on fewer MOOCs than to casually browse numerous MOOCs. Keep in mind that most courses (or topic areas) will likely be offered again in the future.
  • Keep a learning journal. This will serve a few purposes. You can keep track of what topics you are learning and which you are skipping (for future reference). It’s also a place for you to take notes or doodle during lectures to keep you from multi-tasking.
  • If you are watching selective lectures, try to do so on the class schedule so that you have the opportunity of participating in the discussion forums, should you choose.

Whether we call these various ways to engage “auditing” or develop new “type” definitions, we should recognize that there are beneficial ways to engage with MOOCs other than either fully participating or just watching the lectures. The growth of MOOCs is an important trend that is making valuable content and unique learning opportunities available to a wide audience. These can be beneficial to a much wider group than those who want to or are able to commit to a class-type experience.

While we should continue our efforts to learn about barriers to full MOOC participation, and remove them as much as feasible, we should also recognize the diverse ways people may leverage MOOCs to further their learning goals.


Charlie Chung (4 Posts)

My background is in software and management consulting, throughout which I've developed various internal and external training courses. My interests are in cognitive psychology, pedagogy, and lifelong learning. Currently, I'm Chief Course Curator at Class Central, a comprehensive MOOC directory provider, and an advisor to several edtech ventures.