Monday, February 18, 2013

Is a MOOC with "only" 700 active students a bad deal?

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported this morning that a Coursera professor, Richard McKenzie, had decided to withdraw from his course Microeconomics for Managers. (The course will run to completion with a new instructor using McKenzie's videos).

Professor McKenzie was disturbed by the level of student engagement and commitment . In a note he posted on January 30, McKenzie noted that just under 37,000 had enrolled, but “fewer than 2 percent have been actively engaged in discussions,” and he worried that unprepared students were wasting the other's time "The problem is especially acute when students who have not watched the videos and have not done the readings contribute comments that we all have to read at some level."

In the forum thread discussing his withdrawal, there is little if any criticism and a lot of appreciation and explanation for low participation rates. McKenzie stated that “I will not give on standards, and you also should not want me to, or else the value of any ‘certification’ won’t be worth the digits it is written with."

I did not take the course, but watched some of the video. The format was uninterrupted lecture for around 30 minutes followed by multiple choice questions. The lectures I watched were engaging and presented well. He used easily followed examples in which rational economic thinking often leads to non-intuitive, perhaps politically incorrect, conclusions.

So, what went wrong?

Were there economic problems? The Chronicle reported that some students complained about the amount of work McKenzie assigned and others balked at the price of the textbook "The New World of Economics: A Remake of a Classic for New Generations of Economics Students," which Amazon sells for $79.95 in paperback or $63.96 for the Kindle.

I don't know what Professor McKenzie's business relationship was with Coursera, but the lectures were produced and copyrighted in 2011 by (which is not a registered domain name on the Internet).

The teaching material was re-purposed and so were professor McKenzie's expectations for the class. He was not prepared for the variance in online student commitment compared to his classroom at UC Irvine. Enrollment numbers like 37,000 have to be understood as browsing, not commitment. He has learned that lesson, writing:

As it has turned out, the enrollment count is meaningless, with fewer than 40 percent of the students actually logging in during each of the first two weeks. Only a fourth of the enrolled students have done as much as watch a single video lecture over the last week.
But, how bad is that? Even if, say, only 700 students actively participated, the course seems to have made economic (and social) sense. The course will be picked up by Melissa Loble, Associate Dean for Distance Learning at UC Irvine, and run to completion using Professor McKenzie's videos, quizzes, midterm and final exam. The videos and textbook were sunk costs, so the MOOC was a way to generate some extra revenue and offer a course at the same time at relatively little marginal cost.

Based on my sampling of professor McKenzie's lectures, I would guess that his MOOC was as effective as the typical (perhaps not the best) microeconomics course for business students. If that is the case, a low marginal cost class with "only" 700 students sounds viable to me. It even leaves some slack for continued investment in the teaching material or additional presentation resources.