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The Flip Side of Abysmal MOOC Completion Rates? Discovering the Most Tenacious Learners

The Flip Side of Abysmal MOOC Completion Rates? Discovering the Most Tenacious Learners

Usman Khaliq was an engineering student in northeastern Pakistan when he took his first MOOC. He quickly began supplementing his education with online courses from Stanford and Carnegie Mellon. Between 2014 and 2016 Usman earned 21 verified certificates from Coursera and completed 11 social entrepreneurship courses from +Acumen.

I found Usman when I was combing through a list of +Acumen “power users” one day in 2014, looking to better understand the stories of people who not only enroll in, but complete multiple MOOCs. After talking to Usman on Skype, and realizing that he was not only a brilliant engineer, but also someone dedicated to tackling poverty, I wrote up his story for the +Acumen newsletter. Someone in Sierra Leone read it and offered him a job. Usman accepted and has been living in west Africa for the last year working as the Program Lead for Code for Sierra Leone, helping young people across the country learn to code.

MOOCs were a vetting mechanism for Usman, allowing both his talent and grit to rise to attention and connecting him to an opportunity halfway around the world.

Rethinking the 5% Completion Rate

The MOOC movement is frequently disparaged because completion rates are abysmally low. HarvardX and MITx recently reported that only 5.5% of people who enroll in one of their open online courses earn a certificate.

Yet, critics infrequently stop and think about who these 5.5% of people are. If you dig into their stories, you start to find the innovative social entrepreneurs from Pakistan, the dedicated teachers in Cambodia, and the tenacious single mothers in the U.S. completing their degrees. If I were an employer, admissions counselor, or philanthropist trying to decide who to invest my resources in, these are the kind of people I’d want to find and place my bets on. Right now, we pay admissions counselors at Harvard thousands of dollars to whittle a highly competitive applicant pool down to the 5.2% of students who gain acceptance. MOOCs offer a more cost-effective mechanism that empower learners to do some of this sorting work themselves. For a growing number of organizations, MOOCs have become a new way to identify talent.

So it’s time to re-envision online courses, imagining them not merely as destinations but as proving grounds for future opportunities. They’ll never be perfect replacements for in-person learning, but they can be ways for institutions to more effectively identify who they should offer finite resources to—things like scholarships, jobs, seats, or coaching.

The ability to complete an online course is a great indicator of the elusive “ power skills” that are so hard to reliably gauge using interviews, multiple choice tests, resumes and other standard gatekeeping tools. With online courses, we get a rich data set not only of what people say they can do, but what they actually do—even when their life gets busy, even when the tasks get hard, even when they think nobody’s watching. When we see the people who take the time to navigate occasional technical difficulties, thoughtfully respond to others in forums, and persist with assignments, we begin to surface diamonds in the rough like Usman who have the power skills needed in our increasingly connected economies. These skills include:

  • Digital fluency and information literacy: the ability to cut through the noise on the internet and find the content and opportunities to address and meet their goals
  • Contribution: the tendency to offer consistent, high-quality support to others
  • Grit, Diligence and Motivation: the ability to keep showing up and persisting with something even when learning is hard, boring, or not validated externally
  • Collaboration and Leadership: the capacity to form teams to complete assignments and navigate ambiguity or moments of getting stuck

In so many contexts, we continue to use imperfect mechanisms to find the best people. Our current vetting mechanisms serve as poor proxies for what someone will act like when they’re actually given a chance. Yet we invest tremendous resources into these selection processes, hiring admissions officers, recruiters and committees. So when mistakes are made and someone ends up not being a good fit, the opportunity cost is incredibly high. What if online learning could be a way to help us more effectively figure out who we should invest in?

Freemium Models for Opportunity

The MicroMasters programs offered on EdX are a perfect early example of this new kind of selection model: they let people start in a lower-cost online course and then apply for an in-person semester-long graduate program if they make it through the online portion. Similarly, LearnUp has built a free course that allows entry-level workers to prepare for job interviews. When managers at places like AT&T and Old Navy look to hire someone, they only have to interview two LearnUp candidates to find the right fit as opposed to their usual seven. The online course becomes a self-screening mechanism because the people who seek it out already possess higher levels of conscientiousness, an important trait for succeeding in a retail job. Accordingly, this online course is a service employers are willing to pay for.

All types of institutions—from universities to foundations to corporations to nonprofits—need to be thinking more creatively about how they can build freemium models for opportunity. Instead of safeguarding their intellectual property as a precious commodity, they should be converting it into learning experiences and problem-based challenges that the world can access for free or at lower costs online. And then they should look carefully to see who finds the content, uses it, persists, and does something original with it. Building a powerful network of people who can leverage resources and ideas to make real change will be key to generating value in our emerging global economy, even if this means that business models have to shift. Putting content and learning challenges online can allow institutions to cast their funnels wider and get smarter about who they invest their time and resources in.

What does this look like concretely?

  • If you run an academic program, consider putting some of your introductory courses online and then inviting those who complete them to apply for admission to more selective courses or degrees
  • If you run a vocational or workforce development program, put the first module of your training online and see who completes it. Then invite them to apply for a more intensive program or mentorship.
  • If you run a fellowship program or incubator, put a problem-based challenge online and use it as a gateway to see who will be offered access to the network and experience.
  • If you’re an employer, package some of your most interesting ideas and IP into a course that people can find. Then grant those who complete it preferential screening for job opportunities at your company.

Of course, we should recognize that introducing online courses into our selection processes will favor people who enjoy other privileges—stable home environments, higher incomes, prior education, and many other things. But it allows us to better evaluate people on actual behavior, rather than just what they state they can do in an interview or the degrees they list on their resume. Many tech companies already use these kinds of selections when they evaluate whether to hire someone based on their Github repositories or the coding exercises they can complete. But the opportunity to use online courses to have students compile a portfolio of real projects that become the basis of assessment could be deployed across a much wider array of disciplines. MOOCs still have the potential to help us move towards a new kind of meritocracy.

At a moment when the world has been talking a lot about extreme vetting, it’s time to look for alternative models that could enable opportunity instead of obstruct it. Online courses offer one such way for us to find incredible people all over the world like Usman who are willing to put in the work, time and effort to learn something new and build something better for themselves or their communities. Whether those people are based in Pakistan, Sierra Leone, or the United States, they deserve to be surfaced and supported.

Amy Ahearn (@amyahearn11) is an online learning columnist for EdSurge and a senior innovation associate for +Acumen. She holds an MA in Learning, Design and Technology from Stanford.

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