MOOCs and educational development: Part 5
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This is the fifth in a series of blog posts on MOOCs (massive open online courses).

In my previous posts I wrote about my experience learning in a 3-month free MOOC in biostatistics offered by edX.

During the days on which final exam had to be taken, the discussion forum was locked to prevent students from discussing the questions or posting answers. After the deadline to take the final exam passed, the discussion forum was opened again. Whereas during the course most of the posts had naturally been about the course material, after the exam the posts were on different themes. Many were desperate pleas from students who had missed the cut-off passing score (85%). They lamented how they had put in so many hours working on the course over 3 months only to fail the exam. To add to the unpleasantness, there were harsh replies from some students who had passed the course or had failed and taken it well. Students could remain anonymous on the forums, so they could say pretty much anything they wanted to.

There were some positive messages as well. The course content was top class, and the enthusiasm of the professors had rubbed off on the students. Some students also thanked the community teaching assistant who had spent a lot of time answering students’ questions in a voluntary capacity.

Then there was a message from the course staff that grades would be analysed and certificates would be made available in a week to those who had passed the course. But the certificates didn’t appear in this time. This led to another set of concerned posts from students asking about the certificates, which annoyed other students who didn’t mind waiting. There were allegations that some students must have cheated on the exam because the entire exam was found on some “homework help” websites.

I thought these issues affected students differently based on where they were from, and I was inspired to make a post on the issue of certificates and cheating. I mentioned how cheating is a big issue in India, where I live, and I’ve had to retake exams at an Indian university because of the so-called “paper leaks“. And a certificate also means different things to different students. In some parts of the world a certificate for anything is a highly prized document, whereas in others it’s just a piece of paper, unless perhaps it’s for something like a degree-level program. I was happy to see a number of positive replies to my post and the post got 55 votes! But I was quite concerned myself: I thought I had passed the course but until I got the certificate I couldn’t be sure.

So I was very relieved when I saw my certificate in my course account a little over 2 weeks after the final exam. The course staff posted a message saying that about 5,000 people had passed the course. They also lowered the passing score to 80% from 85%, which seemed a bit odd (and no explanation was given). The completion rate, it turned out, was about 13% — quite normal for a MOOC.

Many posts after the exam were on another topic: statistical software. During the course students could use a free copy of Stata, a popular software for statistical analysis in many fields of research. Students could also purchase a 20% discounted copy of Stata within a week of the course ending. But still this was too expensive for many students, including me. I had grown used to Stata and had started to use it for real-world applications, such as statistical analysis of AuthorAID online courses. I was going to have to give up Stata, and I wasn’t happy.

An alternative to Stata is the free, open-source statistical software “R”. But R is a different tool altogether and one has to learn how to use it. Some students had used R during the course instead of Stata and seemed better off to take forward what they’d learned.

Giving up Stata was the worst part of the course experience for me. I’d passed the course and acquired a certificate, but I no longer had the tool with which I could apply what I’d learned. Because of this, I don’t think the course made for a sustainable learning experience. Anyway, sustainability was not stated as a goal of the course.

Four months have passed since the course ended, and I can’t say that I’ve used what I learned. I’m not a medical researcher, in which case I might have found the theoretical knowledge useful, but I am keen to apply what I now know about statistics. I have downloaded R but haven’t had the time to learn to use it.

This outcome isn’t what I had hoped for, but I should have anticipated it when the course started. At that time I was just excited and couldn’t think far ahead.

I’ve now reached the end of my report on the course.

To summarize, the course demonstrated the game-changing potential of educational technology and how online learning isn’t just about the content: great teachers and student interactions are at the heart of a memorable learning experience, whether on the Internet or in the classroom. Some of the exchanges on the discussion forums weren’t particularly useful or positive, but I suppose the important thing is that students had the freedom to express themselves. But eventually, the course mainly benefited people who had access to Stata or could buy it. The learning wasn’t probably sustainable for the others. This, I think, is not a good thing if we’re talking about international educational development. But I’m sure a lot of MOOCs present more potential for sustainability.

In my next post, the last in this series, I will present some views on how students and teachers in developing countries can incorporate MOOCs in learning and teaching.

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About Ravi Murugesan

I live in India and I’m an INASP Associate. I work for the AuthorAID project, mostly as a trainer, and I spend a lot of time on INASP’s online learning platform.

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