MOOCs as a form of furtive learning

For the last three weeks, I’ve been a student again. I’m following a MOOC offered by FutureLearn, an offshoot of the Open University in partnership with a number of other institutions. And I have to report that so far, I’m thoroughly enjoying the experience.

Most of the pleasure comes from following a subject in which I am interested, but I’m also deeply interested in how a MOOC actually feels on the receiving end. The flexibility is highly impressive: I can study a little segment as and when I have the time, and I can do it wherever I want. I am not going to list all the places where I have MOOCed, but suffice to say that they include the kitchen and my car – anywhere that involves waiting, or an activity that doesn’t involve my conscious brain. And it is reasonably sociable too; the discussion space is busy and noisy and very friendly.

So far, so predictable. I’ve also learned some things I didn’t expect. The very flexibility of a MOOC makes it easy to wander off and do something else. The fact that I can walk around studying on my iPad also means that my MOOC has to compete with email, Twitter, Facebook and other digital distractions – it is so easy to flick the screen, and forget that you were supposed to be studying for another 20 minutes.

I’ve also discovered that MOOCs offer an extremely furtive form of learning. Although I tweeted about the MOOC, and mentioned it to several friends, I didn’t tell my partner about it. She can hear that I’m listening to something or viewing something on my iPad, but presumably she thinks I’m catching up on the News Quiz or haltingly working on my Portuguese. And now it’s become a sort of experiment, where I keep quiet about the MOOC and wait to see whether she’ll notice how fabulously well-informed I am on everyday life in medieval England.

MOOCs are not necessarily anonymous, but they do allow you to manage disclosure in a way that most other forms of organised learning to not. The course designers have clearly tried to draw on adult education practices of group work and create a community of learners, but they have little control over how the masses participate. A participant can lurk online, reading the debates but not contributing. Or they can invent a new name, and for that matter a whole new identity, as part of their studies. No one will ever know. Meanwhile, their most intimate friends and family can be completely ignorant of why their loved one is suddenly spending time on the iPad.

Does this furtive possibility matter? I think it probably has some influence on the pedagogic relationship, but I’m not sure how. And it presumably shapes the ways in which learners are co-creating knowledge as they work their way through their MOOC. Either way, I find this all very interesting, and am looking forward to the next hour or so on my tablet.


Well, my partner did not know I was taking a MOOC until I blogged about it. I didn’t know she followed my blog until she asked about my MOOC. The question she put to me was this: “Do you have to pay for it?” (yes, she is a Scot). The answer is that I don’t, which is a very good reason for taking the MOOC (yes, I’ve spent a lot of my life in Yorkshire).

Dropping out of MOOCs

Today’s Times Higher Education carried a report on completion rates in MOOCs, which it estimated at under 7 per cent. Like other products of cheap and rapid digitisation, MOOCs are often seen as a game-changer, threatening to send traditional universities the way of Borders and HMV, and forcing the rest to review their fundamental approach to learning and teaching. It is easy to see, then, why we might think that MOOC drop-out matters.

In fact, I think MOOC drop-out matters. But I’m not going to draw firm conclusions from the THE article, for two reasons. The first is that it is based on what is clearly a small and limited study. Katy Jordan, the researcher whose work is reported, found completion data for 29 MOOCs, which she took from quite different sources (including news reports, university data, and academic presentations). She found completion rates varied widely, between under 1% to almost 19%.

The first thing to say is that this is a small sample, and it may or may not be representative. The different sources may or may not report completion in the same ways. And where did the ‘average’ of under 7% come from? THE doesn’t say, but it looks to me as though someone – I guess THE – has taken the sum of 29 completion rates and divided it by 29. So the second thing to say is that the student cohorts will vary widely in size, and unless you weight for that, then you can’t really reach a meaningful average.

Katy Jordan’s findings are interesting pointers, but do not yet provide a firm basis for judging completion rates. And this is no criticism – she has been entirely open about her sources and analysis, and is presenting her findings as part of a very interesting series of reflections based on her experiences as a MOOC participant. As usual, the question is how the findings are reported, and what use other people will then make of a half-remembered headline.

And even if MOOC completion rates did average out at 7% or less, so what? My answer is that we have no idea whether it matters or not. MOOCs are still very new, and we have only the haziest idea of what learners are doing, and what they have in mind when they click to register on a MOOC . While we do have some ideas from earlier research on drop-out which should make us cautious about drawing firm conclusions, MOOCs are new enough to make me cautious about extrapolating from earlier studies.

What we can say pretty confidently is that open and distance learning tend to show lower completion rates than face to face learning, often dramatically so. This is why the Open University invests so much time and trouble in working out how to engage and support its students. We also know that headline completion rates are lower in part-time than full-time higher education; but any researcher would be careful about drawing conclusions, as we don’t know what learner intentions were when enrolling.

When it comes to MOOCs, entirely new considerations come into play. The clue to why is in the word ‘Open’: anyone can enrol, but we don’t have a clue as to why they have done so. They might be potential learners shopping around, or they might be academics wondering what MOOCs are about. They might want to look at one bit of the MOOC and not others, or lurk and browse rather than complete the whole course. We don’t know whether the ‘drop-outs’ are actually people who register for several courses and end up completing the one that interests them. They might be bored schoolchildren looking for help with a project, or prisoners in one of our more luxurious gaols wanting to pass the time.

So until we know far more about learner aspirations and behaviour – and indeed whether all those who enrol are learners – we don’t know whether drop-out matters. Turbulent completion rates may be annoying for institutions, who would no doubt prefer as much predictability and routine as possible, but I think they are probably inherent in the very open-ness of a MOOC. They could probably be reduced through charging higher fees.

One final thought: why don’t institutions who provide MOOCs publish their completion rates?

Katy Jordan’s blog is at:

The THE article is at: