Research underlines the need to shift how MOOCs are taught

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lecturefailWhilst the initial success of MOOCs has been substantial, there has been a growing desire to see the format of learning offered updated to reflect the way people study in a modern world.  Last week I wrote about the lessons that can be learnt from the incredibly successful Code Academy website.  A blog by Code Academy’s Leng Lee provided a number of lessons for MOOCs, including:

  • Relevance is key – The most common form of feedback given by users that they wanted to be working on real world problems.  Abstract assignments or gimmicky projects weren’t what was wanted.  They wanted learning they could instantly apply to real world challenges.
  • Students want a clear journey – Alongside this desire for relevance was a need to understand the learning journey they are on.  Students want to know where they’re going, what stage they’re currently at, and how all of the pieces fit together.
  • Repetition is good – Because of the differing pace that everyone learns at, students expressed a desire for tuition to be both highly interactive, and in a format that suits repetition.

As if to underline this, a recent paper published by researchers from the University of Washington found that passive learning, ie watching/listening to lectures, delivers significantly worse exam performance than more active learning.

The study claims to be the largest of its kind, and explores the different outcomes achieved via lecturing and active learning in undergraduate education.  The research is based upon 225 studies of undergraduate education across the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and maths.

The findings should be a warning to MOOC networks, and institutions alike.  The research suggests that 55% more students fail lecture based courses than those with even a modicum of active learning within them.

“If you have a course with 100 students signed up, about 34 fail if they get lectured to but only 22 fail if they do active learning according to our analysis,” the researchers said. “There are hundreds of thousands of students taking STEM courses in U.S. colleges every year, so we’re talking about tens of thousands of students who could stay in STEM majors instead of flunking out – every year.”

It’s probably fair to say that the lecturing model still dominates, both in our universities, but certainly in MOOCs.  This research underlines the detrimental impact this approach can have on success rates.  If the failure rates of 34% for lecturing and 22% in classes with some active learning were applied to the 7 million U.S. undergraduates who say they want to pursue STEM majors, some 2.38 million students would fail lecture-style courses vs. 1.54 million with active learning. That’s 840,000 additional students failing under lecturing, a difference of 55 percent compared to the failure rate of active learning.

All of which offers some food for thought.

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