MOOCs versus Traditional Classrooms: How Do You Judge Nonscarce Goods?

I’ve seen a spate of recent articles about the difficultly of applying traditional metrics to MOOCs. The general thrust of these articles is one of two things:

  1. MOOCs are vastly superior to regular classes because they reach many more people.
  2. MOOCs are vastly inferior to regular classes because the drop rates are astronomical.

I find both claims somewhat problematic. The fact that private institutions with stringent admissions, a culture of classwork, and high per-unit prices have a much lower drop rate says more about the structure of college education versus the structure of free educational materials available on the internet than it does about instructional quality. If you get into a college, pay for it, and associate with students, you are likely to finish your classes. If you are educating yourself a la carte and there’s no penalty to start or quit a class, you can be expected to start more classes and finish only those you really like.

So drop rates aren’t really a good comparison for traditional versus online learning options. Let’s say I have an open-enrollment, free MOOC and it signs up 100,000 students. If only 10% finish, I taught 10,000 students!

And what of the variety? When you choose a college it is often for the totality of their course offerings — the more in your fields of interest the better. But when you can switch institutions at no cost all the institutions of the world are open to you. Isn’t there value in that vastly expanded course catalog / idea marketplace?

So before we go demonizing MOOCs as education for the waffler and the flake, perhaps we should interrogate whether collegiate learning environments ought to be more open and more encouraging of experimentation in learning styles and disciplines. Both are at least equally valid conclusions from the data.

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