Grades are in for a pioneering free Johns Hopkins online class: Adding more to the public good

January 31, 2013 at 1:00 am 7 comments

Some more statistics from another Coursera course.  The final comments are interesting: Through MOOCs, “everyone can get at least some fraction of what we believe is fundamental knowledge.”  That’s true.  The interesting question is whether MOOCs get more students a fraction that they didn’t have previously (see the edX data about 80% repeating the course) than a similar face-to-face course.  It’s not obvious to me either way — there are certainly results that have us questioning the effectiveness of our face-to-face classes.  While MOOCs lead to few finishing, maybe those that do finish learn more than in a face-to-face class, and maybe overall (amount of learning across number of students), MOOCs contribute more to the public good?

Read on for the final metrics on Caffo’s class and a few thoughts from the associate professor at the university’s school of public health.

Number of students who signed up for Caffo’s class: 15,930.

Number who ordinarily sign up for the class when it is taught solely on campus in Baltimore: a few dozen.

Active users in the final week of the class: 2,778

Total unique visitors who watched Caffo’s video lectures: 8,380

Total who submitted a quiz: 2,882

Total who submitted homework: 2,492

Total who passed the course (averaging 70 percent or better on quizzes): 748

Total who passed with distinction (averaging 90 percent or better): 447

And here is Caffo’s take:

“Regardless of how MOOCs wind up, it is awesome to be a professor in a time where teaching is the hottest topic in higher education at research-driven universities. I also have a lot of sympathy for democratizing education and information. Very few people will have the privilege of a Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health education. But, with these efforts [including free online initiatives such as Open Courseware, iTunes U, Coursera] everyone can get at least some fraction of what we believe is fundamental knowledge for attacking the world’s public health problems.”

via Grades are in for a pioneering free Johns Hopkins online class – College, Inc. – The Washington Post.

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Andy Bernat  |  January 31, 2013 at 8:53 am


    I think the real question is whether a MOOC gives someone an opportunity for learning that they otherwise wouldn’t have at all, not one that it is superior to face-to-face. The best educational practice would be one-to-one with a master teacher (Socrates) but most students don’t get that.


    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  January 31, 2013 at 1:50 pm

      Hi Andy,

      I agree that that’s a critical question. In Tucker’s data, most completers had college (plurality with graduate degrees). These are people who had access to learning opportunities. It’s not serving an under-served population yet.


    • 3. alanone1  |  January 31, 2013 at 4:03 pm

      Hi Andy

      There’s definitely something to say about face to face with Socrates, or any great mind — we’ve all had the experience with some of the great minds we’ve known.

      On the other hand, I would say that the greatest learning experiences I’ve had are the ones resulting from thousands of hours of transformative change and practice that have resulted in not just more skilled versions of what I can do and think about, but qualitatively different versions as the result of the learning work.

      In other words, there’s a big sense in which “Socrates” or any teacher can’t match up to either (a) what is known about in the 21st century and the ways it can be known, or (b) what can happen to one’s own thinking via working at improving it.

      I think that this is the essential difference between oral cultures, and literate cultures, and between hearing a new slant and working to learn (and create within) a really new idea.



  • 4. alanone1  |  January 31, 2013 at 10:10 am

    Hi Mark

    I don’t understand why some people (including you) wring their hands a bit over the low completion rates. What’s the point of this if the total numbers who complete are factors of 10 to 100 compared to a regular class?

    And most of the dropouts are now better aware that there exist such and such subjects that might be taken up again in the future.

    This seems to have many parallels with plentiful books in a reading culture (and we must remember that the printing press and plentiful books had much more to do with changing Europe and America than most teaching that was done).

    The questions I’d be asking would be not about retention of students but about retention of understanding and knowledge. How do the successful students of a MOOC compare with successful class students after 5 years have passed? What percentage of both groups wound up with real education as a result?

    I’d also be asking about the similarities and differences between class learning, book learning, and MOOC learning.

    I’d try to do an independent study of student thought patterns in our current age in which — for many people — electronic communication has allowed oral modes of thought to be retained in areas in which previously only reading and writing can serve.

    This was starting to show even when I was in college. For a real reader, a classroom is at best a commercial for doing some real work which can be done 5-10 times as efficiently by reading and writing, can be done from more perspectives than in a class, and by using the modes of thought brought by reading and writing. (Those commercials can be important, but they are so often mistaken, especially in the US, for actual education.)

    And, I’d be thinking ahead to the real payoff of online learning — which is absolutely not the videos! — but when the system can really provide good automatic assessments of the “learning by doing” parts of the student learning experience, we should start seeing superior results — even compared to books.



    • 5. Mark Guzdial  |  January 31, 2013 at 1:49 pm

      Hi Alan,

      The first question (for me) is how much net new learning occurred in MOOCs. 80% of the students in the edX course had taken the course before. In the first GT MOOC, 10% of the completers had PhD’s and over 30% had Masters. Did the MOOCs really lead to learning, or was it just an experience that already-smart people wanted to have?

      I don’t disagree that the personalization could be a great win. I don’t believe that the current versions lead to much net new learning.


      • 6. Erik Engbrecht  |  February 1, 2013 at 8:39 am

        There are a couple common expressions I have both heard and spoken throughout my professional career:
        1. Now that I know why I need it, I wish I had paid more attention in that class while I was in school.
        2. If I had known that class would be useful I would have taken it, because now I’m trying to learn it while trying to get real work done.

        I don’t have any hard evidence, but I think it is rare for students to come even close to deep understanding in a single semester, even if they do very well in the course. It more just provides a framework that can be filled in later if and when it is needed.

        So I think there’s still potential for a good amount of real learning when an already well educated person takes a course over MOOC, even if the person has taken the class or a very similar one before. In fact, I think such people are often equipped to learn more, because they already have some familiarity, they know why are learning it, and have the motivation to do it outside of the formal structure of a degree program.

        You could argue that society doesn’t have a substantial need for such people to learn more, or that they are likely to learn it the old fashioned way – with books – in the absence of MOOCs so building MOOCs for them is a poor use of resources. Conversely, you could argue that MOOCs are not reaching the people that society most needs to learn. But those are arguments about resource allocation, not about how much learning is taking place.


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