Tuesday, February 17, 2015

retention in online education

I'm nowhere near a labor economist but in another life I would study education. Online education is particularly fascinating to me since I personally love it. I've done 8 or 10 coursera classes and started and abandoned about as many more. I love being able to learn about new subjects in a structured and multi-faceted* way again; it's like being able to take all the exploratory freshman college courses you want.

One of the first reasons people dismiss online education is something I wish wasn't a valid reason but I understand why it is. There's a major barrier to it being taken seriously as a credential, which means it's not going to be a substitute for traditional education anytime soon and will have trouble being financially viable.** But, as long as these credential-free courses exist despite lack of lucrativity***, I think that's great! They're purely about learning (what a concept!). The people in the course are self-selected based on genuine interest. The message boards consistently contain more fascinating and in-depth discussions than anything I've encountered in actual college classes. If I'm too busy one week, I'll skip a homework set, do it later at my leisure, my "grade" will suffer, but who cares.

I've lately heard a couple people dismiss online education for a reason I think is more bizarre, though.**** Retention rates. Yeah maybe it sounds bad when you excitedly advertise your course as having 700,000 signups but then have to later admit that only 10% of them completed it, but signups shouldn't be the metric in the first place. One of the great things about online education is that it's easy to peruse, test the waters, watch a few videos, try a couple weeks of homeworks, and then quit if it's not what you're looking for. Only one class that I've quit has been because I got too busy with other things and let it slide; the others were all because I made a conscious decision that it wasn't worth my time. Low retention rates (on average) is exactly what you want if what you care about is actual learning rather than credentials. If a particular class has a high retention rate that's a good sign about the quality of the course, but if retention rates are high across the board, people probably aren't exploring enough or are disproportionately motivated by the sheepskin.

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*Structured meaning that each lecture builds on the last, allowing you to get to deeper truths vastly more easily than trying to piece together 30 isolated wikipedia articles. And multi-faceted meaning not just reading a book, but actually going through problem sets and taking quizzes and such. Highly important for information processing and retention.

**Coursera is falling over itself to change this; you can now often pay to get a "verified certificate of completion" instead of the standard free pdf download, or you can get a special certificate "with distinction" if you achieve a certain grade, etc. I have no idea if these are helping them make money yet but that's obviously the goal.

***Which I'm sure won't last forever; right now it's driven by a lot of excitement and curiosity and altruism but that won't sustain it once it's thoroughly clear that the current model won't make money. But hopefully the huge body of work that has already been done can be recycled indefinitely.

****Sort of like people dismissing charter schools because they're, on average, performing worse than traditional schools. That's exactly what should be expected!

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