MOOCs and exercise bikes – more in common than you’d think

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If you have an exercise bike in the back room, you could be the small selection of people that use it everyday to get fit. But then again, you could be one of many more who bought it in the hope of regular practice but were unable to make it part of your routine.

The MOOC or Massive Open Online Course, which has come to prominence this year, often has much the same effect. Students may enrol in the online free courses from prestigious universities in their tens of thousands, but overwhelmingly they bomb out with attrition rates up to 80-90%.

For most would-be participants, the MOOC is like the unloved exercise bike that haunts you with feelings of inadequacy and failure.

The theory is sound

MOOCs have gathered a lot of attention recently for good reasons. They are built by excellent charismatic teachers from brand name universities; they are very convenient and free to access. Predictions suggest that they will inevitably replace much that universities do. Among polite academics, you can fill a room with instant fear just by saying the acronym. In one sublime syllable, this spectre seems to spell death for conventional teaching or even blended-learning.

The MOOC also comes at a time when the Australian government and universities are trying to broaden participation, including a government target to get 40% of 25-34 olds holding a bachelors degree or higher qualification by 2025. In this context, the free-to-try education may be seen as a tempting capacity-builder on a sector that is already stretched, particularly when trying to target students who may be under-prepared or from rural, regional, or outer-metropolitan areas.

Existing programs designed to bridge these students’ transitions to higher education privilege pastoral care and often have high staff to student ratios. Sending students to “do a MOOC” would be a free trial-by-fire: and we could give the stars who complete Norvig’s Artificial Intelligence course entry into a computer science degree at an Australian university.

Perhaps the Australian Institute of Sport could do the same with exercise bike users with the most succesful to become track cyclists? But of course, herein lies the problem.

Beginners need not apply

For many academics MOOCs make sense – they are a bit like the elite athlete, who might need do training at home, for which the exercise bike is a great all-weather, convenient option. But for the average person new to physical activity, the exercise bike is alluring but ultimately problematic.

It is low stakes: nobody knows how good or bad we are on the thing and it’s very cheap compared to the gym. Beyond the initial investment of the equipment there aren’t really any costs, no punctures or hazards. But because nobody else is around to witness your struggles, there is also no feedback (apart from beeps and glowing lights).

Instead, for the beginner, a group class is more suitable. Seeing others do what you want to do is very motivating; you feel a sense of commitment to the group, and your investment buoys you along.

In theory, the exercise bike is a brilliant invention; but its psychological effects are clear. It makes exercise socially introverted: we can pump away and no one will know about our exertions and embarrassments until we emerge like Hercules, except that we’re more likely to give up.

If somebody asks us or wants to check up on our progress, we are tempted to lie: “Oh I use it all the time, almost daily!” After all, your pride is at stake. These delusions possibly align with the cheating problems in MOOCs. What is cheating in such a low-stakes circumstance but a dishonest salvation from feelings of inadequacy?

Insecure learning

It has been suggested that the massive attrition in MOOCs is due simply to curiosity-driven or tentative toe-in-the-water enrolments, more like sampling, of little significance in terms of commitment.

Again, academics who have proved themselves by gaining a PhD, will not be vulnerable to any insecurities when they abandon the MOOC after taking a look around. And while everyone will have different reasons for discontinuing, not all of them will be so cavalier as to consider it educational window-shopping. Of the 80–90% of people who give up, we cannot assume that they are all indifferent to withdrawing, some will feel the disappointment of another abandoned attempt at education.

In a MOOC, however, nobody cares how you feel when you stop showing up, any more than the exercise bike feels compassion for your lack of persistence. The MOOC is the degree zero of the pastoral tradition.

Online limitations

In a sense, anything available online and free is a good thing for lots of people, but our obligation as educators is to see that the material is understood. We have responsibilities for the time that we occupy the attention of our students and the hopes that they put into their studies.

At its core, the MOOC assumes that students are self-regulated learners who already have the academic and ICT skills necessary to succeed at study. But all students are people whom we have to look after academically; and in this duty of care, the MOOC has everything counting against it.

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