Like Reading a Newspaper

I've stated this in many times in talks and interviews, but I can't find it anywhere in my actual text-based materials, so let's get it on the record so people can have something to cite, should they want to.

It has to do with MOOC completion rates, and the oft-cited criticism that MOOCs have low completion rates. Here's a citation:

The average completion rate of xMOOCs is 7.6%, with a minimum of 0.67% and a maximum of 19.2%. The 19.2% appears to be an outlier from Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, although it may be worth figuring out how they got their rate so high.

Other people have argued that there is a very lartge number of people who sign up and never return, and that completion rates are much better if we look at the numbner of people participating after the first rate. But that's fine; let's stipulate that completgion rates are abysmally low.

My response is that this argument misunderstands the nature of MOOCs (and certainly, MOOCs as we've designed them in the connectivist world).

The traditional course is designed like a book - it is intended to run in a sequence, the latter bits build on the first bits, and if you start a book and abandon it p[art way through there is a real sense in which you can say the book has failed, because the whole point of a book is to read it from beginning to end.

But our MOOCs are not designed like that. Though they have a beginning and an end and a range of topics in between, they're not designed to be consumed in a linear fashio the way a book it. Rather, they're much more like a magazine or a newspaper (or an atlas or a city map or a phone book). The idea is that there's probably more content than you want, and that you're supposed to pick and choose from the items, selecting those that are useful and relevant to your present purpose.

And so here's the response to completion rates: nobody ever complained that newspapers have low completion rates. And yet no doubt they do,. probably far below the 'abyssmal' MOOC completion rates (especially if you include real estate listings and classified ads). People don't read a newspaper to complete it, they read a newspaper to find out what's important.

This, indeed, is the model for most media, and most things. I've made similar analogies many times:

- nobody says the restaurant has failed if a person doesn't eat all the foods in a buffet
- nobody says a map has failed if a person doesn't look at or reference every street name in the gazeteer
- nobody says that a hockey or football game is a failure if you didn't watch every play from every player beginning to end
- nobody says a grocery store is a failure because a person doesn't complete the food selection available
- nopbody says a television channel is a failure if people don't watch the entire run of p[rogramming from sign-on to the national anthem
- nobody says a Lego set is a failure if a person does not build every model in the guidebook

It's actually very rare to find media of any sort that is intended to be consumed in its entirely. Most of the time, in most things, we pick and choose what is important to us. That is the normal mode of interacting with content, and it is the normal mode of interacting with a MOOC.

I know that the book-people think completion is very important. But theirs is in fact a very small words. And even in the case of books, nobody thinks a library a failure if you don't read everything in the collection, or an author a failure if you don't read their entire corpus. And just so with MOOCs.

Update March 23, 2014 - some Twitter interactions

‏@mweller Mar 21: Like reading a newspaper - @downes with a nice MOOC analogy (blogged partly at my request, ta Stephen) …

@mdeimann Mar 21: but still such an argument does not work for education where there is a lot of obligatory content to know.

‏@mweller Mar 21: yes, i don't think Stephen is saying all education needs to be this way, but for moocs as he envisages them

‏@mdeimann Mar 21: ok MOOCs should not be portrayed as an opposite to trad. education but as vehicle that helps engaging people into it.

@downes Mar 22

Why? Why shouldn't MOOCs, especially as I see them, not be considered an alternative to traditional education? People talk of necessary content that must be learned. Even given this, why can't a MOOC provide it? Why must we be led? Moreover, where is the argument that there is core content that must be learned in any (let alone all) courses? The lack of common standards, and difficulty transferring credit, argue the is no core content, and if not cMOOCs can replace traditional ed

‏@mdeimann Mar 21: but still such an argument does not work for education where there is a lot of obligatory content to know.

@mweller Mar 21: yes, i don't think Stephen is saying all education needs to be this way, but for moocs as he envisages them

‏@mdeimann Mar 21: ok MOOCs should not be portrayed as an opposite to trad. education but as vehicle that helps engaging people into it.

22 Mar 2014 @downes

Even if these are pre-requisites there isn't eactly one way to study them, not exactly one body of materials to study. and even if there is exactly one way to study (still not granted), the evidence is most universities get it wrong... I recall my own calculus class in uni, for example - a prof with a thick accent, an impenetrable text, chaotic tutorials.  But in fact, knowledge has neither an internal order nor a socially constructed order; there are at best conventions...


  1. Hi Stephen
    In this paper Helene Fournier and I discuss these issues in our conclusion. It seems that people use MOOCs in the same way as they might use websites. (

  2. So, an xMOOC 'Philosophy 101' can be replaced with 'My Life 101'. Would that match connectivist learning ideology?

  3. The completion rate onsession by HE (in the UK) in part stems from the funding models that penalised institutions whose students do anything different from the norm. The Open University was an exception to this, but they have also increasingly come under pressure to view learners who don’t ‘complete a quilification’ in as some way failing rather than celebrating the learning they have achieved.

  4. @Mikhail - if your life consists of reading a wide range of perspectives, ideas and opinions, and discussing these with an equally interested circle of friends, then yes. If your life consists of watching Seinfeld reruns, then not so much.

  5. I like the sampling and buffet approach to MOOCs. My goal is to learn what I'm interested in and find useful, not to complete someone else's idea of a "course." I also like to know where the ideas and content are, so I can go back to them when, and if, I need to.

  6. I don't know that cMOOCs *can* be completed. Even if one blogs and tweets and and reads and comments obsessively every week of the MOOC, and keeps in touch with other participants after it ends, they have simply been more active than many other participants. I would contend that the cMOOCs I have experienced had no completion criteria. Oh sure, I know some participants received educational credits if they met an arbitrarily-set level of participation in an arbitrarily-set number of activities. However, many non-credit participants exceeded the activity of those who participated at the minimum level for gaining credit. I would even venture to guess that some who left fewer artifacts than required for credit may have gained more from it than some who received the credit. There is learning that is satisfactory to the participant, and there is participation that is evident to the rest of those watching. There is an end to a MOOC, but who is to judge completion?

    I think part of the problem is that "outsiders" confuse MOOCs with education (because of what they read into the meaning of C = course). All of the harsh criticism I've read has condemned MOOCs for being sub-standard educational models based on how they stack up against structure teaching models. In my experience with MOOCs, they are much more about learning than about education and teaching. I joined my first MOOC, PLENK2010, to learn "about connectivism". Instead I made connections. I learned plenty about web2.0 tools, but not because someone taught the tools. Rather, I tried various tools because I saw someone doing something cool with one that I thought would be useful to me. I broadcast to the void on my blog, and living organisms answered back. I Skyped, Second Life'd, Elluninated, and Tweeted with strangers. Strangers took an interest and the world becomes larger for me and for my students.
    I'll end here. Like a MOOC, there is no finishing off with a tidy concluding sentence.

  7. I think there are more aspects to this. We keep defending the MOOC but let's look at how abysmally low higher education completion rates are! We don't consider the level of investment in time, identity and wealth involved and all the custodial support provided. Given all that a 10% drop out rate at a university (Stanford is 22%) is massive compared to 90% drop out rate at a MOOC with no investment of either of the above and no consequences.

    More details:

  8. While I love all the analogies you gave, think even books need not be completed from start to finish (particularly not reference books or textbooks, but even other books)

  9. Oh, and another analogy, MOOCs are like a very large shopping mall, you might not see all the shops from where you are standing, but you have not failed if you have not visited every single one (e.g. Everyone's blog in a cMOOC)

  10. I wonder, what is the minimum and the maximum for a learning activity of a connectivist MOOC? Is it a unit, a topic, a specific task? Does it exist? Can an instructivist course be a part of a cMOOC? When reading a newspaper, it's clear from the structure. When using a map or playing Lego, it's less obvious.

    My question has evolved from a practical problem (as well as the previous question): I want to create an Intro to Philosophy course for Russian-speaking students that would be based on connectivist ideology.

  11. Mikhail, the shortest connectivist MOOC I've seen was six weeks, and the longest was 30 weeks. But I don't think there's really a rule.

  12. Small caveat: maybe we also no longer design books to be read completely, or in sequence? Maybe we never did, if you think about indexing as a way of treating a book as to-be-looked-up?

    Bigger caveat: we wouldn't even be having this conversation if the more recent MOOC providers could just stop claiming everyone who ever walked past the bookstore and so much as looked into the window as a fully paid up bibliophile. Their now-you-see-it-now-you-don't with enrolment data got us into this mess of claim and counter claim.

  13. My first MOOC ever was Change11. I loved it because I only ever did a few things related to the topics that interested me. However, I still go back often and look at the collections of resources that interested me not at all at the time but interest me quite greatly now. I have done many, many MOOCs since then, never with the intention of doing anything but sample the things that I needed for my current learning. I love how someone else organizes the resources and learning and then I just take what I need at the time - much like a website or other media, except that I connect to others who are also learning.

    In our current OSSEMOOC, (, we prefer to use "community" as the last "C", and the published "non-completion" rates are always used to question what we are doing.

    For those of us in it and learning together, we know our learning is never "complete".

  14. Perfect, thank you ... "nobody says the restaurant has failed if a person doesn't eat all the foods in a buffet"


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