Coursera: Week 1 - The first casualties
The lower completion rates of students in online courses, in comparison to traditional f2f courses, has been a long-time concern. Online courses are said to work best for students who are motivated, organized, and self-directed. Students in this Coursera class are now starting to post "Gotta drop out," "Considering leaving," and so on. Below are some factors which may (and, in one case I know personally, did) prompt a student to drop the course.
1. Not reading (or not doing so carefully)
The course materials (Syllabus, videos, and webpages) are very clear and concise. Based on questions on the discussion board posts, students are not reading or listening carefully --- "What do we read?, What do I write?, When is it due?, How do I submit?" Or worse yet, they are reading too much into it and/or developing their own unnecessary directions/expansions (in terms of the assignment). The instructor specifically said use only evidence in the story to discuss the story, but students are researching German history, oral vs written traditions, and so on. Expansions and "going beyond" is great for the optional discussion board activity, but the essay assignments (while still requiring reading and contemplation) are (or at least should be) short and sweet.
2. Workload and Stamina
The course has students read either collections of short stories/tales (such as the Grimm Brothers) or complete novels (such as Dracula or Martian Chronicles) each week. In my experience as an online course designer, it is not uncommon for 8 or 10-week online course to be developed/adapted from the original 16-week face-to-face, campus-based model of the same course. Given that, the workload in this course is appropriate. Also, a weekly 320-word essay (or as my 16 year-old son said as he rolled his eyes at me --- "It's not an essay... It's just a 'writing assignment'") is not overly demanding. There are no quizzes, exams, or projects. Discussion forums are optional. Still, while course requirements are comparatively low when compared to credit courses, a student still needs commitment and devoted focus to "stay with it" for 10 weeks. And, for some, this is proving too much...
3. Peer-review of weekly 320-essays and (informally) discussion posts
I personally know one student (a recent high school graduate) who withdrew from the course a few days ago. She expressed that some of the other students had degrees in either English or a related subject area. This is certainly true. She said she was worried about posting on the (optional) discussion boards and submitting her essay (the only requirement of the course) for review by other students. Feeling great anxiety that the other students would "tear her up," she ejected from the course. Personally, I have only witnessed open sharing, courtesy, and academic professionalism on the discussion forums. I assume the same will be true of the peer-reviews which begin this Tuesday.
The Shrinking Classroom (numerically and personally)
Students dropping the course is making the class numerically "smaller." I am also attempting to make the course "smaller" for myself as I reach out to specific students and groups in the course. By engaging on discussion boards with a student from Africa, a woman from Urbana, IL (my current location), or looking into joining student-driven study groups (through Facebook and Skype), I am trying to make valuable (and hopefully lasting) connections with other class members.