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CMU, Google Team Up To Improve Online Education

There are more than 7 million students around the world enrolled in some 12,000 Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, with topics ranging from oil and acrylic painting techniques to developmental artificial intelligence.

But, MOOCs aren’t your typical online classes. They’re free; they don’t go towards earning a degree; and, rarely are there assignments, but therein lies the problem.

In their current form, MOOCs, the tool that was supposed to change education forever, just don’t have what it takes to keep users interested. The classes have a dropout rate of about 95 percent and of the fewer than 5 percent that complete a course, the majority are U.S. college graduates.

“It requires a lot more effort to get something out,” Carnegie Mellon University Associate Professor Carolyn Rosé said. “If you want to learn, you really have to put the effort forth and it’s not generally true that people have good learning to learn skills. They may just not have what it takes.”

Thanks to a two-year $600,000 research award from Google, Rosé is trying to figure out how to lower dropout rates in MOOCs.

She said the MOOCs biggest flaw is a lack of social interaction.

“We can shape the social environment around MOOCs to make them more supportive and to keep people in and to help people find the support that they need,” Rosé said.

Unlike in the traditional classroom, MOOC users learn in isolation and are rarely given the chance to work with other online students.

Justine Cassell is the Associate Vice Provost of Technology Strategy and Impact at CMU. She said social interaction is the key to effective learning, whether it’s a user-to-user connection or even computer generated feedback.

“Learning in the MOOC context is not correlated with watching the filmstrips of the professor,” she said. “It’s correlated with the time you spend in an online discussion group and I love that. Of course it’s not surprising. It’s the same thing for a real classroom.”

CMU researchers are also developing ways to personalize the MOOC experience. Data can show when a student is in danger of dropping out, triggering an automated social intervention to reengage the user.

“When a student’s about to quit, that student might get an email saying: ‘Jane on the other side of the country is having similar problems to you. We suggest you put a workgroup together and work on problems 23 because both of you are having difficulty,’” Cassel said.

But, so far, most users are just browsing and don’t intend on becoming active students.

Cassell’s colleague Carolyn Rosé said that could be the biggest hurdle to overcome.

“Overall, we’re still going to see large attrition numbers in MOOCs as long as there’s enough people who are curious about them that they’re going to come and engage in a kind of non-serious way,” she said.

Despite the dismal dropout rate and lack of user engagement, Maggie Johnson, director of education and university relations at Google, still believes the MOOC could change the way the world learns.

“The types of projects that Google’s interested in, funding and collaborating on are exactly the ones that are going to show the potential and really push the platform and the mechanism of learning in new directions,” she said.

And that potential is what keeps CMU’s Carolyn Rosé working to improve the MOOC.

“I don’t think it’s going to be the vision that was kind of hyped up in the media,” she said, “but there will be something new that’s coming. And so, I think it’s worth working towards that. I think it offers something and we have to find out what that new thing is that we’re ready as a community to offer.”

Rosé said MOOCs aren’t going to be an overnight success and won’t be replacing the traditional classroom in the near future, but, what about the far future?

The Erie, PA native has been a fellow in the WESA news department since May 2013. Having earned a bachelor's degree in print journalism from Duquesne University, he is now pursuing an M.A. in multi-media management. Michael describes his career aspiration as "I want to do it all in journalism."