Providing the Why

I’m not a quitter. There are very few things in my life that I’ve actually started and not finished, and I’m pretty hard on myself when it comes to both personal and professional deadlines.

But this week I quit the Big Data in Education MOOC. I dropped out. And through these last few weeks I learned a few VERY valuable points about retention.

To be clear, I didn’t drop out because the content was too hard or too difficult to understand.  I didn’t drop out because I couldn’t stand the professor’s voice. Most certainly, I didn’t drop out because I thought the information wasn’t valuable.

I dropped out because I wasn’t learning.

To give you an overview, the course was structured to release ~six sessions (~10 minutes each) once a week…on Thursdays, conveniently my favorite day of the week. Most sessions had mini-exercises or tasks to complete in RapidMiner. At the end of each part of the course there was a quiz. You could take it a total of 5 times to pass. For the record, I passed both week one and two with 100%.

But I wasn’t learning.

learnI enrolled in the course to gain a better grasp on the WHY part of data. Why do we look at data and why do we care?  Continuing, I wanted to know why we build models in a certain manner and why we choose specific functions. I learned a decent amount of this in my MBA program, but have never built models in a system. From the description of the course, I assumed these “whys” would be covered.

Instead, I found myself mimicking the professor’s movements in RapidMiner, typing exactly what he did, and of course, finding myself able to get the answers. When it came to the tests, I attempted the questions first without notes and the second time with them. I found that I got relatively similar scores. I had memorized the path, but I didn’t know how I got started on it or where it was leading. I have an excellent memory that I attribute to 14 years of piano lessons.

But memorization doesn’t answer the “why” I was searching for. 

I looked to the forums for guidance and additional readings and information. That’s one of the biggest benefits of MOOCs, right? The ability to learn from others. Instead, I found others like myself (aside from the occasional expert whose explanations only left me more perplexed), questioning the reasoning behind the models.

Regardless, here’s what I’ve learned about retention for MOOCs (and any course really):

  • You have to provide the why. The ability to reason is what sets our species apart from all others. If I don’t know why I’m building a model a certain way, it’s meaningless to me. Always start a course with theory (I know many will disagree) to provide a foundation for the how.
  • Content engagement is key. To be fair, I could have been more involved in the forums, and I missed the office hours due to work responsibilities. But, the way in which the content was presented wasn’t engaging in itself.
  • Provide information that connects to the real world. This jumps back to theory. How has the concept been used in practice? In business school we weren’t just given cases to read. We used those cases and worked through them on our own, comparing our results and solutions to those actually reached.
  • Overall engagement. You have to be approachable. This really isn’t feasible for a professor with 1000s of students all over the world. So, I’m not sure I really have a solution here.

I’m just one person and I know we all learn differently. What I did learn in this MOOC (and what I haven’t from other online courses I’ve taken) is how my learning style is defined online. I know now exactly what I need and have a better foundation to approach future courses.

I’m interested to hear what others’ experiences were/are with this class or any other online courses you’ve taken.