Dublin at night; flickr; CC, Sebastian Dooris

Dublin at night; flickr; CC, Sebastian Dooris

One of the interesting takes on the MOOC chit-chat that I’m a little surprised we don’t hear too much about, is what the experience tells us about the realities of part-time study. Yet, how often are we being told from various sources these days that perhaps one solution to the fees-crisis of higher education is for more students to study part-time? In the UK, that’s the hallmark of Labour’s proposed new ‘earn while you learn’ scheme, for example.

But the truth, of course, is that this is no panacea and those who have heroically managed to successfully complete part-time degrees have often done so because of huge personal resilience and sacrifice. Not to mention cost, excluded as many part-time students are (in many countries) from a whole range of financial supports. And as for the illusory notion that it’s a half-time work, half-time study week; the reality is its a full-time (or more than one job) week, with study crammed in late at night on top of everything else.

So where do MOOCs figure in this? Free courses, open to all and you only pay if you want some form of certification. Well, if you’re studying for a qualification whilst working, then you’re going to be one of the ones that has to pay — sure the cost might be low, but remember you get nothing for that in terms of support, feedback, encouragement — nada, unless you count an automated email server and an MCQ-bot. But that’s another discussion.

What I contend that we can learn from many of the MOOCs to date, is that the drop-off rate is a far more significant indicator than the proponents are prepared to accept. Yes, it’s true that at one level it doesn’t matter, since no money has changed hands and 1% of 100,000 is still….blah, blah. Think of the learning experience, though. The fact that the vast majority of those who sign up for MOOCs drop out in only a matter of a few weeks, just as the content stacks up and the little assessments start to accumulate might well be indicative of just how difficult it is to find the time, regularly, to devote to concentrated effort and how impossible it can sometimes be to try and catch up again to rejoin the schedule. I know, I speak from experience. Over the last week or so I’ve been ill and fallen behind, I’ve got work and other things happening over the coming weeks, so it’ll be tricky. Life happens.

So, if the majority of those currently taking MOOCs are, as we have seen from some of the analyses, already highly-educated, financially well-off and in regular, professional employment — but even they can’t ‘stay the course’ — what chance for someone who’s working all the hours to pay the rent, to support a family and who is still new to advanced study and the arcane language of academe? MOOCs, then, might be telling us not just (as others have long pointed out) that education is more than ‘content delivery’, but reminding us that part-time study is difficult and those who have had the good fortune to have studied full-time with fees paid by the state (or someone else) and gone straight from school to university, really need to ‘cop on’ (as they say here in Ireland) and think seriously about the educational and financial supports that all of our citizens deserve to flourish as individuals.

Quads for the wealthy, MOOCs for the poor, is not ‘a flexible means of increasing educational opportunity to those unable to afford full-time study.’ It’s a cop-out from facing up to educational, social and economic injustice.