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Trying to find useful things to do with emerging technologies in open education

MOOCs as Partworks

A couple of recent posts crossed my feeds recently mooching around the idea that doing is MOOC is Like Reading a Newspaper; or not: MOOC Completion Rates DO Matter.

First up, Downes suggests that:

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 fashion 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 ‘abysmal’ 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.

Martin (Weller) responds:

Stephen Downes has a nice analogy, (which he blogged at my request, thankyou Stephen) in that it’s like a newspaper, no-one drops out of a newspaper, they just take what they want. This has become repeated rather like a statement of fact now. I think Stephen’s analogy is very powerful, but it is really a statement of intent. If you design MOOCs in a certain way, then the MOOC experience could be like reading a newspaper. The problem is 95% of MOOCs aren’t designed that way. And even for the ones that are, completion rates are still an issue.

Here’s why they’re an issue. MOOCs are nearly always designed on a week by week basis (which would be like designing a newspaper where you had to read a certain section by a certain time). I’ve blogged about this before, but from Katy Jordan’s data we reckon 45% of those who sign up, never turn up or do anything. It’s hard to argue that they’ve had a meaningful learning experience in any way. If we register those who have done anything at all, eg just opened a page, then by the end of week 2 we’re down to about 35% of initial registrations. And by week 3 or 4 it’s plateauing near 10%. The data suggests that people are definitely not treating it like a newspaper. In Japan some research was done on what sections of newspapers people read.

He goes on:

… Most MOOCs are about 6-7 weeks long, so 90% of your registered learners are never even looking at 50% of your content. That must raise the question of why are you including it in the first place? If a subject requires a longer take at it, beyond 3 weeks say, then MOOCs really may not be a very good approach to it. There is a hard, economic perspective here, it costs money to make and run MOOCs, and people will have to ask if the small completion rates are the most effective way to get people to learn that subject. You might be better off creating more stand alone OERs, or putting money into better supported outreach programmes where you can really help people stay with the course. Or maybe you will actually design your MOOC to be like a newspaper.

So…

I buy three newspapers a week – the Isle of Wight County Press (to get a feel for what’s happened and is about to happen locally, as well as seeing who’s currently recruiting), the Guardian on a Saturday (see what news stories made it as far as Saturday comment, do the Japanese number puzzles, check out the book reviews, maybe read the odd long form interview and check a recipe or two), and the Observer on a Sunday (read colleagues’ columns, longer form articles by journalists I know or have met, check out any F1 sports news that made it into that paper, book reviews, columns, and Killer again…).

So I skim bits, have old faithfuls I read religiously, and occasionally follow through on a long form article that was maybe advertised on the cover and I might have missed otherwise.

Newspapers are organised in a particular way, and that lets me quickly access the bits I know I want to access, and throw the rest straight onto the animal bedding pile, often unread and unopened.

So MOOCs are not really like that, at least, not for me.

For me MOOCs are freebie papers I’ve picked up and then thrown, unread, onto the animal bedding pile. For me.

What I can see, though, as MOOCs as partworks. Partworks are those titles you see week on week in the local newsagent with a new bit on the cover that, if collected over weeks and months and assembled in the right way, result in a flimsy plastic model you’ve assembled yourself with an effective cost price running into hundreds of pounds.

[Retro: seems I floated the MOOC as partwork idea before – Online Courses or Long Form Journalism? Communicating How the World Works… – and no-one really bit then either…]

In the UK, there are several notable publishers of partwork titles, including for example Hachette, De Agostini,Eaglemoss. Check out their homepages – then check out the homepages of a few MOOC providers. (Note to self – see if any folk working in marketing of MOOC platform providers came from a partwork publishing background.)

Here’s a riff reworking the Wikipedia partwork page:

A partworkMOOC is a written publicationan online course released as a series of planned magazine-like issueslessons over a period of time. IssuesLessons are typically released on a weekly, fortnightly or monthly basis, and often a completed set is designed to form a reference work oncomplete course in a particular topic.

Partwork seriesMOOCs run for a determined length and have a finite life. Generally, partworksMOOCs cover specific areas of interest, such as sports, hobbies, or children’s interest and stories such as PC Ace and the successful The Ancestral Trail series by Marshall Cavendish Ltdrandom university module subjects, particularly ones that tie in to the telly or hyped areas of pseudo-academic interest. They are generally sold at newsagents and are mostly supported by massive television advertising campaigns for the launchhosted on MOOC platforms because exploiting user data and optimising user journeys through learning content is something universities don't really understand and avoid trying to do. In the United Kingdom, partworksMOOCs are usually launched by heavy television advertising each Januarymentioned occasionally in the press, often following a PR campaign by the UK MOOC platfrom, FutureLearn.

PartworksMOOCs often include cover-mounted items with each issue that build into a complete set over time. For example, a partwork about artMOOC might include a small number of paints or pencils that build into a complete art-setso-called "badges" that can be put into an online "backpack" to show off to your friends, family, and LinkedIn trawlers; a partwork about dinosaurs might include a few replica bones that build a complete model skeleton at the end of the series; a partwork about films may include a DVD with each issue. In Europe, partworks with collectable models are extremely popular; there are a number of different publications that come with character figurines or diecast model vehicles, for example: The James Bond Car Collection.

In addition, completed partworksMOOCs have sometimes been used as the basis for receiving a non-academic credit bearing course completion certificate, or to create case-bound reference works and encyclopediasa basis for a piece of semi-formal assessment and recognition. An example is the multi-volume Illustrated Science and Invention Encyclopedia which was created with material first published in the How It Works partworkNEED TO FIND A GOOD EXAMPLE.

In the UK, partworksMOOCs are the fourth-best selling magazine sector, after TV listing guides, women’s weeklies and women’s monthliesNEED SOME NUMBERS HERE*.... A common inducement is a heavy discount for the first one or two issues??HOW DO MOOCs SELL GET SOLD?. The same seriesMOOC can be sold worldwide in different languages and even in different variations.

* Possibly useful starting point? BBC News Magazine: Let’s get this partwork started

The Wikipedia page goes on to talk about serialisation (ah, the good old days when I still had hoped for feeds and syndication… eg OpenLearn Daily Learning Chunks via RSS and then Serialised OpenLearn Daily RSS Feeds via WordPress) and the Pecia System (new to me), which looks like it could provide an interesting starting point on a model of peer-co-created learning, or somesuch. There’s probably a section on it in this year’s Innovating Pedagogy report. Or maybe there isn’t?!;-)

Sort of related but also not, this article from icrossing on ‘Subscribe is the new shop.’ – Are subscription business models taking over? and John Naughton’s column last week on the (as then, just leaked) Kindle subscription model – Kindle Unlimited: it’s the end of losing yourself in a good book, I’m reminded of Subscription Models for Lifelong Students and Graduate With Who (Whom?!;-), Exactly…?, which several people argued against and which I never really tried to defend, though I can’t remember what the arguments were, and I never really tried to build a case with numbers in it to see whether or not it might make sense. (Because sometimes you think the numbers should work out in your favour, but then they don’t… as in this example: Restaurant Performance Sunk by Selfies [via RBloggers].)

Erm, oh yes – back to the MOOCs.. and the partworks models. Martin mentioned the economics – just thinking about the partwork model (pun intended, or maybe not) here, how are parts costed? Maybe an expensive loss leader part in week 1, then cheap parts for months, then the expensive parts at the end when only two people still want them? How will print on demand affect partworks (newsagent has a partwork printer round the back to print of the bits that are needed for whatever magazines are sold that week?) And how do the partwork costing models then translate to MOOC production and presentation models?

Big expensively produced materials in front loaded weeks, then maybe move to smaller presentation methods, get the forums working a little better with smaller, more engaged groups? How about the cMOOC ideas – up front in early weeks, or pushed back to later weeks, where different motivations, skills, interest and engagement models play out.

MOOCs are newspapers? Nah… MOOCs as partwork – that works better as a model for me. (You can always buy a partwork mid-way through because you are interested in that week’s content, or the content covered by the magazine generally, not because you are interested in the plastic model or badge.

Thinks: hmm, partworks come in at least two forms, don’t they – one to get pieces to build a big model of a boat or a steam train or whatever. The other where you get a different superhero figurine each week and the aim it attract the completionist. Which isn’t to say that part 37 might not be stupidly popular because it has a figure that is just generally of interest, ex- of being part of a set?

Written by Tony Hirst

July 22, 2014 at 3:26 pm

Posted in Anything you want

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2 Responses

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  1. That’s a really interesting variant; I’ve not heard of partworks before, more of a serialized collection take than a compendium of non related stories in the newspaper.

    Metaphors can be minefields. What’s left out is out motivations for taking on MOOCs vs newspapers, part works; aren’t we there for slightly different reason, and expectations? And then the whole publishing model is one to many. Is a CMOOC a part work authored partly by its audience? The relationships too seem not quite a match with a course experience

    CogDog

    July 23, 2014 at 1:42 am

    • I was being really literal in my response – partwork as a thing with:

      a) content local to the week – this might be general content relative to the area of theme as a whole or it might be content related to that week’s part. The general content may be standalone, or may be part of either a tightly coupled or loosely coupled arc over several weeks, for example.

      b) The part – which has maybe two roles? Something tangible in and of itself, even if you don’t make the model, but are interested in the content – like a badge maybe? But it also forms part of some thing you are building up to – so this might be like a portfolio that you build up over time and that could perhaps be used for assessment or to demonstrate attendance and completion?

      Note: not all partworks have freebies. I remember as a kid we bought one series on Great Artists, which built up to an encyclopedia, essentially, over who knows how many months. The attraction over that rather than a book was that it was serialised, so it became part of a regular reading habit over an extended period of time.

      As far as metaphors go – agreed. I was just using this as a foil for thoughts. Another one for example is the costing models and resource allocation models used by partworks, and whether there are things to be learned there based on the anticipated roll off of participants.

      Yet another is that these things are presumably profitable, and likely to have well defined models of what levers and dials to turn to make them profitable. Which edu as business will be interested in. The flipside of this may be engagement and interest models, and whether customer satisfaction and engagement are tracked by the partwork publishers. They presumably also have some idea about motivational tricks and consumer psychology when it comes to maintaining – or breaking – a relationship with an audience group.

      Tony Hirst

      July 23, 2014 at 8:37 am


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