The Truth About MOOCs: Only 10% Of Students Actually Finish Them

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Reading Tamar Lewin’s article about online education companies in today’s New York Times, one fact leaped out at me:

” . . . less than 10 percent of MOOC [massive open online course] students finish the courses they sign up for on their own.”

What this tells me is that for all the hype about making education available for free on the web, we need to work a lot harder to create the psychological conditions that promote persistence, accountability, goal-directedness, responsiveness to instructors’ and classmates’ expectations, and whatever else it is that makes students keep going to class in the real world. (Actual course credit for MOOCs will accomplish some of this, but not all.)

What do you think will make online students actually complete their courses?

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19 Responses to “The Truth About MOOCs: Only 10% Of Students Actually Finish Them”

  1. Jay says:

    I use MOOC to work on my schedule so I would be one of those who does not finish on time. I am fine with that since I like the flexibility of working according to my schedule that meets my needs.

  2. Shari says:

    I just completed a 12 week MOOC on Coursera with Dr. McFarland of Stanford, and we had lively forum discussions on this same subject. As these are all beta courses, there is little information to go on before you sign up for the course. A 300 word blurb about the class is not really sufficient information and sometimes it’s not at all what it appeared.

    Prior to the class I did complete, however, I had signed up for a different 6 week course that appeared to be one thing and within 1 week it was evident that it was something completely different – and not in a good way. So I unenrolled in that one. So, first of all, accurate expectations is an important factor.

    According to the discussion forum in our class, the lack of consistent Internet connectivity was a detriment to many students in countries other than the US. These schools are learning how to provide their products online and the students are equally learning what tools, technology and persistence it takes to make it succeed. They are working out technology and process glitches and the crowdsourced feedback/data they are getting from the students is invaluable to their growth process.

    I, for one, am delighted to be able to offer my feedback to Coursera as payment for the classes they are providing at this time. My next course begins next Monday and I am thrilled with the continued opportunity to learn new things!

  3. Jason Prokop says:

    OK, I’ve noticed that people claim two things when it comes to MOOCs (1) they’re not rigourous and (2) not many people will benefit from them. Even if the 10% statistic above means (2) is correct, what does that say about the rigor? That it’s at least fairly difficult to take a MOOC and it’s not watered down learning.

  4. I agree that the more accurately the course description reflects the content, type of work and online interactions required, as well as the estimated time commitment, the greater the number of “completers.” I would expect the rigor of MOOCs to vary according to the context. Some might be more akin to local continuing education courses (hobby courses), while others might approach the rigor of a graduate course. I’m excited to see what unfolds with regard to accountability practices – how do instructors ensure that work is being completed honestly by the individual registered for the course? I’m registered for my first MOOC (starting in a few days) and look forward to the opportunity to participate in (and I hope complete!) many more!

  5. Tim Converse says:

    In other breaking news, only a small percentage of people who have been heard to say “I should really go back to [conventional offline] school and get my degree” actually go back to school.

    In other words, I don’t think that this 10% stat means anything much except that the barrier to signing up for a MOOC is very low and completing one is harder. It’s about as easy to sign up for a MOOC as it is to say “I should really go back to school.” I think it’s reasonable to assume that much of the 90% weren’t that serious or motivated in the first place.

    Probably this means that number of courses completed is a more relevant stat to look at for the impact of MOOCs, but even at 1/10 of signups there is a heck of a lot of course-completing happening.

    If you really want a greater completion percentage, then do what conventional colleges do, and enforce a this-will-be-on-your-permanent-record penalty for dropping out or withdrawing from a course after a certain point. No one wants a “transcript” riddled with W’s or Incompletes. But this would probably improve the completion/signup ratio mainly by reducing signups, and what’s the point of that? The penalty exacted by conventional schools does make some sense, given that as a physically-attending student you have used up resources that could have been given to a student who would have completed. But as far as I can tell, the marginal cost to an online school of a signed-up student that doesn’t complete is close to zero.

  6. Shari says:

    Additionally, some people think online learning is so much easier than going to sit in a brick-and-mortar classroom. And it is not! It requires much more discipline. I agree with Tim that there is marginal, if any, cost to the online school of an enrollee who does not complete the class.

  7. Dustin says:

    In terms of creating accountability I think MOOCs need to use social media and gaming. Let’s say, for example, when you sign up for a MOOC, like so many apps and anything in this world, it sends facebook notifications when you finish a lecture, turn in assignments, or in peer reviewed and graded assignments, your MOOC grades are posted, or awards that have no material value other than bragging rights are posted. If you start embedding the social media and gaming experience into a MOOC, you might deter someone from getting halfway into a class and then losing interest/someone forgets how unfun writing 5 page papers can be. I think especially if you have friends and colleagues who end up in the same MOOC or MOOC system it would make you think twice about leaving a class you’ve signed up for or started.

  8. Arthur Clarke says:

    I wonder if we might not overstate the problem. How many unfinished books do you have lying around? If you are like me you have quite a few. Does that mean that I have wasted my time and, puritanically, should castigate myself for being a quiter? Perhaps we need to look at learning differently. I Google more and more for things I don’t know; I read a book until I’m bored or something else catches my attention with a higher return. Cumulatively this has amounted to considerable learning on a broad range of subjects. Maybe instead of slaving under the yoke of finish what you started, we should just keep starting, asking questions. What we learn will guide us to the next start, Google search, book, &c., even if we left something unfinished behind. And who is to judge what is unfinished?

  9. After being a MOOC participant and facilitator, I think part of the key “issues” is saying that MOOCs have to be a course. MOOCs are based on connectivist thought, which encourages learning through networks by connecting with others – and digital content. Just because traditional online methods insist on a “course” why not consider modules or projects done in MOOC like ways? Have a variety of online courses connect for a certain (small) amount of time …and I am sure that you would have better results. MOOCs were created from a theory – its the theory (Connectivism) that needs to be integrated into f2f and online courses – not forcing connectivsm into a traditional online system. Besides, until the assessment options change – why is it a problem that people take MOOCs foe the sake of getting what “they” want out of them? Why do people need to finish them if they “got” the learning that they needed? Do 100% of the people really need to finish the course? Why?

    I’m thinking that if you want completion rates – create a different instructional design using connectivism as “part” of the course. If you want self-directed learning and don;t care about completion rates – take a MOOC when you want and how you want to :)

    • Denise says:

      I absolutely agree. If I only want to watch the videos, why not? That isn’t officially completing the course, but it meets my particular need.

  10. I’m obviously biased (founder of Puzzle School), but I think that if MOOCs start leveraging their technology to create learning environments where students have to struggle just a bit to figure out the learning then we’ll see much higher retention rates.

    If the students have to solve a challenge that requires them to use the material in the course before that material is delivered, but are given access to both the material and the feedback loops necessary to solve the challenge, then I think we’ll see much higher retention rates.

    The single biggest motivator in almost every situation is a sense of progress. You can’t get a good sense of progress unless you are using your knowledge to solve challenges.

    You could argue that this already happens in most MOOCs, but I think the key is to make the challenges more granular and frequent. You need more frequent moments where students feel a clear sense of progress or the motivation will deteriorate.

    So it becomes less about online lectures and more about learning through challenges (or what I would call a puzzle). The online lectures can still exist as a tool to help students solve a challenge, but it would probably be more helpful if the lectures were shorter and in text form as well. No one wants to watch a 15 minute lecture to get one hint toward solving a challenge…

  11. Yesterday, I began week one of my first foray into the MOOC world, starting my study of The Modern World: Global History Since 1750 taught by UVa’s Philip Zelikow via Coursera. In his introduction, he discusses the great divide between the traditional and modern world, citing the movement from stasis and subsistence to growth and surplus. The emphasis on surplus in the modern world called to mind your post about the 90% of individuals who fail to complete the MOOCs they start. Two hundred years ago, the opportunity to gain knowledge was restricted. Today, we enjoy an unprecedented surplus of information. Perhaps, few of us stick with our original intentions regarding MOOCs because surplus leads us down another path.

    • Denise says:

      Holly, I am also signed up for this course. I signed up late and never planned to do the assignments. I just want to watch the videos and take my own notes. I’ve already got a Ph.D. in History, but it’s American History. I expect to teach World History some day, I want to learn what a top-notch instructor does with the subject. Ultimately, I’ll use the material quite a lot, but the numbers will show I didn’t complete the course.

  12. Re completion rates, first we need to understand what a low completion rate actually means. Why are people not finishing courses, and how does that relate to the course itself, their contexts, needs, choices and aims.

    Given the nature of MOOCS, it’s possible a part of the low completion rate is not an indication that there is a problem. People engage with MOOCs for multiple reasons, and only some of those motivations require course completion as a necessary aim and end for the participant.

    Once we understand what is happening, and why, we can begin to address how to deal with the shortfalls we have identified.

    For students who do want to complete, but don’t, we need to understand the relationship between their motivation and context, and course structure, content, practice and characteristics.

    Some good starting pints might be to maximise motivation and persistence, anmd some simple strategies for doing that involve…let’s see…

    1. Stressing the utility of the course – what will it enable you to do, and how will that empower you in your job, life, or whatever the apllicable context is. Bandura argued that utility is the key to motivation.

    2. Avoid a one size fits all pedagogical solution. Design for different learners. In MOOCs, learners will have different level of prior knowledge, which Ausubel argues is key o taking in new information. So, support your novices, and let your experts have a freer experience.

    3. Follow Nielsen’s ten heuristics for usability, both in your interface, and also in your course design.

    4. Feedback. Feedback is key to establishing in students that the course they are engaged in is valuable.

    5. Provide multiple modes for goal orienting. Some learners learn better and persist if they focus on skills development (today IO learned to edit video), some learn better and persist if they focus on the endpoint ( if I do x, y and z at the end of the course I will achieve Grade A, or accreditaion q).

    6. Provide easy to use and access resources for learners who need to catch up before the course starts. And make them elective.

    7. Get feedback from your students when the course ends, or they leave. And listen to it.

    8. Stress the advantages of completing the course, and the potential cost of not doing it.

    9. Provide spaces where students who are thinking of leaving because they need help can be identified and targetted with help.

    10. If your course is peer feedback based, provide models of the types of feedback you want – get the recognised experts, the facilitators, moderators, volunteers, tutors and instructirs to leave good quality critical feedback that are examples of best practice. Good modelling will pay back with higher levels of better quality critical commentary.

    11. Assign a small percentage of the overall grade to quality and quamtity of feedback. (This could be expensive though).

  13. In short, employ Instructional Designers, train and support your staff, and participants, and give people good reasons to complete, and the ability to do so meaningfully.

  14. […] Murphy Paul recently blogged about this phenomenon (The Truth About MOOCs: Only 10% Of Students Actually Finish Them), in which she makes the point […]

  15. Kunal says:

    While I don’t think MOOCs necessarily have to be measured in terms of completion rate, for e.g. today if want to understand the theory of special relativity, I’d google it or read it on Wikipedia, now most sources on the internet or wiki may not be credible or reliable, so instead I go to Coursera and enroll in the MOOC and read to the extent I have a basic understanding of the topic (I don’t necessarily have to or want to study Lorentz transformation and the Poincare Solution).

    Similarly, A whole host drop out after they pick a new hobby (like playing the guitar, learning a new language). Some drop out after they complete the beginner’s level, some make it to intermediate and only a few end up completing it. I think in this day and age, as a society, we encourage dilettantes, people who can do a bit of this and bit of that and most people therefore dabble in a lot of different hobbies or explore different pursuits. And the MOOCs are perfect haunt for a dilettante. The good part about it is that more and more people are curious to gain a wide array of knowledge and want to know things outside their area of expertise. Most importantly, MOOCS open up access to credible knowledge (instead of relying on some sophomore’s take on Aristotle).

    The second issue is of discipline and in the absence of an external pressure, creating the will to pursue an academic exercise. Now for most people, it’s every difficult to pick up an academic exercise in the middle of work/family/social commitments (an issue a lot of MBA students face especially who have worked for 5-7 years and decide to go back to college in their 30s). When you undertake a new task (a new hobby or a course) which requires you to dedicate ‘x’ amount of time every week, you need to make time by giving up ‘x’ hours from some other task (could be something as mundane as watching TV). If the task has a time frame (for e.g. a test on a fixed date) or a stipulated amount of work every week, and if you miss out or fall behind once – the quantum of work for the subsequent week increases (cascading effect). For the first couple of times you feel guilty and try harder but once this becomes a habit, that’s when you are most
    likely to drop out or lose motivation.

    One of the things, I think can help students immensely is a calendar with the ability to set reminders, especially now that Smartphones/Google Calendars/to-do lists are an integral part of our life.

    But in the end, as they say you can take a horse to the fountain of knowledge but you can’t make it drink it.

  16. Jason says:

    10% are completing out of, often, large enrollments?

    …These people are doing something without most of the normal inducements, social pressures and reinforcements around traditional learning situations?


    If we never get better than 10% then MOOOCs are a tremendous addition to learning avenues, and more abstractly, to the democratization of learning based transformation.

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