Are the Poor Completion Rates of Online College Courses Really a Problem?
We’re getting a better sense of
the outcomes of massive open online courses (MOOCs) and the
apparent poor completion rates came as a surprise and a downer to
some proponents. From The
New York Times:
A study of a million users of massive open online courses, known
as MOOCs, released this month by the University of Pennsylvania
Graduate School of Education found that, on average, only about
half of those who registered for a course ever viewed a lecture,
and only about 4 percent completed the courses.
Much of the hope — and hype — surrounding MOOCs has focused on
the promise of courses for students in poor countries with little
access to higher education. But a separate survey from the
University of Pennsylvania released last month found that about 80
percent of those taking the university’s MOOCs had already earned a
degree of some kind.
And perhaps the most publicized MOOC experiment, at San Jose
State University, has turned into a flop. It was a partnership
announced with great fanfare at a January news conference featuring
Gov. Jerry Brown of California, a strong backer of online
education. San Jose State and Udacity, a Silicon Valley company
co-founded by a Stanford artificial-intelligence professor,
Sebastian Thrun, would work together to offer three low-cost online
introductory courses for college credit.
Mr. Thrun, who had been unhappy with the low completion rates in
free MOOCs, hoped to increase them by hiring online mentors to help
students stick with the classes. And the university, in the heart
of Silicon Valley, hoped to show its leadership in online learning,
and to reach more students.
But the pilot classes, of about 100 people each, failed. Despite
access to the Udacity mentors, the online students last spring —
including many from a charter high school in Oakland — did worse
than those who took the classes on campus. In the algebra class,
fewer than a quarter of the students — and only 12 percent of the
high school students — earned a passing grade.
MOOCs are going to need a bit of work, but was that really a
surprise? Thrun himself noted in his
blog: “There remains so much more that needs to be improved.
The summer pilot was the second iteration of a new approach. To all
those people who declared our experiment a failure, you have to
understand how innovation works. Few ideas work on the first try.
Iteration is key to innovation. We are seeing significant
improvement in learning outcomes and student engagement. And we
know from our data that there is much more to be done.”
Thrun also noted what supporters or “traditional” college
education proponents tend to downplay: Four-year colleges have
tighter barriers to entry and therefore are going to have better
graduation rates. Having open online courses is going to obviously
lead to people coming and going due to the circumstances of their
own lives. Arguably, this is a feature, not a bug. Community
colleges have less of a barrier to participation than four-year
institutions and have a higher dropout rate. This is a well-known,
completely non-mysterious phenomenon, and it wouldn’t be a problem
were it not for the significant amounts of tax dollars shoveled
At the New America Foundation, Education Policy Director Kevin
argues that if you factor in a college’s rejections, the
non-completion numbers are not so different. How much difference is
there (at a statistical level) between signing up for an online
course and never actually starting it versus applying to a college
and being rejected?
Carey looked at one particular MOOC class from the University of
Pennsylvania and calculated that 60 percent of the people who never
completed the course barely ever even started. A quarter of them
never even logged in. They didn’t fail to complete. They failed to
Then he looked at Penn’s enrollment figures. Only 13 percent of
students who applied to Penn last year were accepted in the first
place. Combined with the number of students who didn’t enroll or
drop out, he found:
[A]bout seven percent of all students who “signed up” for the
University of Pennsylvania by submitting an application end up
graduating four years later, which is almost precisely the same as
the percentage of Active Users who completed a MOOC in the study
held up as evidence that MOOCs don’t work very well.
Before complaining about the completion rate of online courses,
traditional college advocates should keep in mind all those folks
they’ve turned away.
Anyone can join.
Anyone can contribute.
Anyone can become informed about their world.
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