Rethinking Low Completion Rates in MOOCs!

Dear Commons Community,

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a brief review today of a study on completion rates in MOOC courses. Critics have argued that the 10 percent completion rates for many MOOC courses are at best problematic and at worst laughable. But exactly how low are they? The answer might be a matter of interpretation and depends upon learner goals. In a new study (EDUCAUSE subscription required) by Justin Reich, a research fellow at Harvard University, decided to examine whether the people who were “failing” to complete the courses had actually been trying to complete them in the first place. According to The Chronicle article, Reich followed:

“…nearly 80,000 people taking nine Harvard MOOCs to respond to a survey about their goals. He sorted them into four categories: completers, auditors, browsers, and “unsure.” Then he tracked them.

The overall completion rate among survey respondents was 13.3 percent.

Among those who had intended to complete the course, the rate was 19.5 percent.

Among those who had not intended to complete the course, it was 5.4 percent.

None of those numbers is high by traditional standards, and it’s hardly a surprise that people who are trying complete MOOCs do so at a significantly higher rate than do those who aren’t trying to complete them. Some might even see the 19.5-percent completion rate among people intending to complete the course as more damning than lower figures that are not based on such distinctions.

In a paper published on Monday in Educause Review Online, Mr. Reich says he does not expect the findings to budge critics. He says the study’s goal, apart from providing a “useful reference point” for policy makers and university leaders, was to begin drawing important distinctions among people who sign up for free online courses. In traditional higher education, it’s safe to assume that all students want to finish courses and earn credit. Not so in MOOCs, where the lower barriers to entry attract students with a broader spectrum of goals and motivations, he says.

“This research has provided better answers to the question: Why do people come to these MOOCs?” writes Mr. Reich in his paper. “The next challenge is to get better answers to the question: Why do people leave?”

The study verifies the major concern with MOOC courses in their present design is that high attrition makes them an unlikely alternative to traditional courses. However, it does not mean that research and development (as long funders are willing) into MOOC courses should not continue.



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