Are the Poor Completion Rates of Online College Courses Really a Problem?

At least MOOC students don't have to endure the chairs.Credit: tanakawho / / CC BY-NCWe’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 their way.

At the New America Foundation, Education Policy Director Kevin Carey 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 even start.

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.

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  • Eduard van Haalen||

    Are these courses offered for free? What happens when you charge tuition for an online course? Does that help screen out the nonserious students and/or inspire those who sign up to actually do the work?

  • Brett L||

    Georgia Institute of Technology is going to answer that with their $7000 online-only Masters of Computer Science degrees.

  • robc||

    Yep. Glad you posted this, I had forgotten about it.

    However, I saw the number of people who were "attending" in person who pissed away their tuition, so it isnt definitive proof.

  • Medical Physics Guy||

    Coursera allows you to take the course "verified" for around $125. You have to have your webcam on for every lecture and they use a biometric in which you have to type something every few minutes and your typing is apparently as unique as your fingerprint. A few months in they have taken in over a million in revenue. It's genius. Higher education is going to get cheap quick.

  • #||

    If this takes off, that would be awesome. If the courses are useable towards a degree somewhere too.

  • Zeb||

    I don't know why it would be surprising to anyone that most people who sign up for free, open enrollment online courses would not complete the course.

  • ||

    Why was anybody shocked by this?

    Having skin in the game? How the fuck does that work?


    "A study of a million users of massive open online courses, known as MOOCs..."

    Side note =

    The term "Mook" was (at least in the NYC area) a popular slang term generally understood to mean,

    "knuckleheaded moron who lacks any even basic mental skills, useful for only the most primitive physical-labor tasks, and even there will be stumped by anything that might require the slightest bit of thought-process"

    i.e. The kind of person who, when given a job in a warehouse, will stack pallets up incorrectly even though the design of said items have self-explanatory features showing how they are supposed to be stacked. The kind of person who will do things in the most painfully wrong-headed form until directly instructed to do properly, and even then won't understand what they were doing wrong before. They were often the kind of people who did many grades 'over' such that they were graduating high-school @ around 21 or so.

    "Mook" is a very unique kind of stupid. Its a form of stupid you have utterly no sympathy for. Its a deficiency of mental ability combined with a complete absence of curiosity or will. its a hopeless form of stupidity.

    Which is why I find this particular acronym extremely funny.

    FWIW I tried looking up the origin of the term 'mook'. More bullshit internet slang speculations pretending to be 'fact' emerged.

  • SugarFree||

    Even the OED is unsure:

    mook, n.
    View as: Outline |Full entryQuotations: Show all |Hide all
    Pronunciation: Brit. /muːk/ , U.S. /muk/
    Forms: 19– mook, 19– mouk.
    Etymology: Origin uncertain; perhaps < moke n.2
    colloq. and derogatory (U.S. and Caribbean).
    Categories »

    An incompetent or stupid person; a contemptible person (esp. with reference to low social status).
    The term was undoubtedly popularized both in the United States and elsewhere by its use in the film Mean Streets (1973), directed and co-written by Martin Scorsese. The fact that, in the context of the script, the word is unfamiliar to most of the protagonists has led viewers to believe (wrongly) that the word was coined there.

    1930 S. J. Perelman in Judge 1 Feb. 8/1 Even ordinary mooks like you and me have been stuffing their blotters and backs of envelopes in safe deposits for posterity.

    1958 Yale Alumni Mag. Jan. 21 This type of student, rigorously following a daily assignment schedule and graphing his grades on the wall, is a never common but somewhat frequent phenomenon. The ‘grind’, ‘mook’, or ‘weenie’ superficially seems to satisfy the demands of Yale, but in many ways he is not alive to the spirit of the place.
  • SugarFree||

    moke, n.2
    View as: Outline |Full entryQuotations: Show all |Hide all
    Pronunciation: Brit. /məʊk/ , U.S. /moʊk/
    Forms: 18 moak, 18– moke.
    Etymology: Origin unknown. Compare English regional (Hampshire, Devon) mokus donkey.... (Show More)
    colloq. and regional.
    Thesaurus »
    Categories »

    a. A donkey.

    b. In extended use: a person who is stupid, awkward, or incompetent; a dolt, a fool; = donkey n. 2a.

    1855 D. G. Rossetti Let. 25 Nov. (1965) I. 282 He has an irreconcilable grudge against a poor moke of a fellow called Archer Gurney.
    1873 J. A. Mair Handbk. Proverbs 459 Moke, an old person, disrespectfully spoken to.
    1915 Dial. Notes 4 199 Terms of disparagement..moke about the same meaning and usage as mutt, or boob.
    1992 P. Theroux Happy Isles of Oceania xxiii. 661 It is a manner of speaking, not joking, but joshing, and only mokes engage in it.
  • #||

    Also when course are free or really cheap and easy to sign up, a lot of people won;t really be comitted relative to a tranditional course that you have to put money down for.

    I've personaly signed up for courses on coursera and haven't finished all of them, cause theres nothing to lose if you sign up and decide later you dont want to finish it.

    A low completion rate for something that is free or close to it isn't in it self.

    Honestly too, I see a potential future model that could work being a hybrid system, where you meat once in a while in person with an instructor that is there to answer questions and keep you diciplined on a time table, while seeing the lecures via online.

  • Medical Physics Guy||

    If the San Jose State kids can't pass the course is it the course's fault? Maybe the courses are genuinely hard. More importantly, maybe the professors don't have to live and die by the student's course evaluations like they have to on brick and mortar campuses. When Tim Roughgarden has 7,000 kids in his algos class, there's no slack for a kid who wants an extension. I have passed four MOOCs, I found them rigorous and very hard. In my experience the "problem" with MOOCs is how much harder and more rigorous they are than college! And for free.

  • Chloe M.||

    It is true that it's hard to track down students who go online for school. But it's really up to the student if he or she is focused enough to finish school and have a good career. There are also online sites which produces quality essays such as and this is also where students will learn how to write correctly. No doubt that any student will succeed in whatever his dream is, if he knows his focus in life.

  • Bogdana||

    Studying with MOOCs is a great challenge: students depend on themselves and there are no bad professors to blame for bad teaching. It's up to students how to organize their time and what resources to use. There are a lot of web-sites with professional affordable help, helponessay is one of them.


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