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

Compare online class noncomplete numbers with college rejection figures and note the similarities


At least MOOC students don't have to endure the chairs.
Credit: tanakawho / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

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 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.