Why the “Low MOOC Completion Rate” Statistic is a Bogus Argument

Posted on July 24, 2013 by


I recently taught a Massive Online Open Class (MOOC) titled “Computational Investing, Part I” via coursera.org. 53,000 people “enrolled,” which is to say they clicked a “sign up” button. How many finished?

This is a re-blog of a previous post. It seemed timely.

Completion rates are low, but that statistic is misleading

Much of the criticism of MOOCs centers on supposedly low completion rates. And these rates do seem low when compared to completion rates of regular university courses. But the comparison isn’t apples to apples.  Let’s dive in by considering what does it mean to start a course.

One of the 53,000 students in my class watches a lecture video.

One of the 53,000 students in my class watches a lecture video.

What does it cost a student to enroll in a course?

The economics are significantly different for a student at a traditional university than for a student starting a MOOC.

At a regular university all of the students starting a course have paid tuition, they have moved to an apartment or dorm near the university, and they’ve set aside time to complete the course. They have changed their lives significantly in preparation for this course. Most MOOC students are simply adding the MOOC to their existing lifestyle. They’re not moving, they’re not paying a significant fee.

Also, at most universities, students may withdraw from a course early in the semester with no penalty. This enables, perhaps encourages, them to sample a few courses before settling on the set they’ll engage in for the semester. Completion rates for university courses do not include those students who enroll in a course, then withdraw early. On the other hand, completion rates for MOOCs may include these students.

Compare the costs above to the cost of enrolling in a course at one of the MOOC providers such as Coursera, Udacity, or EdX. The cost for a MOOC is zero. All a student need do is provide an email address, and click a button labeled “sign me up.”

  • Enrolling in a course at a university is expensive monetarily and intellectually.
  • Enrolling in a MOOC costs nothing.

What’s the cost of failure or withdrawal?

Failing a course at a university is costly in many ways for a student. Besides the time and funds lost, there’s the cost of that “F” on the transcript. There are no such costs associated with MOOCs

  • Failing a course at a university is expensive both monetarily and intellectually.
  • Failing a MOOC costs nothing.

What are the implications for completion rates?

There’s not a lot of data yet, but my hypothesis is that students are significantly more likely to enroll in an interesting MOOC than in a comparable course at a university.  And importantly they are also substantially more likely to withdraw. This combination of factors points to a low completion rate for MOOCs.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. More on that later.

Here are some numbers

For the course I recently wrapped up:

  • Enrolled (clicked “sign me up”): 53,205
  • Watched a video: 53% of those who enrolled
  • Took a quiz: 26% of those who enrolled
  • Submitted first homework: 12% of those who enrolled
  • Completed the course:
    • 4.8% of those who enrolled
    • 18% of those who took a quiz.
    • 39% of those who submitted the first project.

Note that the more investment we see from the students, the higher the completion rate. Overall I suggest that the definition of “enrolled” for a MOOC should probably not include those who  simply click “sign me up.” Those who took a quiz are at least a bit invested, those who completed a project even more so.

Commentary: Drawing some conclusions and suggesting future directions

First of all, we need to recognize that completion rates for MOOCs really have a different meaning than those for regular university courses.  This is mainly because of the differing level of investment the students make from the start. In other words “skin in the game” matters.

But MOOC completion rates aren’t really low in the context of Internet engagement. A click through rate of 5% for a google ad is considered a strong success. Convincing 5% to engage intellectually for 8 weeks is, I think, a big deal.

If we continue to keep the barrier to entry low, we’ll enable students to taste many many courses, and that may be a good thing for education.

On the other hand if we want to boost completion rates, and perhaps boost engagement in MOOCs we should consider forcing the students to invest.  A small enrollment fee might make a big difference. I’d be very interested to see how this would affect engagement, learning and completion rates.

Related Articles

An article by Amy Bruckman about the consequences of costs for courses.