Deconstructing MOOCs’ High Attrition Rates

Ultimately, the viability of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) will depend on the quantity of learners who are interested in taking them and instructors who have content to share through this channel, not on completion percentage, attrition rates, or any other questionable statistics.

Alternative learning adepts have raised alarm about abysmal completion rates in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Recent studies conducted by several universities revealed that only 5 to 10 percent of the audience went through their entire courses, and engagement dropped drastically within the first two to six weeks. Is it time to pronounce the death of MOOC as a learning strategy, or is this greatly exaggerated? Are these seemingly shocking attrition rates really a problem after all?

Any linearly unveiled content is bound to cause declining engagement and participation—there’s nothing we can do about that. Apparently, MOOC lacks the “compelling motivation” of traditional college, where you simply have to show consistent attendance and performance to get credit. Otherwise, you run the risk of dropping out with no cash reimbursed. MOOCs’ no-strings-attached approach implies that you just click a button, sign up for a course, and then show up or not depending on your current priorities and more pressing issues that may come along. The entire enrollment process is basically encapsulated in this click, so it’s no surprise half of the newbie students never even start the course.

Then again, how do completion rates correlate with the volume of digested material? And what’s the ratio to knowledge retention and real-life application of acquired data? Some students may waltz through your course at a great pace, yet fail to complete a final written assignment—this happens, as well. Let’s say they have to come up with a 1,000-word peer-assessed essay (not an uncommon thing) to put a lid on the matter. This also means they’ll have to read and comment on three to five other jobs, which is a load of work.

What do they get in return? In 8 cases out of 10, they don’t receive any diplomas, course credits, or recognition. The situation with MOOCs’ “compatibility” has been improving over the years, and a host of colleges have been adopting MOOC-friendly policies, but it’s still too early to rest on laurels.

Supply and Demand for Open Online Education

When calculating completion rates and assessing the viability of MOOCs per se, you may want to focus on those who watched all the lectures, or those who did all the assignments, or those who did neither thing but still didn’t quit until the very end. What’s the reliable showing here, and how do these figures reflect supply and demand for open online education?

From the demand perspective, there is always a set of benefits that inspire MOOC aficionados to persevere. Unlike traditional brick-and-mortar school, more often than not a MOOC doesn’t provide any tangible outcomes other than desired knowledge, upskilling, or fulfilling a specific goal.

On the supply side, the number of students finishing a course has an impact on the number of professors willing to teach under the MOOC model in the future. Needless to say, instructors may have a plethora of motivating factors aside from course “popularity”; however, they still pay attention to the real number of students who completed the course, not the ratio of enrolled versus “graduated.”

Viewed from a different angle, the number of people who complete MOOCs is still colossal. For example, if just 5 percent out of 100,000 take it to the end, this gives us 5,000 people. That’s more than some Harvard or MIT professors graduate in their lifetime! The scale is incomparable.

The target audience is different, too. A MOOC doesn’t shower students with diplomas or any formal qualifications, yet it provides a solid platform for instructional designers engaged in blended learning, and opens up decent education for those at their pivotal point. These include trained specialists who realize they just want something else, self-learners who never had a chance to go through formal tuition, or secondary school students who outperform their peers and need impetus for further growth. Leaving these categories without any leverage would be an inexcusable mistake.

Grumbling about low completion rates in MOOC is as pointless as lamenting the fact that of all people who play chess, there are just a dozen living world champions out there.

Boosting Completion Rates

Are there any factors that could boost completion?

I believe a focus on social media and socialization in general would do a lot of good to open courses. Interaction between students and dedicated discussion boards and groups could develop certain bonds and cement the MOOC principles in each particular cohort.

In the case of full-time employees encouraged to take courses by their management, real-life projects where newly acquired knowledge applies could become a great incentive. Employer support will pay off for both parties: Unlocking access to specific research projects, asking MOOC grads for expert opinions based on retained data can bring along new unexpected insights into the business.

The path from start to finish seems shorter when you have a clear objective in mind, especially if this is a shared objective. Encourage your students to team up to solve problems; that’s how motivation and positive attitudes proliferate with no intervention from the outside.

Engaging content is as important in MOOCs as in any type of education. Trivial but true. A well-built interactive course hand-in-hand with a practical challenge makes killer MOOC material.

The Bottom line

The future of MOOCs doesn’t seem to stir up any concerns—people keep on registering for free courses. For many, it’s a chance to get access to knowledge that would otherwise be unavailable —and we are not talking developing regions here; some disciplines require heavy time and money investment that not many of us can afford. In any case, the viability of MOOCs will depend on the quantity of learners who are interested in taking them and instructors who have content to share through this channel, not on completion percentage, attrition rates, or any other questionable statistics. As of now, there are about 5 million MOOC learners in the world, and the movement is recruiting more and more students. Experts maintain we’ll be dealing with 12 million open course participants by the year 2020.

The raw numbers speak for themselves. MOOCs do arouse curiosity—and that’s half the battle won.

Scott Winstead is an e-Learning evangelist and learning technology expert with 15 years of experience under his belt. He engages in instructional design, advocates for the blended learning and flipped classroom models, and brings technology closer to average trainers in his blog postings and numerous articles on the Web. Winstead has a lawyer background and acts as a keen supporter for environmental cases and availability of education for the emerging regions.

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