Wednesday, May 31, 2017

ADDRESSING HIGH DROP-OUT RATES IN MOOCS: Have we been monitoring the wrong numbers?

·         Millions of people sign up for free online higher education courses offered by top-tier institutions, but only a small percentage of registrants earn a completion certificate.

·        There was a study done (Brasher, 2016) that examined a unique dataset of 44 MOOCs on the Coursera platform, comprised mostly of Stanford courses in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).  The researchers evaluated 2.1 million student observations across 2,900 lectures to determine critical patterns of enrollment, engagement, persistence, and completion;
·         The researchers reported some surprising findings, including the following:
o   The early birds - students who signed up for courses a month or more in advance were actually far less likely to participate than those who signed up just before the course began.  Those who signed up 1-3 weeks before the course began were the most likely to succeed;
o   The students with the highest probability of completion, were those who agreed to take a pre-course survey;
o   When asked in the survey what their motivation was for taking the course, the majority of respondents cited relevance to their job or a substantial interest in the subject matter.  However, those who said the prestige of the university (offering the course) was their highest motivating factor watched the highest percentage of lectures;
o   With regard to engagement in the course material, lecture titles using the words “intro,” “overview” and “welcome” had a much higher rate of being watched than those that included summative words like “review” or “conclusion.”  Videos labeled “exercise” had the largest negative association;
o   The length of a lecture seemed to have no impact on whether students chose to watch it.  The prevailing thought has been that breaking up lectures into shorter videos was more attractive to students, but the researchers did not find that to be the case;
o   Video lectures posted early in the week were more likely to be watched than those posted later in the week. And, emails from the instructor to notify students of a new lecture did not induce them to watch.

According to Clark (2016), it is a mistake to describe people who stop at some point in a MOOC as “dropouts.”  He argued that “dropouts” is the language used by institutions.Clark says we can have university dropouts but MOOCs are open, free and online experiences. With MOOCs the amazing numbers that we should be talking about are the millions that “dropped in”. Including many that dropped in to simply have a look, often just curious, others want a brief taster, just an introduction to the subject, or just some familiarity with the topic.  Further into the MOOC, some find the level inappropriate or (because many MOOCs students are adults and not 18 year old undergraduates), find that everyday life (job, kids, etc) makes them too busy to continue.  Clark described a survey taken at the beginning of the University of Derby’s “Dementia” MOOC. Of the 775 learners asked whether they expected to fully engage with the course, 477 (58%) said “yes” but 258 (33% or one third) stated that they “[did] not intend to complete the course.”  Clark pointed out that for these reasons, he and others, have long argued that course completion is not the way to judge a MOOC.  As such, some (e.g., Hadi & Gagen, 2016) have come up with new models for assessing MOOCs.

Course completion makes sense when you have paid upfront for your University course and made a huge investment in terms of money, effort, relocation, and so on.  In open, free, and online courses, there is no such commitment, risks, and investments.  Clark (2016) argues a different approach to the measurement of the impact of MOOCs – one based not on “completion” but “meaningful learning.”  This acknowledges that MOOCs’ diverse audience wants and achieves different things and that this should be recognized.  The bottom line is that people who do MOOCs really want to learn; they are not largely motivated by pieces of paper or even completion.  College/University programs are more like single, long-haul flights while MOOCs are more like train journeys, where some passengers want to travel the whole line but most get on and off along the way.

To explore available MOOCs and find one suitable for you, whether for the long haul or just a short journey, please click here.


·         Brasher, Joan. Feb. 26, 2016. What makes students stick with a MOOC?  Available online at:

·         Clark, Donald. April 11, 2016. MOOCs: Completion is the wrong measure of course success and a better way has already been suggested.  Available online at:

·         Hadi, Syed Munib and Gagen, Phillip. Feb., 2016. New model for measuring MOOCs completion rates. Available online at:

Posted by Dr. Nat Tuivavalagi 

No comments: