Low Completion Rates for MOOCs

New studies show users lack motivation to complete the massive open online courses

3 February 2014

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A recent report by researchers studying the impact of massive open online courses, better known as MOOCs, found that few of those who sign up for a course complete it. In the past few years, several research universities have opened up their computer science, math, electronics, and engineering courses to anyone from around the world. Although millions of people have registered, the study found that only a small percentage actually go on to complete their course.

Researchers from Harvard and MIT studied various aspects of 17 MOOCs offered in 2012 and 2013 through edX, the online learning platform established by the two universities. Schools offering edX also includes Caltech, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, IIT Bombay, and McGill.

The courses analyzed included such topics as computer programming, data analysis, and electromagnetism and also an array of disciplines including computer science, electronics and engineering. Just 5 percent of the more than 841 600 people who registered for edX courses earned a certificate of completion. In fact, 35 percent never viewed any of the course materials at all.

While the benefits of MOOCs are many—giving people in remote locations or the poor the ability to get a high-quality education and eliminating the need for college loans, the Harvard/MIT study found that only about 3 percent of attendees were from underserved areas and that more than 65 percent of all registrants already held a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Students do not receive academic credit from the universities as a result of completing a MOOC but they can pay to receive a certificate of completion to show their manager or a prospective employer. Of those who earned a certificate, 74 percent already held an undergrad or graduate degree.

The Harvard/MIT findings support data from another recent study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education of 16 Coursera courses, which is UPenn’s learning platform. The researchers found that completion rates averaged 4 percent across all courses.

In an interview on the Huffington Post, Andrew Ho, the coauthor of the Harvard/MIT study and an associate professor in Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, said that “focusing on completion rates limits our imagination of what might be possible with MOOCs. A better criterion for success might be for students to complete more of the course than they thought they would, or to learn more than they might have expected.”

With such low completion rates, do you believe MOOCs can be a valuable resource for aspiring and professional engineers, or would you rather see the schools invest in improving their programs, lowering tuition, or offering more scholarships to their school?

Kathy Pretz is the editor in chief of  The Institute.

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