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Rethinking Low Completion Rates in MOOCs

Completion rates in free online courses are low—to critics, laughably so. But exactly how low are they? The answer might be a matter of interpretation.

Let’s say 79,500 people sign up for a handful of massive open online courses offered by Harvard University. About 44,500 of those people say they are there to complete the course and earn a certificate. About 23,000 say they are there either to browse the course materials or to complete a few assignments. The remaining 12,000 say they haven’t decided what their goals are.

At the end of the course, 10,500 people earn a certificate of completion. So what was the completion rate?

It depends on whether you think intent matters.

Those numbers are from a new study by Justin Reich, a research fellow at Harvard. Noticing how critics had seized on the low completion rates in MOOCs, Mr. Reich decided to complicate things by figuring out whether the people who were “failing” to complete the courses had actually been trying to complete them in the first place.

He got nearly 80,000 people taking nine Harvard MOOCs to respond to a survey about their goals. He sorted them into four categories: completers, auditors, browsers, and “unsure.” Then he tracked them.

The overall completion rate among survey respondents was 13.3 percent.

Among those who had intended to complete the course, the rate was 19.5 percent.

Among those who had not intended to complete the course, it was 5.4 percent.

None of those numbers is high by traditional standards, and it’s hardly a surprise that people who are trying complete MOOCs do so at a significantly higher rate than do those who aren’t trying to complete them. Some might even see the 19.5-percent completion rate among people intending to complete the course as more damning than lower figures that are not based on such distinctions.

In a paper published on Monday in Educause Review Online, Mr. Reich says he does not expect the findings to budge critics. He says the study’s goal, apart from providing a “useful reference point” for policy makers and university leaders, was to begin drawing important distinctions among people who sign up for free online courses. In traditional higher education, it’s safe to assume that all students want to finish courses and earn credit. Not so in MOOCs, where the lower barriers to entry attract students with a broader spectrum of goals and motivations, he says.

“This research has provided better answers to the question: Why do people come to these MOOCs?” writes Mr. Reich in his paper. “The next challenge is to get better answers to the question: Why do people leave?”

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