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Why do MOOCS have low completion rates?
28 points by pskittle on Feb 16, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 31 comments

Two reasons similar/in addition to the ones already mentioned:

The obvious one: MOOCs usually involve small or no payment and are not typically part of a degree program. Everyone who has attended a traditional college has taken one or several classes where they disliked the material, the format, or the faculty but kept taking it anyway because it was a required course, they needed the credit hours to stay in good standing, or they had already paid nontrivial tuition and/or fees for it. For most MOOCs, if you are even mildly disappointed, you can just drop out with little remorse.

The second, less obvious one: on Coursera, I bookmark courses (including ones I have only tenuous interest in) months ahead by enrolling in them. Then when the course starts, I judge whether I still have the time or interest (I usually don't), and if not, drop out. I don't know if this is common, but if it is, then it would have an impact.

I'd also be curious to know how pacing impacts completion rates. Personally, while some platforms treat it as a selling point, I find it very difficult to complete self-paced courses. On the other hand, some people may miss one or two deadlines in a non-self-paced MOOC and simply give up.

Another factor from my experience: I don't feel much incentive to "complete" a MOOC. I take a MOOC to learn something to a certain degree, and once I feel I've acquired the knowledge I was looking for I move on. Perhaps this is to my detriment long-term, but it seems like a more economical use of my time given so many competing interests.

I'm interested in more courses than I have time for. So, like others who've responded, I often prioritize sections of moocs. Sometimes I quickly go through lectures alone when I want to review something I'd learned but haven't used much recently. And sometimes I won't have time to even start a course during the designated date and deadlines, but I fully intend to take advantage of the content later.

I think the incentives you mentioned are very relevant. College students don't want to waste the high tuition they've paid, nor do they want to lose their academic status they've worked for. But you left out another huge factor. In the current hiring system, too many employers value where a skill was learned more than the level of proficiency.

I believe that, as more companies transition to audition-style interviews and make more accurate assessments of ability, the value placed on educational credentials will diminish. When this happens, there will be hope that educating oneself via moocs will provide a fair chance to be considered for skilled employment. When students believe that most companies genuinely value what you can do more than where you learned how to do it, I think there will be far more incentive to both enroll in and complete moocs.

I partially complete MOOC courses frequently as they may have a "chapter or two" of content I'm interested in. I watch what I need, then stop.

IMO, there needs to be a better way to measuring value in an online course other than "did the user complete the entire course".

They're too long. Once in a while I enjoy spending 5 to 8 hours on a Saturday learning about something new, but MOOCs often ask for an entire semesters worth of my time. I don't have that much time, I have an occasional Saturday. Divide the courses up into free-standing bite sized chunks, something I can go through in a day, and let me complete them on my own time. I'd complete more of them if that happened. That should also force brevity, which was lacking in a lot of courses I tried.

It's relative. They've got low completion rates relative to university courses. They have completion rates right where you'd expect given a more reasonable reference class.

A MOOC is essentially an extended web interaction, not a college course. Very short web interactions which require minimal levels of work often have conversion rates in the 5~20% region. Think like "Fill out a survey" or "Make free bingo cards."

MOOCs require many hours of work, stretched over months.

Physical college courses carry a heavy precommitment to attend with gigantic costs associated with them. They also have a low completion rate in many circumstances, for example when the college hasn't already done an absolutely brutal filter based on a combination of socioeconomic status, IQ, and ability to take complex tasks to completion. MOOCs don't typically pre-filter based on those criteria, which means their completion numbers are affected in the predictable fashions.

Just asking for a few pennies to take part would up the completion rate and reduce the frivolous sign ups.

I feel that would be really unnecessary and possibly harmful to the MOOCs themselves.

1 - Sign ups alone require nearly no resources from the provider.

2 - Attendance and therefore popularity could be much lower. While that could be a good thing (less people and more money -> more support to each student), it would probably never be enough to cover a course's cost.

In the end, people are learning. I haven't completed any course yet (attended about 4, attending one now), but I'm thankful for them and I don't think the resources I used harmed the MOOCs.

The pennies are obviously not to cover the cost of the MOOC. It the sunk-cost effect, people are more likely to use or complete something they pay for.

Not for pennies. People whoe aren't willing to exercise regularly to make use of hundred pound gym subscriptions are unlikely to finish a MOOC because of a few pennies.

In many cases, people don't have an intent to complete it even at the point when they're signing up.

I have signed up for updated versions of courses I had finished earlier simply because I wanted to show three minutes of lesson 4.2 to someone, and I've told my students to "sign up" for course X because its materials at week 4 explain a particular concept very well, and I'd recommend them to watch that - but the materials aren't available if you don't sign up.

In real life, if someone takes a brochure of a course because they're interested but never show up afterwards, you don't count those people against your completion rate (you might count them when evaluating your marketing funnel, though). Similarly, for a MOOC it makes no sense to treat the number of "signups" as anything more than that.

If you want a reasonable completion rate, you divide the number of graduates against the number of participants that (a) showed up to the course - actually listened to more than 20 minutes of lectures and (b) actually wanted to complete the whole course, as opposed to wanting only a single topic/part of the course.

> I have signed up for updated versions of courses I had finished earlier simply because I wanted to show three minutes of lesson 4.2 to someone, and I've told my students to "sign up" for course X because its materials at week 4 explain a particular concept very well, and I'd recommend them to watch that - but the materials aren't available if you don't sign up.

Yes, I really wish Coursera et al would have "lecture archives" which didn't require login or, if they did, didn't require joining a class. This would help boost their completion rates, so it would be mutually beneficial. I suppose a few of the partner universities might like having restrictions on their content, though.

I've been creating my own offline lecture archive. There are a number of downloaders which are tacitly accepted and even promoted on Coursera.

Why do gyms have low attendance rates?

I think it's all just human psychology. We overestimate the amount of effort we'll give to a achieve a certain goal. And sometimes just having the gym membership/MOOC purchase is enough to satisfy our feelings of progress.

I totally agree! Just would like to add onto that, why do side-projects have such low completion rates?

I struggle with side-projects as much as I do MOOC's, for the same reasons I think.

From my personal experience: It's the first thing off the island when my schedule gets pinched. I can't cut back on work, don't want to cut out family or rec time. The MOOC suffers first, particularly the deliverables. I've started with the intention of turning in all assignments only to end up only watching the lectures.

My personal experience is that I've taken MOOC courses with an end goal of _actual learning_ the topic thoroughly, or at least getting the most out of the subject. This was related, but different than my objectives in college, where I was mostly concerned about my _grades_ and completing a degree to show employers. Although, not mutually exclusive, I find that when I'm focused on learning the subject completely, I'll eventually go off the normal course guidelines and spend extra time on supplemental materials (blogs, additional explanations, etc..). I'll also spend extra time completing all the assignments as perfect as possible (doing the extra sections, etc..). This is different than when I was in college, where I would often trade off a few extra grade percentage in order to make a deadline to achieve that A- or whatever. Couple this with the fact that I defer the MOOC assignments if work/life gets in the way and eventually I miss the projects and test due dates.

IMO (speaking personally here) - I find this approach to be Much more beneficial than the traditional college system. I learn the material better and have a deeper understanding of the entire subject. I've officially "failed" every MOOC course I've taken, because of missed due-dates. But when I look through the actual submissions, I usually receive near 100% on every assignment. This probably wouldn't apply to every topic, but the MOOC courses give me a structured way to learn that I wouldn't be able to come up with on my own, but also provide enough flexibility for family life, work, etc..

Low barrier to entry. I've signed up for MOOCs in the past that sounded really cool, because why not?, only later to find that I didn't have the time, or maybe the MOOC wasn't as cool as I thought it was. In cases where there's actually some tangible investment required to sign up--Georgia Tech's OMSCS program[0] is a prime example of this--completion rate is much higher.

[0] http://www.omscs.gatech.edu/

My exact experience too. Signing is easy as bookmarking any webpage. Afterwards nature will just prune you out of the classes with bad difficulty/desire ratios.

For much the same reasons that people don't finish books.

In the end the completion rate of a MOOC is a fairly meaningless statistic. It's completely reasonable to buy a technical book and only read a few chapters that cover what you want to know. If someone gains more from participating in 3 MOOCS vs finishing 1 then a low completion rate might be a sign that MOOCS are more useful than traditional classes not less.

The commitment level is low. People put their name on a list as opposed to shelling out hundreds or thousands of dollars for a traditional class.

The reward level is also low. You might get a certificate but nothing like credits that can transfer. You mainly just get knowledge.

I think it is a lot like going to the library. I've got three books checked out right now. I've browsed one of them and decided it is pretty useless and not quite what I expected. One looks really good but I haven't started it. It is by one of my favorite authors but it wasn't on my radar, I just picked it up because it was on the shelf. One I am halfway through and I intend on finishing it but it is taking about three times longer to finish because Hofstadter's Law applies to my reading list, too.

But my completion rate is the wrong metric. Over the past year I've probably read a dozen or more books that I wouldn't have otherwise if it weren't for my local library. And one lead me to buying the other six in the series, and a couple I've bought as reference.

I feel like MOOCs should be judged in the same way. There are a lot of people gaining education through MOOCs that they would not have otherwise.

The behavioural economic concept of 'hyperbolic discounting' serves as a pretty good explanation. We radically discount delayed consequences (e.g.: learning), while simultaneously overestimating our willingness to invest effort into the future.

Dan Grossman at University of Washington gave a presentation of the data from his Coursera MOOC's:


The punchlines are that completion rates correlate with course duration and that the absolute numbers of people who complete a course are a quantum change.

The point of comparison in Grossman's view is that MOOC's are like textbooks more than traditional courses.

I would say that is a feature and not a bug.

I often use the vids as information fodder for listening while i work. If something strikes me as more salient, or potentially useful for my future needs then I'll make a note to set aside time outside of work to really pay attention to the course.

http://pages.stern.nyu.edu/~padamopo/What%20makes%20a%20grea... This paper discusses some of the reasons for low completion rates.

Basically people do not finish the courses because they are not really interested or are not disciplined enough.

It seems that outside the context of the coercion of earning a degree most of the professors are boring as hell.

Low in whose opinion? I always thought MOOCs had fantastically high completion rates for what they are.

Why would they have high ones? That's the better question to ask.

Why? Drawing from my experience learning some technical material, I will give some candidate answers:

(1) Content. From what I've seen of MOOCs in some areas where I know some things, usually the content looks poor just on the subject itself and/or its presentation, i.e., too many of the lectures are just poorly done in any common sense of good lectures. E.g., start in the upper, left corner of the board and write clearly, clearly enough so that a student can take essentially perfect notes.

(2) Purpose. Commonly the courses do not have a sufficiently clear and meaningful purpose for enough candidate students.

E.g., why study calculus? What MOOCs provide a really clear answer meaningful even to most of the people who consider a course in calculus?

E.g., why'd I study calculus? In., in grades 1-8 I got dumped on by the teachers; those teachers wanted to teach to the girls with their better handwriting, better verbal talent and skills, better clerical talent, better insight into fictional literature, and much better classroom decorum. I wanted, strongly beyond belief, to know how things worked, and the girls were little masters at knowing how the teachers worked!

In grade 9 I discovered I could do math, i.e., algebra and fairly easily could lead the class. Essentially all the girls in the class, all of whom had effortlessly blown me away in grades 1-8 now were struggling while I was having a great time, easily.

I got sent to a math tournament. That success continued in grades 10-12. In the 11th grade, I saw the same for physics -- could usually have my head down in class, resting, and still be one of the best students in the class -- of mostly 12th graders, three of whom went to Princeton and ran against each other and some fourth sucker for President of the freshman class. I got sent to an NSF math and physics summer program.

So, in college, I was hot to go in math and quickly went through the course catalog and planned all the math courses I would have for all four years. I really liked math!

But to save money, I did my freshman college year at a state school, inexpensive, I could walk to. They forced me into a course in college algebra beneath what I'd already done in high school (by far the best in the city, e.g., the three guys who went to Princeton; MIT came recruiting; a guy I beat in a shootout at the board in trig class went to MIT). A girl told me when the tests were, and I showed up only for those.

But, I knew that as a freshman I was supposed to be learning calculus and was torqued that I was not. So I got the recommended calculus book and dug in. In grades 9-12 I'd learned mostly just from the book so also was able to do well working through the calculus book, totally independently.

I did well: E.g., I had quite nice college board scores, especially in math and physics, so, the next year (we had a little more money) I got into a good four year college.

So, where to start there in math? Okay, I asked to start with just their sophomore calculus. They said that they couldn't give me credit for first year calculus, but that was totally fine with me. The text they used was the same as Harvard used; it was good. I did fine -- made As, loved the material, had fun, didn't work at it very hard. Right: I was a math major but never really took a course in freshman calculus!

Also blew away everyone in their freshman physics course -- first test had four questions; I got all four; no other student got more than two; tree counted as 100; so I got 133; and I never missed anything for the rest of the semester so ended up with 33 points over a perfect score. The second semester, missed only one test question.

Went on and got honors in math, got a Ph.D. in applied math (stochastic optimal control), have had math much of my career, and now have some original math I derived as the crucial core technology for my search engine start up. Lesson: I've had a purpose in mind learning math.

So, I did learn calculus, just on my own for freshman calculus. So, why? Sure: (a) Motivation. I really, really, really wanted to know the material, not just a little bit but a lot. (b) Resources. I had plenty of time to do the work. (c) Preparation. The four years of math I took in high school gave me about everything one could want in prerequisites for calculus. (d) While I didn't know much about just what I would do with calculus or math after college, I did believe that they should help my career, and I knew that, for math, calculus was one of the biggies.

Okay, for the MOOCs, if have (a)-(d) and some good materials, then lots of students should do well. If are not having many students are doing well, then look first at (a)-(d) and the materials. From what I've seen, too commonly the course materials are not very good.

E.g., for calculus, from what I've seen, it appears that the courses want to imply the a person can learn calculus easily as a spectator (sport) watching videos instead of doing the work studying good materials, say, a good text. I doubt that many students could learn calculus as a spectator sport.

There really can be opportunities for people to learn outside a classroom, and online materials can help. But need good materials, likely including a good, traditional text book, and also need, say, (a)-(d) above.

By the way, as a math grad student, I taught calculus successfully. As an MBA prof, I taught more in applied math successfully. In my career, I continued to learn on my own: E.g., for some weeks I carried Blackman and Tukey, The Measurement of Power Spectra to dinner at a seafood bar in Silver Spring, MD, and then one week, mostly on my own without my company knowing about it, wrote some corresponding software which was a big help in our company winning a competitive software development contract -- my work on power spectra estimation had in effect given our company sole source.

Lesson 1: Math can make money.

Lesson 2: It is possible to do the work of math making money mostly via independent study.

Lesson 3: I doubt that any of the MOOCs will cover how to measure power spectra, say, with the fast Fourier transform (FFT)!

How about a continuous time, discrete state space Markov process subordinated to a Poisson process? Make money with that? Did that once. Covered well in a MOOC? I doubt it!

I used to look at MOOCs, wanted to learn more about, say, stochastic processes in continuous time, say, like in Gihman and Skorohod or Lipster and Shiryayev or Karatzas and Shreve. Gee, I didn't find much!

There is high irony here: This is Hacker News, and my view is that nearly all the learning crucial for the current US information technology industry, especially the software part of it, has been from essentially just independent study. So, the irony is that the readers of Hacker News should be about the best audience for MOOCs.

E.g., for a while in my career, when I was fairly deep into computing but before I'd ever had a course in computing or computer science, I taught several sections of computer science at Georgetown University. Later in grad school, I was pushed to take a course in computer science -- not much past what I'd taught at Georgetown! At one point, sure, the course tried to cover quicksort. Okay, worthwhile for such a course! But I'd long since learned quicksort, heap sort, Shell sort, bubble sort, merge sort, etc. from some original papers and Knuth's The Art of Computer Programming, programmed all those that were in-place sort algorithms, compared their performance, programmed some special purpose versions, etc. So, during the course, I just watched and smiled. Gee, they neglected to mention that in the bit reversed permutation from some of the versions of the fast Fourier transform, Shell sort does nothing at all until the last pass at which time it runs in O(N^2)! Gee, why didn't they mention that one!

Lesson: It's possible to do well in computing and computer science with independent study.

Surprise: One of the profs in that course didn't like me and gave me a grade of C. I appealed to the department, pointed to some code I'd submitted in my application to the department, the code I'd written to schedule the fleet at FedEx, the code I'd written for power spectral estimation, etc., and the next year that prof was gone!

Lesson: If the Hacker News audience is not doing well with MOOCs, then blame the MOOCs, not the students!

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