Who really cares about MOOC completion?
- How big is the typical MOOC? – while an enrollment of 180,000 is often cited as the largest MOOC so far, 50,000 students enrolled is a much more typical MOOC size.
- How many students complete courses? – completion rates can approach 20%, although most MOOCs have completion rates of less than 10%.
- What factors might affect completion rate? – the way that the course is assessed may affect completion rates; the completion rates of courses which use automatic grading range from 4.6% to 19.2%, while the rates for courses which use peer grading range form 0.7% to 10.7%. This may present a greater challenge for teaching MOOCs in certain subjects.
- Do more students drop out if courses are longer? – there does not appear to be a negative correlation between course length and completion rate, which is interesting as you might expect fewer students to ‘keep going’ and complete longer courses.
It’s great to see some data on completion rates, and this will certainly stir up more debate on the topic.
But one issue not addressed in the current discussion is who really cares about MOOC completion? Certainly the groups offering them do, and educational researchers do. A fair guess that many non-profit funders do as well. Interestingly, though, some of the data coming out of the Mechanical MOOC Python course suggest that in the absence of extrinsic carrots like credit or certificates, learners may not.
In the eighth and final week of the class, we asked the 5,775 learners who signed up for the first iteration of the Python course a series of end of course questions; we received 21 partial and 61 complete responses. Assuming a survey completion rate of 3% (typical of what we see for MIT OCW surveys) and 5% (really good for an OCW survey) that would suggest a rough engaged population of learners (that is, still reading the e-mails we were sending out to structure the course) of between 2,733 and 1,640 people during the last week of the course.*
One question asked which was the last week of the course out of the eight they had completed. Here’s the response:
At the point of the survey, midway through the eighth week, 12.1% indicated they had completed the course and 13.8% had completed week 7. If we assume 25% attrition from those that completed week 7, maybe 10.4% of the 13.8% would be expected to finish the course. So in very rough numbers, 20.5% of the survey respondents might be expected to finish.
Apply that number to the estimated engaged population of learners above, and we can get very rough numbers of estimated completers: 560 – 336, or 9.7% – 5.8%. or somewhere in the mid to low range of MOOC out there, which might be expected, since we weren’t offering a certificate or other incentive for finishing. Now there are plenty of places to take issue with the above numbers, and since our course set up doesn’t have a solid way of counting course completers, this really should be taken for the back-of-the-envelope analysis it is. But…
What is really interesting to me here is the distribution of learners across the weeks completed. There is a large cohort of students (68.9% of respondents) that reports most recently completing weeks 4-7, which is to say they progressed significantly through the course but most of them were not positioned to finish the course “on schedule.”
How do they feel about this? Apparently pretty good. Granted the n’s are painfully small here, but if you ask how successful they felt they were in the portions of the class they completed, most report being completely or mostly successful:
Further, if you ask whether they feel prepared for further study based on what they had learned so far in the class, they likewise responded largely that they were very or somewhat prepared:
The data’s a little thin, yes, but this would seem to at least suggest that while MOOC providers and higher education commentators wring their hands about the completion rates of MOOC, the learners may not really care that much. If they are learning for the sake of learning, they may be quite content to fit in what learning they can given the constraints of their lives and be happy with wherever they finish up.
There’s a great deal of excitement (and fear) over whether MOOCs will replace parts of the current higher education system, but right now I suspect most of the activity with MOOCs (as has been the case with OER more generally) is in extending educational opportunity beyond the current higher education system. If this is the case, we may need some better metric for understanding student success and satisfaction than completion rate.
* Correlating data point: The week 8 assignment e-mail recorded 1,929 opens through our e-mail system.