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Daphne Koller: “MOOCs can be a Significant Factor in Opening Doors to Opportunity”

Coursera co-founder asks whether MOOCs lived up to expectations in 2013

2013 has been a year of incredible growth for MOOCs, and Coursera has evolved more rapidly than we could ever have expected. We hit (and surpassed) a triple milestone of 100 partner institutions, 500 courses, and 5 million students. The demand for quality online education resources is simply staggering.

As is typical for developments in technology that force us to rethink the status quo of an industry, this growth has been met with some pushback among skeptics. Within online education, we’ve seen this manifest in criticism of student retention rates and demographic biases. Its natural for early results to be judged against old guidelines and metrics of success for traditional education, but at Coursera we see the outlook for retention and demographic diversity differently.

Among our priorities in the coming year, we hope to shift the conversation around these two dimensions of the learning experience, redefine what it means to be successful, and lay the groundwork for products, offerings, and features that can help students navigate this new medium of learning to meet their own goals, whether that means completing dozens of courses or simply checking out a new subject.

Across all Coursera courses, average retention measured overall is approximately 4%. We can all agree that this would be incredibly low for a 50-seat, on-campus lecture.

However, considering that class enrollment on our platform is completely open, free, and requires no commitment (not unlike reading a book while browsing at the library, or marking a course in a university catalog), we need to reconsider whether it is a failure for thousands of students to complete a course while tens of thousands are browsing (as recently argued very convincingly by Kevin Carey).

When we’ve looked deeper into the intent of users, we find a much more promising picture: One early study of Coursera students found that of those students who said at the outset of a course that they intended to earn a Statement of Accomplishment, roughly 24% successfully completed the course. Surveys of students one month into a course are an even better indicator: Of the “committed” students in these surveys, 64% end up completing all the coursework. (Take a look at figure 4 here. We’ll also be publishing more comprehensive and up-to-date data soon in ACM Ubiquity.) And in our Signature Track option, which offers students the option to pay a fee of around $50 to receive a verified certificate upon successful completion of a course, retention averages around 63% overall, 88% among the committed students and can be as high as 99%.

Clearly, there is more to the retention story than just the baseline numbers.

Beyond retention, we’ve heard questioning of the extent to which MOOCs are living up to their goals of democratizing learning. Recent studies, including a few run by our university partners, indicate that, within certain classes and areas of study, some 80% of students have already earned some kind of degree. This observation is entirely unsurprising, given the significant bias in many of the early courses to the more specialized topics, and the overall phenomenon that early adopters of technology tend to skew toward the educated.

Additional context might be gained from the fact that 40% of Coursera learners are in the developing world. In many of these countries, the few top-quality institutions have very limited capacity relative to the overall demand, and many students are relegated to institutions that are significantly understaffed, where the quality of instruction is highly variable. In such cases, the achievement of a university degree is far from guaranteeing employment, and the high-quality education provided by MOOCs can be a significant factor in opening doors to opportunity--even among the college-educated.

Still, we are deeply committed to expanding our impact on populations that have been traditionally underserved by higher education, and are actively working to broaden access for students in less-developed countries through a range of initiatives, including: working with our Translation Partners to provide translated subtitles for videos, to enable non-native English speakers to learn; localizing our website, so as to make non-English-language students feel “at home” on the site; working with multiple partners, including the US State Department, to host physical “Learning Hubs” in locations around the world where internet access is limited; and launching a mobile app to enable students to download course materials for offline viewing in places where connectivity is an issue. As another example, when Coursera first launched, we had very low student enrollment in China. This fall, we began working with a Chinese internet company, NetEase, to help improve the delivery of video content across the internet firewall. Now, China is our second fastest growing country in terms of daily student sign-ups, just behind the US.

MOOCs have come so far in just two years, but we’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible. As we tackle existing challenges and face new ones in 2014, we are humbled by the response that we have seen at Coursera in these early stages and encouraged by the potential to expand, improve, and innovate to bring our vision for the future of education to life.

Editor’s Note: Dr. Koller added more detail about Coursera’s findings on its completion rates in response to some questions raised on Twitter. Thanks for the feedback! 


About the Author

Regular_d_daphne_koller
Daphne is a co-founder of Coursera and the Rajeev Motwani Professor in the Computer Science Department at Stanford University.

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