Stop Asking About Completion Rates: Better Questions to Ask About MOOCs...

column | Digital Learning

Stop Asking About Completion Rates: Better Questions to Ask About MOOCs in 2019

By Amy Ahearn (Columnist)     Nov 28, 2018

Stop Asking About Completion Rates: Better Questions to Ask About MOOCs in 2019

“What’s the completion rate for your online courses?”

As an instructional designer who has been building MOOCs for the past five years, I’ve been asked this question more times than I can count. It’s depressing shorthand for skepticism about online education in general.

This skepticism is not unwarranted. MOOCs have been called abysmal, disappointing failures. The average completion rate for MOOCs (including the ones I design) hovers between 5-15 percent. Yet, the fundamental problem with this line of questioning is that it inaccurately conflates access to online learning content with access to a course experience.

Instead, MOOCs should be understood as digital content like podcasts, online magazines, Netflix series or even email campaigns rather than facilitated educational experiences akin to college seminars. As we move towards 2019, it’s time to get clearer about this difference and start asking smarter questions about what MOOCs can and should be expected to accomplish.

MOOCs as Digital Content

Although the popular press sounded the death knell for MOOCs beginning in 2013, thousands of students still enroll in a MOOC on a daily basis. For example, at the nonprofit where I work, nearly 190,000 people have signed up for our MOOCs in 2018 compared to around 145,000 last year and 177,000 in November, 2015. There is clearly continued—and even resurgent—demand for the high-quality curriculum and materials that universities, museums and other institutions now offer for free as part of the MOOC movement.

Still, many skeptics point out that very small percentages of students who sign up for MOOCs actually complete the course. A recent study from Columbia University’s Teachers College on EdX and Coursera courses indicated that their MOOC certificate programs had completion rates of 15 percent or less. Isn’t this a sign that the form has failed?

Not quite.

At Stanford and +Acumen—the two organizations where I’ve built online courses—we’ve found that many MOOC users sign up, download the readings and workbooks, watch a select number of the videos, and even take key insights back to their team or work—but never complete and upload all of the assignments. Our users self-report these behaviors in post-course surveys and qualitative interviews. They explain that they either come to MOOCs with specific learning goals that they selectively pursue or are simply not motivated to earn a certificate. Research from HarvardX and other online course providers corroborates this trend. The Columbia University study showed that only 35 percent of students who start a MOOC certificate program intend to earn that alternative credential.

Rather than despairing about these behaviors, we think they make a lot of sense.

In an information-saturated world, digital literacy requires that people practice arbitrage techniques, knowing exactly how to find the information relevant to their work. Just as no one blames someone when they only skim half of a long Medium piece or read one article in the New Yorker or a single chapter in a book, we shouldn’t bemoan the fact that people drop in and out of MOOCs.

Yet, whenever I talk to busy people who have signed up for one of our courses, a guilty tone creeps into their voice when they confide: “Well, I only got through the first two modules, but I shared what I learned with my team!” This guilt is misplaced. If people found something of value in an online course that can inform their work—even if they didn’t earn the certificate—I see that as a net positive.

Compare how a MOOC is assessed with how we evaluate The New York Times. Only a handful of readers will get through the entire New York Times from cover to cover every day. These readers may be retirees, passengers on a plane, people in a waiting room, individuals in between jobs looking to structure their time. That’s similar to MOOCs: students who complete them are often at specific moments in their life when they have the time and motivation to pursue a course with single-minded focus.

There are still plenty of ways that MOOCs need to be improved, but we should also start to get smarter about how we’re measuring them—and what we’re expecting to see.

Comparing Apples to Apples

If MOOCs are compared with other forms of digital content that take a similar amount of time to finish, we see that the engagement and completion rates they accomplish begin to make a lot more sense. For example:

Alongside these benchmarks, the 5-15 percent completion rate for MOOCs begins to look more like a miracle, particularly when you consider that MOOCs often require engagement with arduous learning-focused material rather than entertainment-focused content.

New Questions to Ask About MOOCs

MOOCs need to be reevaluated using the metrics of digital content rather than university classes. This would mean that we start asking questions like:

  • What are the total site visits?
  • What is the bounce rate?
  • What is the average time on site?
  • What is the number of daily active users?
  • What is the number of monthly active users?
  • What is the Net Promoter Score?
  • And, yes, what is the completion rate? But we should compare this to completion rates for analogous digital content not in-person university courses.

These questions will start to help us see how the format needs to evolve, and how well it’s working compared to similar types of media.

MOOCs have done an incredibly good job of scaling access to high-quality learning content around the world. But that shouldn’t be confused with scaling access to good teaching. Creating high-quality online content is a fixed cost and a solid first step. Building engaging learning experiences around that content is something that requires ongoing investment and therefore new business models that are still being tested.

As we move towards 2019, it’s time to stop wringing our hands about MOOC completion rates and move on to the far more interesting questions about how to design and fund learning experiences that leverage the online learning content we’ve created.

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