Examining the High Dropout Rate of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Classes): Why do so Few Students Complete the Courses?

Examining the High Dropout Rate of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Classes): Why do so Few Students Complete the Courses?
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Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) are available from a number of websites and allow individuals to take

Examining MOOC Drop Out Rates

college-level classes offered by prestigious higher learning institutions for free. Most courses do not offer college credit (though some do for a fee). However, it still provides an excellent opportunity for learners to explore a subject more in depth, whether to complement existing education or aid them in their professional work.

For some, this is the perfect alternative to attending college on campus, while for others, this type of learning isn’t worth the time and effort put into completing the courses. In fact, just as the popularity of MOOCs has grown at a phenomenal rate, so has the dropout rate.

About the MOOC Phenomenon

Since 2011, a number of elite U.S. universities have partnered with educational organizers to offer a variety of higher learning courses online at no cost to the student. Generally, most of these courses do not count for credit toward a college degree. Fields of study include, but are not limited to, everything from the sciences, information technology, business, mathematics and computer science.

MOOCs are taught in open access, interactive environments over the Internet. There isn’t a limit on attendance and students can take their time completing a course. Prerequisites aren’t enforced, as they are for normal college courses. Students are taught standard course material, similar to what they would learn in a classroom. Readings, quizzes, tests, and videos are typically part of the curriculum. Teachers, assistants and students interact through user forums.

MOOCs Drop-Out Rate

Because of its open format, the MOOC program has impressive enrollment figures, with some classes enrolling tens of thousands of students. However, the completion rate for these courses is not as impressive. Researchers have determined that almost 90 percent of students who sign up for a MOOC fail to complete it.1 There are several reasons for such a high number, which some say isn’t a fair evaluation:

  • Curious Learners: Some people sign up for a MOOC just because they can. They are interested in finding out about the program or class, but that is as far as it goes. Once they are in, they have no intention of finishing. High school students fall into this category.

  • Informed Learners: Students already enrolled in college sign up for MOOCs as a way of researching additional information. They don’t sign up to complete the course, just to find additional ways to study a subject.

  • Casual or Auditing Learners: Some MOOCs are attended by retirees or stay-at-home parents who are looking to fill some free time in their schedules. Some just sign up to watch the lectures, but have no intention of taking the quizzes or tests.

  • Serious or Engaged Learners: A small portion of people who sign up for a MOOC actually do so with the intention of completing it. For instance, a class in bioelectricity offered by Duke University had only about 350 of the 12,700 users take the final exam. One-fourth of the students dropped out before the course actually started.1

What these figures show is that even though the overall dropout rate is high, it isn’t because of the quality of education or the utility in which the courses are being taught. It just means that people sign up for MOOCs for different reasons.

Dropout Rates and the Future of MOOCs

Despite large dropout rates, the MOOC program does have the potential of being successful, but it is not without its challenges. In the next 10 years, more than half of all new jobs will require a college degree.2 As more MOOC providers experiment with adding college credit to their courses, they can become a part of this growth in higher learning. Many have already found the courses engaging and educational, and enjoy the interaction with qualified institutions that offer technical and strategic support.