Why Do Students Drop Out of MOOCs?

Rachelle Peterson

A version of this article originally appeared on Minding the Campus on November 10, 2013.  

MOOCs will bury higher ed as vast numbers of students choose supersized online courses in place of traditional classrooms. So say many observers. Already millions have enrolled. The platform is versatile and the course offerings broad. Mid-career professional development? Check. Remedial classes at community colleges? Check. Elite DIY-Ivies for self-motivated unschoolers? BA courses available for transfer credit? Master’s-level courses for distance learners? Check, check, and check.

Plus, MOOCs are cheap (for credit) or even free (not for credit)—two important qualifications in a time of ballooning student debt. What’s not to like?

But, as I’ve written previously, MOOCs are a lot more popular with the media and with college administrations than they are with faculty and, more surprisingly, with credit-seeking students. Faculty opposition makes sense: MOOCs threaten to replace them. Student hesitancy is less intuitive. Don’t students want flexibility in their courses, autonomy in choosing their curriculum, and cheaper options for advanced training? Many say that they do. Yet in most MOOCs, 90 percent of enrolled students fail to finish the course.

Dropping Out

Andrew Ng, the Stanford computer scientist who co-founded Coursera in April 2012, offered his first MOOC in the fall of 2011, adapting his Stanford “Machine Learning” course into a free online hub for the 104,000 students who registered. Ng hailed the numbers as a lifetime achievement: “To reach that many students before, I would have had to teach my normal Stanford class for 250 years.” But only 46,000 (44 percent) even attempted the first assignment, and 13,000 (a slim 12.5 percent) finished the class.

Ng’s “Machine Learning” was an experimental course, but the numbers haven’t improved since then. The average MOOC passage rate is about 10 percent. One doctoral student calculated an average completion rate as low as 7 percent, ranging from 0.8 percent in Princeton’s “History of the World since 1300,” to 19.2 percent in the "Functional Programming Principles in Scala" course from Switzerland's École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.

Those numbers might seem to indicate rigor. But many MOOCs rely on multiple choice quizzes, permit multiple attempts, and lack mechanisms to prevent cheating. Papers, proctored exams, and professor interaction are outliers, not the norm.  MOOCs lose most of their students not to outright failure, but to attrition.

Last fall, Duke launched its first MOOC with Coursera. The bioelectricity course started with a relatively small but still sizable group of 12,700 students, of which 350 completed the course—a drop-out rate of 97 percent. That course elicited a response from Duke’s Center for Instructional Technology echoing a body of researchers who criticize the way MOOC completion rates are measured. These MOOC proponents dismiss the dismal rates as artificial inflations, because many who register never watch a lecture or complete an assignment. Calculating course completion rates relative to the number of participating students yields a much higher completion rate at approximately 25 percent. The Chronicle of Higher Ed estimates that number is higher—perhaps even as high as 45 percent.

But such recalibrations are at best mildly encouraging. Those numbers still indicate that a majority of students who began their MOOCs chose not to finish, and that a sizeable percentage of those who registered neglected even to start.

Investigating the Reasons

It’s surprising that MOOCs, offering the flexibility and the low price that students purport to want, suffer such low ratings.  Does the drop-out rate indicate a failure of MOOC providers to deliver courses that meet student needs? Or does it point to a finicky free-spirited set of students unwilling to commit to their studies? That is, is the problem one of low-quality supply or of disloyal demand?

The answer is, to some degree, both.  A recent study by Qualtrics and Instructure examining student motivations for starting and for leaving a MOOC found that two responses tied as most popular reasons to quit. Twenty-nine percent of those who registered but stopped participating in their MOOC said they left because “the learning experience didn’t match my expectations.” Another twenty-nine percent who left said they were too busy.  

But I’ll hazard a guess that if MOOCs managed to provide opportunities for thriving discourse and flourishing interpersonal relationships, more of those students would find time to persevere. Stocked with pre-recorded lectures directed to an anonymous class, MOOCs represent more monologue than dialogue. If a course is to be more than an intellectual IV dripping bare facts into the mind, it requires articulation of questions and synthesis of answers, discussion and debate, and some kind of intellectual community that helps turn information into knowledge and knowledge into wisdom. Mere physical presence doesn’t guarantee any of these things, of course. But conversation and community depend on a personal connection that is much harder to replicate online.

MOOCs find this challenge aggravated by the sheer number of students. I’ve taken two MOOCs, one that I finished by dutiful determination (Intro to Philosophy from the University of Edinburgh, Spring 2013), and another that I quit in frustration (Intro to Sociology from Princeton, Summer 2012). In both cases the online discussion forums, swamped by thousands of students, rapidly became unmanageable. The sociology MOOC included a weekly video chat between the professor and five students—a MOOC rarity. Yet this luxury for the five meant scraps for the other 39,995 of us required to watch but unable to participate. Edinburgh’s philosophy course left students to initiate their own discussions sans professorial interaction, and I tried banding with a few others I found who lived nearby. But the group fell apart as students dropped the course, relegating the rest back to the online forums.

The Qualtrics study found that for 35 percent of MOOC registrants, their interest in the topic was their primary reason for signing up, while 24 percent listed professional development as their main motivation. The study also found that 77 percent already earned bachelor’s degrees. Far from an inexperienced student new to the disciplines of studying, the typical MOOC user is a capable, well-educated adult genuinely interested in the course material. Yet these are the students who leave, estranged by the platform itself.

Flexibility is convenient—until it undermines the course’s very structure. Choices are empowering—but too many can lead to choice paralysis or, alternatively, unrealistic over-commitment. Free means saving money—but it can also prove enticing for students who fail to realize what they’ve signed up for. In this case, they’ve signed up for a rather impersonal education—and until that changes, MOOC drop-out rates are likely to remain high.

Image: Pixabay, Public Domain 

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