It Doesn’t Matter if Students Drop Out of MOOCs

What's to come?
April 29 2014 4:44 PM

The Death of MOOCs Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

Why it doesn’t matter if students drop out of online classes.

(Continued from Page 1)

With MOOCS, of course, the incentive structure is different. For starters, “enrolling” means you’ve clicked on a button that means, basically, “Sure, what the hell, send me an email when this course starts.” So it’s no surprise that, on average, nearly half of “enrolled” students don’t show up for class at all.

But even after that major culling, the downward slope continues to be pretty steep. So how steep is too steep? What’s an unacceptably high attrition rate? I maintain that there’s no such thing.

Here is what matters: How many students wind up absorbing how much material in your course? In my case the jury is still out, because the final lecture was posted a few days ago, and viewership for the lectures keeps growing for weeks. But it looks like, in the end, well more than 10,000 people will have watched all the lectures and about 20,000 will have watched half of them.


How many will complete the final writing assignment? Those numbers aren’t in yet. But more than 2,000 finished the midterm assignment, and in a sense that number is amazingly high. These students not only had to write an 800-word essay; because these essays are “peer-assessed,” each student who decided to write the essay was agreeing to evaluate the essays of five other students. That’s a lot of work—which explains why courses that assign peer-assessed essays have lower completion rates than the average MOOC.

And in exchange for all that work, those 2,000-plus students will get no diploma, no course credit, not even a “certificate of completion.” (Whether Coursera courses offer a certificate depends on the policies of the school where the course originates.) These students just wanted to do the assignment. If you’re a professor at a “real” college, the preceding sentence may not be a very familiar one.

Regardless of which number you want to focus on—students who watched all the lectures, or students who completed all the course work—and regardless of whether you consider the numbers for my course impressive, my point is just that, if you’re assessing the viability of MOOCs, this is the variable that matters: number of students still participating at the end, not what percentage of those who enrolled are participating at the end.

Why is “number still participating” the key variable? Because it says so much about the future supply of and demand for MOOCs.

First, on the demand side: The demand for MOOCs will depend on whether people see themselves benefiting from taking them. And the number of students who stick around for the whole course roughly captures the aggregate perceived benefit. After all, unlike at a “real” college, there’s no reason to finish a given course other than perceiving real, specific benefit from it.

As for the supply side: Though the downward-sloping participation curve is at first glance a downer, what most professors will, upon reflection, really care about is how many students they wound up reaching in a pretty thorough way. So the number of students still participating at the end is a good predictor of how many professors will consider it worthwhile to keep teaching these courses. Of course, professors may have various specific motivations for teaching an online course—they may assign books they’ve written, etc.—but the strength of all the specific motivations I can think of will correlate with number of students reached, not percentage of enrollees reached.

Here’s another way to look at why number of students reached is the metric that matters to professors. Suppose Coursera came to me and said: We’re thinking about expanding our marketing campaign, reaching out to vast numbers of people even though many of them are unlikely to wind up finishing your course; this will lead to an additional 1,000 students who love your course and watch all the lectures, but it will also net 10,000 who sign up and never show up for class, and 5,000 who sign up and watch the first lecture but don’t watch all of them.

How should I react? Should I say, “No, please don’t deliver another 1,000 satisfied students, because that’s going to make my downward curve even steeper, and then if anyone at a cocktail party ever asks about my MOOC slope I’ll feel embarrassed?”

Or suppose Coursera decided that students shouldn’t sign up for courses too casually and started saying students could sign up for only one course per month. That would weed out a lot of students who tried my course on a lark and bailed out during the first lecture. But it would also weed out some students who wound up loving my course. Faced with that prospect—making my downward curve less steep, but also making its endpoint lower—I’d say no thanks.

Lots of factors will determine whether MOOCs wind up being important—and MOOCs will in any event evolve, maybe to the point of being barely recognizable descendants of their current selves. But in the near term their viability will depend very heavily on whether students want to take them and whether capable professors want to teach them. And the best predictors of both of those are raw numbers, not percentages. (But if you must know: My initial enrollment—or, rather, my initial “enrollment”—was 59,000.)

Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.


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