Student Persistence Low in MOOCs With Higher Workloads, Study Finds

By Sean Cavanagh — December 06, 2013 2 min read
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Enrollees in “massive open online courses” taught by one university’s faculty had paltry completion rates, and were more likely to bail out of the classes if the workloads were relatively high, according to new research.

At the same time, the preliminary research conducted by the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education found that the overall number of participants drawn to the MOOCs was quite strong, and included students from around the world as well as the United States.

The researchers analyzed the progress of about 800,000 registered users taking online courses taught by Penn’s faculty and run through Coursera, one of the biggest names in the world of MOOCs.

Across the 16 classes evaluated, the average rate of course completion was just 4 percent, and varied from 2 percent to 14 percent, depending on the subject being taught.

The highest portion of students persisted in courses such as “Cardiac Arrest, Hypothermia, and Resuscitation Science,” and “Rationing and Allocating Scarce Medical Resources,” among other titles, while classes on calculus, operations management, mythology, and genome science ranked near the bottom in terms of course-completion.

The academic success of students taking part in those courses, as judged by their final grades, also varied greatly. Student success in world music, calculus and genome science, for instance, left much to be desired. (See the chart below.)

The analysis also found, perhaps not surprisingly, a greater tendency among students to quit the courses if those classes had higher expected workloads, and if there was more homework attached to them, noted Laura Perna, a lead researcher and professor of education at Penn, in an interview.

“It’s something institutions need to think about,” Perna said. “Are their expectations too onerous, and where’s the balance?”

High dropout rates and concerns about student engagement have been a steady source of worry about MOOCs, even among their evangelists, as interest in them has grown. The Penn scholars undertaking the study describe their work, presented at a conference on MOOCs this week, as “emerging research,” because it has not yet been peer-reviewed, though Perna said she was confident that the overall findings are solid. (She noted that of the 800,000 registrations studied, some individuals may have registered for more than one course.)

While course-completion percentages were quite low, it’s also worth noting that, given the hundreds of thousands of overall registrants for the MOOCs, large numbers of participants were still making it to the finish line, Perna observed. In one sense, that’s impressive, she said, given that many of those online students were most likely dipping their toes in academic subjects that were new to them.

“It’s interesting the opportunity these courses provide for people to touch a course—with relatively low risk,” Perna said. Despite dropout rates, “that’s a huge number of people who may be benefitting.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.