Only four percent complete massive open online courses: setback or growing pains?

University of Pennsylvania study of one million MOOC participants finds low participation and completion rates.

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) have relatively few active users, and  user engagement falls off dramatically, especially after the first one to two weeks of a course. Ultimately, only a handful of users persist to the course end.

That's the gist of a recent study from a University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education (Penn GSE) study. The study's authors, Laura Perna and Alan Ruby, analyzed the movement of a million users through sixteen Coursera courses offered by the University of Pennsylvania from June 2012 to June 2013.

MOOCs -- first launched by a Stanford professor in the fall of 2013 -- attract hundreds of thousands of students from across the globe. They typically are delivered via online video, and include pop-up quizzes and exams, with progress automatically tracked. Currently, most MOOCs offer a statement of participation from instructors.

So far, completion rates have been disappointingly low, the study finds. While courses typically attracted between 15,000 to 100,000 registrants, only about half actually made it to at least one "class" -- or video lecture. Ultimately, only 2% to 14% fully completed the courses, averaging 4% across the board.

Four percent out of one million is 40,000 completions. Is this a bad thing? One one level, there's the psychology of "free" versus "paid for." There is something in human nature that diminishes the value of and commitment to free things. Whereas, a course into which a participant has invested tuition money leads to a higher perceived value, and desire to protect the investment.

MOOC advocates are proposing that online courses be positioned as resources to existing programs, versus replacements. Stanford's Sebastian Thrun, one of the original MOOC creators and founder of Udacity, a leading MOOC platform, has been looking at alternative roles for MOOCs beyond simple online delivery, The New York Times' Tamar Lewin reports. There has been disappointment in the wake of a MOOC experiment conducted in conjunction with with San Jose State University, in which less than 25% of participants successfully completed a mathematics course.

One approach being increasingly advocated is to employ MOOCs as supplemental resources to traditional learning programs, including corporate training. In an interview, Thrun pointed out that MOOCs are still very new to the education scene, and all forms of disruptive innovation move forward in fits and starts.

Ultimately, education continues to move to an online delivery model, both as a resource for on-campus or on-site programs, as well as a disruptive force that is opening up ivory towers for more of the world to share.

(Thumbnail photo: Joe McKendrick.)

This post was originally published on