Can We Stop Caring about MOOC Completion Rates?

MOOCs have been in the news a lot recently, though most of the attention has gone toward their completion rates. At first glance, the data do not look good. It is hard to accurately measure completion rates since MOOC companies hold most of the data and are unwilling to release it for fear of negative publicity, but 10% is a good rough estimate of the average MOOC’s completion rate. This has led many to speculate that MOOCs will never truly compete with “real” college classes, since MOOCs cannot hold the attention of their students for very long.

Silliness! I don’t know what the endgame for MOOCs is. Perhaps they will radically alter higher education. Perhaps they won’t. But the 10% completion rate statistic tells you absolutely nothing about the quality of MOOC content.

In fact, I’d be perfectly fine teaching an MOOC with a 0% completion rate. To paraphrase Drew Carey, points are like MOOC completion rates. They just don’t matter.

Why? I offer three reasons:

1) “Taking” a Class Is More Like Adding a Class to Your Instant Queue
While MOOC companies do not like releasing completion rate data, they love publicizing their gaudy enrollment rates. One component of completion rates is enrollment rates, since you calculate it by dividing the number of individuals who completed the class by the number enrolled.

The problem is that “taking” a class is not taking a class. To use a Netflix analogy, enrolling in an MOOC is not watching a movie–it is putting said movie into your instant queue. Whether you ever end up watching that movie remains in doubt. Drive sat in my instant queue for a year and a half before I finally watched it a couple weeks ago, while True Grit has stayed in there since the beginning of time.

So, really, MOOC enrollment is a type of bookmark. People learn about a course through the interwebs and “enroll” in it to save it for later. To wit, my Udemy game theory and international relations courses went viral yesterday, but only a few of the new additions have watched any of the lectures.

Is this a problem? No. The real issue is that people do not understand that online enrollment is different from physical enrollment. Physical enrollment numbers will always be smaller, since only the super-interested will pay the hundreds or thousands of dollars to enroll in a class. MOOC enrollment will always be higher because signing up is free but only signals a passing interest in the material.

2) MOOCs Are Educational Entertainment
Undergraduates usually enroll in classes because they find the topic interesting. MOOC users start watching videos for the same reason. But think back to your undergraduate career. How many classes did you lose interest in after eight weeks? Probably a lot. In the real world, however, you stuck it out–the alternative was failing the class. But in MOOC world, you are free to walk away. So this means a student who has gone through 80% of the material still goes down as an incomplete.

Personally, I don’t blame the students. After eight weeks of teaching a course, I often get bored and wish I was doing something else as well.

College classes have to run a certain number of weeks to fulfill university requirements regardless of how many weeks of material are actually useful from the professor’s perspective. For now, a lot of MOOC syllabi are copy/paste jobs from the real world. This will eventually change as MOOCs become their own type of course. But even then, what a professor finds interesting for eight weeks, another person would only find interesting for five. But I’d rather have that student watch five weeks worth of lectures to watching none of them, completion rate be damned.

3) MOOCs Are Supplements to Real Courses
If MOOCs have done nothing else, they have proven to be an effective alternative to a terribly unclear professor. We have all had one of these teachers at one point in our life. It makes the college experience miserable. Before, there wasn’t much you could do about it. Today, you can hop online, find the corresponding class, and watch someone who is good at teaching explain the material.

But this means students graze the material. They might watch a lecture on how to find mixed strategy Nash equilibrium but skip over the easier-to-understand iterated elimination of strictly dominated strategies. They may even skip over entire sections of the MOOC if the real life professor is not covering those particular topics.

These people won’t be counted as having completed the MOOC. But the MOOC still served its purpose.

The Takeaway
While completion rates matter in real life, they don’t really matter in MOOC world. They are apples and oranges, and caring about MOOC completion is an utter waste of time.

Instead, we really should be caring about how many views our lectures receive. Views actually measure interest and usefulness of any particular lecture. And, unlike enrollment figures, they actually indicate commitment to learning.

Oh, and views can be monetized. But that’s a topic for another post.

8 responses to “Can We Stop Caring about MOOC Completion Rates?

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