Why Do Students Drop Out of MOOCs?


The perceived threat of a MOOC tsunami presumes that vast numbers of students will opt for supersized online courses in place of smaller, traditional classrooms. And so far, millions have already enrolled in MOOCs. 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 or, more surprisingly, with credit-seeking students. Faculty opposition makes sense: MOOCs represent a direct competitor threatening to replace them in the classroom. Student hesitancy is less intuitive. Don’t students want flexibility in their courses, autonomy in choosing their curriculum, and cheaper options for advanced training? Yet in most MOOCs, 90 percent of enrolled students will 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, when he adapted 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.

That was an experimental course, but the numbers haven’t improved since then. The average MOOC passage rate is about 10 percent, according to most estimates. 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 Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne.

Those numbers might sound as though they indicate quality and rigor–that MOOCs are serving up difficult courses passable only by the elite few. But many MOOCs rely on multiple choice quizzes that can be automatically graded, and often give students multiple attempts at passing these assignments. More in-depth MOOCs (usually those offered for credit), requiring more papers, harder and proctored exams, and in some cases even 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 sizeable 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, which echoed several researchers in criticizing the way MOOC completion rates are measured. These MOOC proponents dismiss the dismal rates as artificial inflations, because a good number of those who register for a course do not participate in a single lecture or 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 stick with a course? That is, is the problem one of low-quality supply or of noncommittal demand?

The answer is, to some degree, both.  In a recent study conducted by Instructure and Qualtrics (two education and “insight” technology providers) looking at student motivations for starting and for leaving a MOOC, two responses tied as most popular reason to quit. Twenty-nine percent of those who registered for a MOOC, and then stopped participating, said that their reason for leaving was that “the learning experience didn’t match their expectations,” and the MOOC had failed to supply what they wanted. But another twenty-nine percent said they quit the course because they were too busy, and found their own enthusiasm weakened by other competing interests.

But my guess is that if MOOCs managed to provide opportunities for thriving discourse and flourishing interpersonal relationships, more of those students would be inclined to find the time to persevere. One of the main defects in MOOCs is the sterile, disengaged character that afflicts many online courses,  especially massive online courses. If a course is to be more than an intellectual IV dripping raw facts into the mind, it requires articulation of questions and synthesizing of answers, discussion and debate over claims and analyses, and some form 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 they do depend in varying ways on personal connection, which 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). Both were painful.  The pre-recorded lectures felt anonymous and distant, and meager student interaction didn’t remedy that alienation. The sociology course did feature a weekly video group discussion between Professor Mitchell Duneier and five select students–but this meant that the other 39,995 of us had to merely watch, sidelined by the size of the class. For the philosophy class (which didn’t have the discussion via video option), I tried joining an in-person discussion group with a few other students who lived nearby, but the group fell apart before we met even once. In the online discussion forums, some students brought up insightful questions and helped each other understand the material–but the site got swamped and the number of posts overwhelmed meaningful conversations.

Sans professorial interaction, these groups cannot in themselves make up for the guidance and leadership that a professor supplies. UVA professor Mark Edmundson, writing in the New York Times, sums up the problem neatly:

Online education is a one-size-fits-all endeavor. It tends to be a monologue and not a real dialogue. The Internet teacher, even one who responds to students via e-mail, can never have the immediacy of contact that the teacher on the scene can, with his sensitivity to unspoken moods and enthusiasms. This is particularly true of online courses for which the lectures are already filmed and in the can.

The MOOC platform is itself aloof and impenetrable. The Qualtrics study found that for 35 percent of MOOC registrants, their interest in the topic was their primary reason signing up, while 24 percent listed professional development as their main motivation. The study also found that 77 percent already had bachelor’s degrees. The typical MOOC user is a capable, well-educated individual genuinely interested in the topic the MOOC covers–not an inexperienced student new to the disciplines of studying. Yet these are the students who leave the courses, estranged by the platform itself.

Flexibility is convenient–unless it undermines the course’s very foundation and structure. Choices are empowering–but too many can lead to choice paralysis or, alternatively, unrealistic over-commitment. Free means saving money–but sometimes the prospect of getting something for nothing proves too enticing for students who neglect to examine what they’ve signed up for. And in this case, they’ve signed for a relatively faceless lonesome education, and until that changes, MOOC drop-out rates will likely remain high.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *