MOOCs by the Numbers: New Insight into Attrition Rates

The prosecution against MOOCs usually starts by highlighting the huge attrition rates for massive open courses, often claimed to run as high as 90-95 percent. Who in their right mind would trust their kid’s education to a program that can’t even hold onto one out of ten students? Case closed.  Huffington Post, 2013

These low completion and high attrition rates are calculated very simply. The number of students who successfully complete the course is compared to the total number who enrolled. While this sounds straightforward, it’s actually quite misleading.

Clicking to enroll in a MOOC isn’t comparable to enrolling in a course at a traditional school. It’s more akin to signing up for a brochure, or even bookmarking a page. Since there are no consequences—no forms to fill out to drop and no meetings with department heads—students “enroll” in MOOCs with little thought or planning. All it takes is a click of the mouse. These instances can’t accurately be considered seriously enrolled students.

A better way to calculate attrition rates for MOOCs is to isolate those students who can be considered seriously enrolled. One way to do this is to only count students who have interacted with, or “attended,” the course. This can mean something as simple as watching a lecture or taking a short quiz. When only these students are counted, completion rates skyrocket .

These new numbers help demonstrate the legitimacy of MOOCs. It turns out that students who are serious about a course successfully complete it a lot more often than previously thought. MOOCs have great potential to bring education to massive amounts of students scattered across the globe. EdX is a MOOC who has taken the first steps towards providing more than a certificate that a student has completed a course.   They have introduced an ID Verified Certificate that shows that the student who has signed up and taken the course , is the student who is taking an exam, if the school providing the course on EdX has decided to use the exam as one of the places that they decide to have the student ID Verified.    This certificate, falls short of showing that the student who has taken the exam followed  the school’s exam policies completely, policies designed to deter cheating.  ID Verify is a great step towards the ultimate goal of a certificate that would show that the course was completed with integrity- something that an employer evaluating that student as a potential employee, might want to know.   The next step could be to use remote proctoring technology to provide the proof of integrity that a higher level certificate would need to mean something.

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