Drop Out Rates – Is It Really a MOOC Issue?

I have been discussing MOOCs a lot over the past week. Having had a couple educational meetings I’ve had a good opportunity to talk about how people see MOOCs. Not surprising, one of the main topics that has come out of it is the issues MOOCs are currently facing. One of those issues is the so called drop-out rates.

Progression and retention data is gathered by institutions to monitor the success of their courses. Depending on the department, institution or country different rates are thought to be appropriate. For example, in some institutions 85% pass rate in modules is thought to be the acceptable minimum pass rate. Anything below that starts to cause alarm. This brings us to drop-out rates, which represent how many students have left the course without completing it.

Drop-out rates are used to monitor the quality of the course, the support it offers and how the students are coping with it. In standard courses this can be valuable information and, with the correct follow up, can be used to enhance the student learning experience.

And if we used this to judge MOOCs it would appear that they are not very good. Here is why this is incorrect.

Currently MOOCs have very high drop-out rates. In fact, this high number of students who leave without fully competing the course and it’s assignments is thought to be one of the biggest issues surrounding MOOCs (1). With figures like 60,000 students starting a course and only 3% completing it, it sure does look scary. However – can we really compare traditional Higher Education drop-out rates to MOOC drop-out rates?

I believe these are two very different matters. MOOCs have tens of thousands of people who sign up to a course, unlike in a University where this will be a few hundred. Students who then enrol on their chosen MOOC would do so not so much for obtaining a qualification, but simply because they want to expand their knowledge or sample a course. As Keith Devlin puts it “In other words, they come looking for education. Pure and simple.” (2)

And realistically, if you have a large number of MOOC students who take the course to further their knowledge in a topic, and leave it when they do not feel that they require it anymore, is it really the same as dropping out from a traditional HE course? Or the students who just wants to sample a course before they enrol in University, who really just want to know if this is for them? MOOCs remove many boundaries of education. The idea that you are in control of how much you do and how much you put into it can be slightly uncommon to traditional HE, which is why it’s more difficult to understand the trends within MOOCs.

The way I see it is that instead of dwelling on the high “drop-out” rates in MOOCs we should rather work on redefining what dropping out really means in the context of a Massive Open Online Course. And if there is such a thing at all. I am sure there are people leaving a MOOC without completing their initial goals, however how we measure that cannot be the same as measuring it in traditional HE courses.


1. http://www.openculture.com/2013/04/the_big_problem_for_moocs_visualized.html

2. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-keith-devlin/moocs-and-the-myths-of-dr_b_2785808.html

What’s the craze about MOOCs?

Over the past year every Higher Education event, conference and seminar I have attended has had some sort of a discussion on MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). Key-note speakers, talks during the coffee breaks, presentations… the sector is truly buzzing.

And even though there is an incredible amount of talk on the topic, I still find people who are not very aware of it. I have to admit that the first time I heard about MOOCs I wasn’t terribly excited. However, very quickly I realised how much potential MOOCs have to change and develop our education systems.

In this post I intend to shed some light on what MOOCs are and why are so many people talking about them… and why you should too.

What is a MOOC?

 MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course. A MOOC is essentially a fully online course, allows for unlimited participation and is open for access by anyone on the internet.  They offer a large community of students and peers, web sources and a distributed knowledge base. Because of this, MOOCs essentially promote great student engagement, independent learning and networking with other people interested in the subject.

This videos offers slightly more detail on what a MOOC is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eW3gMGqcZQc

Essentially MOOCs are the most recent development in e-Learning. Utilising web resources, not physical contact time and fully online materials, contents, learning activities. The main difference between a MOOC and an online distance learning course is that a MOOC is not currently credited, while a distance learning course also includes assignments and can lead to a qualification. Both, however, offer learning through online materials and communities. While distance learning courses are limited to a number of participants, MOOCs are open to unlimited participation which can open up a very large forum of people, and a huge learning community.

Why is everyone talking about MOOCs?

The term MOOC was first mentioned in 2008 and the first MOOCs emerged from Open Educational Resources (1). 5 years later, MOOCs are regarded as “revolutionising”, “game-changer”, “worldwide phenomena”.

Why? It is already evident that they attract huge numbers of students. According to The Wall Street Journal, Coursera (the largest MOOC provider) has attracted 5 million students, edX – another provider – 1.3 million (2). The courses come from institutions such as Harvard, Stanford. MIT and so many more. They are also free. Imagine the possibilities – potential students trying out a subject before they enrol; Access to education; Life-long learning; no geographical obstacles.

Even mainstream media are now engaging with MOOCs. AMC‘s critically acclaimed TV show The Walking Dead, based on comic books of the same title, has started a MOOC entitled Society, Science, Survival: Lessons from AMC’s The Walking Dead (3). This is a great example of how open MOOCs really are.

What MOOCs offer is a huge choice of courses, communities and the possibility to study something that was previously unavailable to you. These are all great things. The big subject variety, the choice of providers and generally the availability of information are things that have the potential to change how we develop our current education system.

In this blog I will be posting about current issues and trends regarding MOOCs, what effects they are having on Higher Education, and providing regular press round ups. This post is the first of many to come, and provides an overview of what MOOCs are. I hope you will find the blog helpful and I am looking forward to your comments!


1.  http://davecormier.com/edblog/2008/10/02/the-cck08-mooc-connectivism-course-14-way/

2. http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303759604579093400834738972

3. http://www.wired.com/underwire/2013/09/walking-dead-mooc-online-course/