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