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Coursera Takes a Nuanced View of MOOC Dropout Rates

Philadelphia — Massive open online courses have gained renown among academics for their impressive enrollment figures and, conversely, their unimpressive completion rates.

What accounts for the high attrition in MOOCs, and what does it mean? Coursera and data researchers at several partner universities of the MOOC provider have begun trying to answer those questions by learning more about why students wash out of MOOCs—and what instructors and course designers could do to stem the tide.

Some of that research was on display over the weekend at Coursera’s first-ever partners’ conference, where MOOC professors, instructional designers, and various invited guests spent two days talking shop.

The data so far are preliminary. But the company believes that the low completion rates in its early courses should not be read—as many critics have done—as an indictment of the MOOC format.

The registration figures in MOOCs have been massive indeed. A Chronicle survey of MOOC professors last month found a median of 33,000 registrants for the courses that have been offered so far. One course, offered by Duke University via Coursera, saw 180,000 students sign up.

The rhetorical counterpoint to those impressive figures, which often exceed the total enrollment of large state universities, has been the massive attrition. Although millions of students have registered for courses through Coursera, the company and its university partners have awarded only 280,000 certificates of completion. In general, the rate of completion in MOOCs is believed to be around 10 percent.

But most students who register for a MOOC have no intention of completing the course, said the company’s co-founders, Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng. “Their intent is to explore, find out something about the content, and move on to something else,” said Ms. Koller.

The rates of completion for students who have given some indication that they plan to do the work is substantially higher. For example, for students who so much as submit the first assignment, the completion rate leaps to 45 percent.

For students who are paying $50 for the company’s new Signature Track program—which includes features designed as safeguards against identity fraud and cheating on examinations—the pass rates are even higher, at about 70 percent, Ms. Koller said.

That is even higher, she said, than the non-Signature Track students who profess in surveys to high levels of commitment to completing the course. This “suggests that having skin in the game is highly valuable,” Ms. Koller said.

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