Why Students Don’t Complete MOOCs


Writing for the Mind/Shift blog, Ian Quillen asks why people enroll in, but don’t complete, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). He cites Katy Jordan of Open University, who reported in February 2013 on the number of students enrolled in MOOCs who complete them. Jordan collected data from a sample of 24 MOOCs, of which 20 came from different universities using the Coursera platform.

Jordan’s finding? Fewer than 10 percent of students enrolled in a MOOC complete it.

And that’s okay.

The reason so few online learning students complete shouldn’t be much of a mystery. After all, most MOOCs are offered free of charge. Students who don’t complete are not wasting money. Therefore, there is no real penalty for not completing.

Also, with few exceptions, MOOCs do not offer college credit (although that is slowly beginning to change). So students who don’t finish are not missing out on a reward at the end of the road.

Enrolling in a MOOC is analogous to looking up information in a library – you don’t have to read the whole book to get what you want, and there’s no harm if you don’t.

People enroll in these types of online learning courses for a wide variety of reasons, few of which have anything to do with earning a degree. Some want to acquire a new skill set they can use on the job. Others want to fill in gaps in their knowledge and explore topics they didn’t get to study in school. And then there are those who view MOOCs as a form of infotainment, like watching a documentary or surfing through articles on Wikipedia.

And of course we can’t forget the many academics and journalists who are rightly curious about these new players in the industry. I would be very interested to know what percentage of MOOC enrollments come from writers (like yours truly) and educators who simply want to see a MOOC for themselves.

Companies that offer MOOCs, like Coursera, do not rely on student loans or government funding. Unlike a formal degree program at a university, MOOC providers have little reason to worry about how many of their students complete.

But they do want lots of students. And they want people to participate. After all, MOOCs are structured for students to learn from each other. And most of the grading is based on peer review.

So maybe “Why don’t MOOC students complete” is the wrong question to ask. Maybe a better question would be, “How do we get more students to participate and contribute to the MOOC?”



Written by: Michael Mussman
Michael Mussman is Editor of Forward Thinking, the Ashford University blog.

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