MOOC dropout rates – Don’t focus on the headline

I listened to this podcast on education and the internet on Econtalk a few weeks ago. The guest speaker Arnold Kling used the high dropout rate in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) as evidence against their effectiveness.

By design, most MOOCs will have a huge dropout rate. This is mainly due to the low-stakes nature of signing up to a course, but also because some courses hide a lot of information behind the ‘sign-up’ button. That enrollment is so easy is great. Why make things harder than they should be? On coursera, an account takes about 30 seconds to set up and to sign up for any individual course takes the click of two buttons.

The fact information is hidden behind the ‘sign-up’ button isn’t ideal. For instance, to see the syllabus on this Combinatorial Game Theory course, you have to sign up to it. There is no reason to hide this information as it helps students with their enrollment decision. While students dropping out of MOOC courses isn’t of great consequence, the more information students have access to before enrolling, the better the data on ‘real’ dropout rates will be. When I say ‘real’ dropouts, I mean students who initially have some non-negligible level of commitment to a course and its content yet don’t complete a course due to its structure, resources, time demands or the like. By figuring out why these students  drop out, courses can be refined to deal with these problems.

I have un-enrolled from courses on coursera and have received little follow up. I suggest that MOOC providers send out an email with a short survey not only at the end of every course but also on each un-enrollment. I’d be happy to say that for one course I was never planning to take it, another that I realised I didn’t meet the prerequisites (limited C++ programming), and another I’d say that I got all I wanted out of the course in the first three weeks.

By setting the sites up a bit better and gathering better data on non-completion rates it should be easier to see what a more ‘real’ MOOC dropout is. Until then, don’t focus on the headline dropout rate.