Attrition in MOOCs: Is It a Problem or an Advantage?

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

It’s hard to fault research into MOOCs since there are so many more questions than answers. Thus, I was drawn to the news that MIT researchers have developed “a dropout-prediction model trained on data from one offering of a course [that] can help predict which students will stop out of the next offering.”1 Still, I find myself questioning the purpose, which is to reduce the high attrition rates associated with MOOCs. The assumption is that 90% or more stopout is a problem that needs solving.

I’m not convinced that it is. It may be for traditional onground college courses where dropouts impact revenue, but it may not be for massive open online courses where most students are more like window shoppers than serious customers. MOOCs are an open invitation for anyone and everyone on the planet to come in, look around, and sample for free with no pressure to buy. Students can participate from anywhere at anytime during the day, so commuting or traveling to a specific location at a certain time is not an issue. Thus, the investment of time and money is almost nil.

MOOCs are risk free and convenient, and this is their nature and their attraction. The option to engage as one pleases or stopout at any time are strengths rather than weaknesses or problems to be solved. In short, traditional courses and MOOCs are fundamentally different, and attrition may be a problem for one but an advantage for the other.

In the context of massive enrollment, ten percent retention isn’t necessarily a bad thing when it means 100 out of 1,000 or 500 out of 5,000. Thus, MOOCs could be considered successful despite — and maybe even because of — their attrition numbers.

The question of why students step out is worthwhile and should provide useful results, but the purpose should be to improve instructional design to retain students intent on completing the course and not just to reduce attrition. These ends appear to be similar, but they’re not. The issue isn’t retention for retention’s sake but course design that’s optimized for serious students.

What matters is the attrition of students who are serious about completing a MOOC. In this population, what is the retention rate? What are the causes of stopouts? How can these problems be addressed?

We have a lot to learn about MOOCs, and one of the basic problems is figuring out what the right questions are. All too often, our questions reflect our preconceptions of what MOOCs are instead of what they really are. If we see them in the same light as traditional onground courses, then we’ll apply the same standards. If we see them in a different light, then we’ll begin the search for standards that are appropriate.

1Larry Hardesty, “Helping Students Stick with MOOCs,” MIT News, 1 July 2015.

2 Responses

  1. […] By Jim Shimabukuro Editor It's hard to fault research into MOOCs since there are so many more questions than answers. Thus, I was drawn to the news that MIT researchers have developed "a dropout-pr…  […]

  2. I am right with you on this. Having participated in a MOOC, I have some thoughts. My goal was learning, not certificates. I went to the end only because I was writing about my experience. Otherwise, I would have stopped when I had learned all that I felt was necessary to my work.

    MOOCs provide a great way to gain new knowledge inexpensively. That said, they do have a couple of issues that could be addressed.

    The first is the time schedule. Being on the clock is a huge problem because I hit crisis moments at work that kept me from finishing assignments, and there are no deadline extensions in these MOOCs.

    The second is that most courses begin with introductory material that some may already know. It would be good to be able to skip over that material with certainty that you aren’t missing something crucial. Time efficiency can be very important to working people who are attempting to update their knowledge.

    In my case, I found another problem, and this is related to attrition. In the beginning the discussion groups were very active, and you could readily find help. Once the introductory material was over, the dropout rate appeared to be very high. Soon, the discussion groups were sparsely populated, and getting quality, timely answers to questions was tough.

    Some material can be very challenging. With minimal support, you may have to drop out just because the next unit depends on understanding the last one.

    In short, MOOCs may well have to be refined quite a bit before they reach their full potential, or my experience may merely be unusual.

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