Udacity office in Silicon Valley, ground zero for MOOCs.
Udacity office in Silicon Valley, ground zero for MOOCs.

Less than 10 percent of MOOC students, on average, complete a course. That’s the conclusion of Katy Jordan of Open University, who published her analysis, pulled together from available data of some Massively Open Online Courses, or MOOCs.

But do completion rates matter?

It’s not that course completion rates don’t inform observers about the nature of MOOCs, said Michelle Rhee-Weise, who follows higher-ed developments in online and blended learning as an education senior research fellow for the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation (formerly Innosight Institute). But with no negative academic consequences from dropping out, that information is less about the effectiveness of the courses themselves, and more about the reasons people might be enrolling, she said.

Among those reasons:

  1. 1.  Just because MOOCs give free access to higher education courses doesn’t mean their work is being ignored by the for-profit sector of an online learning industry estimated to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars, Rhee-Weise said. That can make MOOCs a fruitful observation ground for those who are looking for ideas to infuse into their own online learning efforts.
  2. 2.  “If you just think about the openness of these platforms, there are people who just want to see what’s going on, see how others teach the same subjects they do, as well as competitors who might want to steal some ideas and use them in their own platforms,” said Rhee-Weise, who said she has enrolled in a handful of MOOCs for research purposes without intentions of completing them.
  3. 3.  There is a range of data that shows students enrolled in MOOCs and in other online post-secondary courses skew far older than the traditional on-campus college student. In online degree programs, that phenomenon often relates to professionals looking to change careers, get promoted within their current one with the attainment of an additional degree, or merely weave new skills into their work.
  4. 4.  While MOOCs can’t offer the promise of automatic promotion that degree programs can provide, they can offer a much lower-risk path to new workplace skills. Some students might lift specific skills out of courses without following through to completion. Meanwhile, Rhee-Weise questioned whether those who were completing MOOCs had been given any direct career incentive.
  5. 5.  “Are they boosting their CV? Are they changing their career track?” Rhee-Weise said. “I would love to know how this is tracking and helping in some way with employment. … It seems like a way in which we could blur the gap between unemployed college graduates and unfilled employment opportunities.”
  6. 6.  Low completion rates may actually point to students enrolling because they recognize the unusual opportunity afforded by MOOCs. Whereas students in traditional college courses likely wouldn’t enroll in a course they knew they might fail to complete if they were paying full tuition, the lack of those concerns could stir some to enroll before they consider the full demands of a course.
  7. 7.  And even with severe student dropoffs, the idea of MOOCs serving a wider swath of students than traditional college courses is still authentic, Rhee-Weise said. A small fraction of a courseload of 10,000-30,000 students completing a course still boasts more students than even a large lecture hall on a college campus.


The analysis, which Jordan has continued to update since initially posting it in the middle of February, currently considers the enrollment and completion rate data of 24 MOOCs in all, including 20 offered from different universities over the Coursera platform. Twelve universities are represented, with individual course enrollments ranging from 10,000 to 180,000. Courses are color-coded on a scatter plot, based on whether they are scored automatically, by peer grading, or a combination of both.

Courses with automatic scoring tended to have somewhat higher completion ratings than courses with peer grading. There was very little correlation, however between the number of students enrolled and the completion rate, nor between the duration of the course and the completion rate. A typical course enrollment is roughly 50,000 students.


While Rhee-Weise said she didn’t believe MOOCs should be evaluated based mainly on course completion rates, she did express some overarching doubt about whether MOOCs were really a revolutionary change in higher education, as some creators intended.

“I’m not totally convinced yet that MOOCs will necessarily be completely disruptive to higher education,” said Rhee-Weise of the Innosight Institute, an organization founded upon forwarding the principal of disruptive innovation in education and healthcare. “I think in general we think they have the hallmarks of disruption. But what’s interesting is these are all emerging from the [universities] themselves, and when we have seen disruptors have success, they’ve come out of autonomous units” outside the formal education system.

Why Do Students Enroll in (But Don’t Complete) MOOC Courses? 8 April,2013Ian Quillen

  • I am guilty of enrolling and not finishing. I enrolled in my first MOOC as an undergrad, loved it, I learned a lot. So, I signed up again in my third semester as a grad student because the content dovetailed with my M.Ed. Educational Technology class.

    The demands of life and school meant I was not able to dedicate the time needed to meet the requirements of the course. If there were consequences, I would probably not have taken the class or sacrifice some time somewhere to finish the class.

    Would I sign up for another MOOC. Yes! But I would make sure that I have the time to dedicate to the course.

  • Interesting article. Here’s a recent offering from the National Education Association on MOOCs that explores some of the same issues.


  • Mark Tuttle

    I sign up for many courses just to read the emails from the instructor. I’m interested in the content of the courses I sign up for, and I’m very interested in the MOOCs phenomenon – but I don’t have time currently to engage more deeply. Still, I get a lot out of just “watching.”

    • shelbypanayotou

      my best friend’s step-aunt makes $89 every hour on the internet. She has been fired for 6 months but last month her pay was $12729 just working on the internet for a few hours. Read more on  Fab99.c­om

  • I have enrolled in several MOOCs, some of which I completed, some which I did not. The courses I did not complete we’re still good learning experiences. I tend to enroll in courses in which the content interests me, even if I don’t have the prerequisites. I basically fail up in these courses until I can’t fake it any more. Then I drop out. I find this to be a valuable learning tool which has allowed me to learn about things like relational databases, in which my previous experience was virtually nil. I may look like a failure in the data, but MOOCs have definitely allowed me to pick up some skills that I would not have without them.

  • MOOCs are good for foreigners .
    They are not sensitive in many issueas like Americans are .
    So lately I suggested to them to set up a MOOCs university and award degrees of your own.
    Have your students take 40 good MOOCs courses free from USA.
    If they complete 40 courses succesfully then award them a degree of business or whatever it is . In their diploma it will say courses were taken at MIT, Harvard, Caltech, Stanford , Yale . Then they can find jobs very easily .
    Any comment .
    Well infact it can be done in USA a well .
    Today Antioch is taking only 2 courses from MOOCs , if they take all courses from MOOCs still they can award an Antioch degree but their expenses is nill .
    Any comment . But let us force MOOCs be GOOD .

    • auraseale

      my buddy’s sister makes $84/hour on the internet. She has been out of work for 8 months but last month her check was $19017 just working on the internet for a few hours. Read more on  Fab99.c­om

  • Ron

    The worry about non-completion is actually completely unfounded. I have also enrolled in a number of MOOC’s – some of these I finished, and others I watched the lectures that were of interest to me – but did not complete or do assignments on other topics. The fact that I did not complete them in no way diminished their value to me.

    A good analogy would be I bought a dictionary – unfortunately I never finished reading it – but the parts I did read were all quite useful.

  • Very good Post.

  • mary

    before I saw the receipt 4 $5538, I didnt believe
    …that…my neighbours mother woz like they say truley receiving money in
    their spare time from there computar.. there uncles cousin had bean doing this
    for only about sixteen months and just paid the mortgage on there mini mansion
    and purchased a top of the range audi. this is where I went, fab22.comCHECK IT

  • Robin Duran McBride

    I regard my consumption of MOOCs in much the same way that I regard course materials on iTunes. I get access to them with the intent of not necessarily taking the entire class, but like Ron said below of listening to the lectures that are of interest to me. This far, I have not taken a MOOC for credit, but in order to sample courses in areas that interest me. I have often done the readings if I wanted a more in-depth exposure to the subject matter and have lurked on discussion forums to see what topics are buzzing. Often I have enrolled with the intent of watching the archived lectures at a later point.

  • Ahmed Mohamed Abd El-hameed

    I have my reasons for not completing any mooc I’ve ever started,It’s our educational system on Egypt is almost completely dependent on memorizing facts,and going to college depends on my score in our so-called (Thanwya Amma) in Egypt,so I don’t have enough time to finish what really deserves to be learned !!

  • milimack

    Why the fuss about completion rate? I’m not sure it matters. I think MOOCs are an awesome way to encourage life long learning. It’s such a joy just to learn something new without thinking about how to pay for it and worrying about whether I’ll fail or not. I don’t need to justify to my employer whether it fits into my current career to get them to pay for it. I have had many, many textbooks. I’ve only read every page of very few of them.

  • Pingback: Los MOOC y su modelo de negocio: ¿dónde está el ROI? | Cuadernos de e-Learning()

  • Pingback: Reflecting on Gamification, and MOOCs in general | Digilit Leicester()

  • James

    MOOCs for me are not about improving my CV or boosting my career. They are about learning.

  • Pingback: Reflecting on Gamification, and MOOCs in general | Lucy's Adventures in Ed Tech()

  • Pingback: Why I Always Fail My MOOCs | ExitTicket Student Response SystemExitTicket Student Response System()

  • Pingback: Balance del 2013 en dos cañas de cerveza()

  • Pingback: Confessions of a Dropout()

  • Pingback: Can We Think Clearly about MOOCs? « James Rovira()

  • Pingback: Why Do Students Enroll in (But Don’t Complete) MOOC Courses? « Analyzing Educational Technology()

  • Brad

    I have shared many of the reasons stated by others – lack of time, I am a little curious and want a smaller taste of the course material, etc. But, I also found many of the courses I signed up for did not live up to expectation. Often the level or style of the courses leaves me bored or the course content is simply not what I expected from the description. In some cases, I have had a thematically related book sitting unread on my Kindle that was a better investment of my time.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor