Sunday, March 3, 2013

MOOCs and the Myths of Dropout Rates and Certification

When the second iteration of my free mathematics MOOC starts this weekend, I anticipate at least 30,000 students will sign up. Not as many as the 65,000 I got last year, when it had novelty value -- and a lot less competition! -- but still a substantial number.

By the end of week three, that number will likely have dropped to 10,000 (it was 20,000 last time round), and by the end of the course a "mere" 5,000 (10,000 before), with maybe as few as 500 taking the optional final exam in order to earn a certificate with distinction (1,200 in 2012).

This seems to fit the attrition pattern that commentators have most typically described as "worrying" or "a problem," hinting that therein lies a seed of the MOOC's eventual demise. But is an 85 percent attrition rate really a problem? In fact, is it significantly different from traditional higher education?

For comparison, the equivalent figure for my own university, Stanford, is 95 percent. That's right, 95 percent; a higher attrition rate than my online course. That's not Stanford's published "graduation rate," of course. Of students admitted, 79 percent graduate in four years and 96 percent within six. But that's comparing apples with oranges. Anyone who decides to take a MOOC simply logs onto the website and signs up, thereby becoming one of the statistics. So a fair comparison would be to take the number of students who apply to Stanford. That figure is around 35,000, by chance about the number of students I expect will sign on for my course. So considerably more students who sign up for my free online course will graduate than will occur with students who "sign up" (i.e., apply) to Stanford, which graduates about 1,700 students a year.


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