MOOC Interrupted: Top 10 Reasons Our Readers Didn’t Finish a Massive Open Online Course

mooc completion

On Tuesday, we gave you a Visualization of the Big Problem for MOOCs, which comes down to this: low completion rates. To be clear, the completion rates aren’t so much a problem for you; they’re more a problem for the MOOC providers and their business models. But let’s not get bogged down in that. We ended our post by asking you to share your own experience with MOOCs — particularly, to tell us why you started and stopped a MOOC. We got close to 50 thoughtful responses. And below we’ve summarized the 10 most commonly-cited reasons. Here they are:

1.) Takes Too Much Time: Sometimes you enroll in a MOOC, only to discover that it takes way too much time. “Just didn’t have time to do all the work.” “As a full-time working adult, I found it exceedingly difficult to watch hours upon hours of video lectures.” That’s a refrain we heard again and again.

2.) Assumes Too Much Knowledge: Other times you enroll in a MOOC, only to find that it requires too much base knowledge, like a knowledge of advanced mathematics. That makes the course an instant non-starter. So you opt out. Simple as that.

3.) Too Basic, Not Really at the Level of Stanford, Oxford and MIT: On the flip side, some say that their MOOCs weren’t really operating on a serious university level. The coursework was too easy, the workload and assignments weren’t high enough. A literature course felt more like a glorified book club. In short, the courses weren’t the real university deal.

4.) Lecture Fatigue: MOOCs often rely on formal video lectures, which, for many of you, is an“obsolete and inefficient format.” And they’re just sometimes boring. MOOCs would be better served if they relied more heavily on interactive forms of pedagogy. Val put it well when she said, “We should not try to bring a brick and mortar lecture to your living room. Use the resources available and make the learning engaging with shorter segments…. The goal should be to teach and teach better. If one of these online universities can figure that out, then the money will follow.”

5.) Poor Course Design: You signed up for a MOOC and didn’t know how to get going. One student related his experience: “From day one I had no idea what I was supposed to do. There were instructions all over the place. Groups to join with phantom members that never commented or interacted, and a syllabus that was being revised as the course went through it’s first week.”

6.) Clunky Community/Communication Tools: This has been the Achilles’ heel of online learning for years, and so far the MOOCs haven’t quite figured it out. It’s not unusual to hear this kind of comment from students: “I find that the discussion forums aren’t very useful or engaging. They are not a very good substitute for active in-class discussion.”

7.) Bad Peer Review & Trolls: Because MOOCs are so big, you often don’t get feedback from the professor. Instead you get it from algorithms and peers. And sometimes the peers can be less than constructive. One reader writes: “I chose to stop doing the peer response section of the class due to some students being treated rudely [by other students]; in fact, the entire peer response section of the class is done in a way I would NEVER have asked of students in a classroom…. [T]here is no involvement of the professor or TA’s in monitoring the TORRENT of complaints about peer reviews.”

8.) Surprised by Hidden Costs: Sometimes you discover that free MOOCs aren’t exactly free. They have hidden costs. Brooke dropped her MOOC when she realized that the readings were from the professor’s expensive textbook.

9.) You’re Just Shopping Around: You shop for courses, which involves registering for many courses, keeping some, and dropping others. That inflates the low completion rate, but it gives you freedom. As one reader said, “I am very, very happy about being able to be so picky.”

10.) You’re There to Learn, Not for the Credential at the End: Sometimes you do everything (watch the videos, do the readings, etc.) but take the final exam. In a certain way, you’re auditing, which suits many of you just fine. It’s precisely what you want to do. But that, too, makes the low completion rates look worse than they maybe are.

Thanks to everyone who took the time to participate. We really appreciate it! And if you’re looking for a new MOOC, don’t miss our list, 300 Free MOOCs from Great Universities (Many Offering Certificates).



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  1. Hal DuBois says . . . | April 5, 2013 / 9:27 am

    The first thing that grabbed me is that I was one of the folks who dropped the Duke class! It’s been the only classes I’ve dropped on Coursera, but all the reasons or pressures you’ve listed are factors in how I look at my limited (about 8) experiences. Many of these courses are first time offerings. Perhaps they’ll be a “moocamendation” system (tuned to user demographics and motivations) that will start filtering out some of the false starts. I also think it would be helpful to spilt the list, with factors common to coursework in any form on one side (inviting comparison) and problems, mostly tech related I suspect, unique to MOOCs on the other.

  2. david says . . . | April 5, 2013 / 9:33 am

    It’s all about the quality of the lecturer. Once you listen to Steven Smith at Yale on political philosophy or Leo Strauss on Nietzsche, it’s hard to accept less insight for your time.

  3. Pearl Klein says . . . | April 5, 2013 / 11:21 am

    I’m really surprised by #6. Though I have no direct experience with MOOCs, people in my family have spent thousands of hours dedicated to chatting online about topics of great interest to them. Perhaps the design is too complex, and needs to be more like Reddit…

  4. Daryl Lunsford says . . . | April 5, 2013 / 2:14 pm

    I left a MOOC after about 3 weeks. When they were launching it, they set the video lectures up improperly, and no one could access them. That threw everyone enrolled behind almost 2 weeks, but it was announced that no correction to the term schedule would be made, meaning that you had to do the same amount of work in less time. The course was in sections, each with a test that had to be passed before moving on, but questions in the tests were on subject matter that hadn’t been covered at all in the lectures. This was a math MOOC that I was taking to better prepare me for some math courses I was going to have to take in my online degree program, but it was pretty much a waste of time.

  5. TJW says . . . | April 8, 2013 / 8:07 am

    I don’t know what all the complaining is about with FREE MOOCs.

    In a typical college setting, there are good and bad professors, courses that are worth every penny, some that aren’t worth a dime. I think people should quit complaining and be grateful that colleges and universities are willing to educate you for free or at a cost MUCH LESS than what’s offered in a typical college setting.

    Don’t like a course, drop it. What’s the big deal?

    Why would anyone give you something for free if all people do is complain?
    Not a very intelligent thing to do if you ask me. I hope these idio** don’t ruin it for everyone.

  6. RalfLippold says . . . | April 9, 2013 / 3:57 am

    Following a MOOC is a challenge of itself. Showing everyone involved that learning with others is not an easy thing.

    What held me back lately to follow “Learning Creative Learning” was the immense spreading of various communication, and participation channels. Based here in Germany, with a time difference of six hours to MIT, and a culture of taking/watching a course when it is “on” made it almost impossible to get in contact with locals. Another not to underestimate reason is that the courses are in English mostly (no issue for me) and especially in central Europe, including Germany, English is still a major hurdle for larger, and longer involvement.

    However I see ways to improvement, like collaboration with universities, and embedding some of the MOOC material into local courses, and make it mandatory to take them in order to gain credit points in your studies (in case you are a student), or other incentives which could go to employees, or unemployed people.

    Looking forward to reading more thoughts on it.

  7. Hugh says . . . | April 9, 2013 / 12:54 pm

    I’m currently spending a year doing an MSc full-time, paying fees and incurring costs by not working at a very good university.

    If it had been a MOOC I would have happily dropped it in the first couple of months as much of the teaching is dire and the course content is very disappointing. Unfortunately I’m committed, and instead of dropping it and getting on with life having to see the damn thing through to the end.

    Bottom line: being able to drop out easily is a fantastic feature of which I am very, very envious.

  8. Erik Keller says . . . | April 10, 2013 / 1:56 am

    Count me in for 10 (just brushing up) and (in one instance) for 1. I’m assisting people creating MOOCs so I don’t have the time to finish one. ;-)

  9. Meredyth says . . . | May 24, 2013 / 4:47 pm

    An issue that is not yet mentioned is how angry and persistent the complaints are by some students when they are on-line. There is more anger and abuse in comments posted in the fora for on-line courses than observed in face-to-face courses. Whether this is because people feel safer and more distant from the effect of their posted comments or whether the injustice done to them is more harmful, I don’t know.

    The mechanism of the on-line course does not encourage people to behave well. They encourage a grad for attention, even through notoriety. Courses that include participation in discussion/participation in the assessment criteria seem to exacerbate immoderate behaviours.

  10. Meredyth says . . . | May 24, 2013 / 4:49 pm

    An issue that is not yet mentioned is how angry and persistent the complaints are by some students when they are on-line. There is more anger and abuse in comments posted in the fora for on-line courses than observed in face-to-face courses. Whether this is because people feel safer and more distant from the effect of their posted comments or whether the injustice done to them is more harmful, I don’t know.

    The mechanism of the on-line course does not encourage people to behave well. They encourage a grad for attention, even through notoriety. Courses that include participation in discussion/participation in the assessment criteria seem to exacerbate immoderate behaviors.

  11. BDG says . . . | June 28, 2013 / 11:45 pm

    I just finished an online course and a university course simultaneously, on the same topic.
    I joined an online course because the university course was diabolical. The teacher didn’t even communicate basic information, and half way through the course I still didn’t even understand WHAT the topic was. At the final exam I only completed half the questions because I guessed most, and the rest I had never even heard of. It wasn’t just me either, everyone else had the same result. I learned much more from the online course, for FREE!
    I would have so gladly dropped the university course in the first few weeks if I hadn’t spent $1G+ and needed course credit. Low drop-out rates just mean people are desperate not to waste their investment.
    Free online courses mean you can kick the tires, take if for a short spin, leave it and take another, fail and try again, or even complete it if you want. Doesn’t matter. It’s free.

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