Why MOOCs Fail (and Change Everything)

January 16, 2014

A new study from Penn’s Graduate School of Education finds that massive open online courses (MOOCs) have surprisingly few active users, with many disengaging after just a week or two of enrollment. Rare is the student who actually makes it to the course’s end. These findings are drawn from the movement of a million students enrolled at Coursera, one of the largest MOOCs in the business.

The detailed findings:

  • Four percent of students, on average, complete their courses.
  • Completion rates are higher for courses with lower workloads.
  • Course enrollment figures vary widely, from over 100,000 students to just north of 10,000.
  • Most students viewed at least one lecture.
  • Most students are U.S.-based, educated, male, and wealthy.


The big question for MOOCs is, How do they keep students engaged? I think this is a case where incentives matter, particularly for those who aren’t necessarily self-directed learners. MOOCs don’t usually offer course credit or grant degrees. Employers don’t quite know how to value MOOC learning either. Finishing an online course is like giving yourself a pat on the back—nice, but not worth much.

Education is only one reason we go to college, after all. We also go in order to (a) achieve status and (b) signal our employability. These last two reasons are difficult standards for MOOCs to meet.

MOOCs face high barriers to entry into the accredited education market. Without third-party certifiers blessing their courses with widely accepted college credit—and thus helping students signal their employability—MOOCs are not going to disrupt any market any time soon.

This is why we should watch the example of Udacity’s tie-up with Georgia Tech and AT&T. Here we have a large MOOC joining with an established, well-respected higher-ed institution in a project that enjoys the backing of a Fortune 500 company. How successful will their $6,600 computer science degree be, both for its backers and students? Time will tell. So far, Udacity and Georgia Tech are alone. Yet everyone seems to win in the deal, most of all its students, who leave with a solid education, social status, and a strong labor market signal (i.e., a college degree). Oh yes, and they may save over a hundred thousand dollars.

What should make MOOCs exciting is how they subtly shift the focus of higher-ed beyond traditional institutions and toward the crafting of an open market for human capital. Rather than channeling students into a centralized, heavily regulated route to employability, we could instead see multiple pathways opening up for getting a degree and a good job.

MOOCs clearly have some growing pains, as the Penn study shows, but none more than those imposed by a highly regulated education market. We need more space for these innovators to play in. 

Image credit: OpenSource.com