Online courses explode, but 90 percent of enrollees drop out within two weeks. Why?

Satesh Bidaisee is an associate professor of public health and preventive medicine and assistant dean for graduate studies at St. George’s University, Grenada. In this essay, he discusses the hight dropout rate in online college courses and how to combat it.

By Satesh Bidaisee

The recent growth of online education has been astounding. Last year, 35 million people signed up for at least one online college-level class. That’s more than double the previous year’s enrollment.

The popularity of online learning is easy to understand. Today, students have access to well over 4,000 courses in a wide array of subjects, from chemistry to philosophy to graphic design.  They participate at a time and place that suits their schedule. Many courses are free.

There is, however, a serious problem now keeping online education from reaching its full potential — low retention rates. About 90 percent of enrollees in “MOOCS” — short for “Massive Open Online Courses,” which have unlimited registration and are the most popular online education product — drop out within two weeks.

The key to solving this problem? Making MOOCs more interactive. While MOOCs can never perfectly replicate the in-person back-and-forth of traditional brick-and-mortar schools, they can capitalize on modern technologies that empower students to intimately engage with the material, their instructors, and their peers.

It’s no surprise that so few online learners finish. Few MOOC platforms include features that allow students to collaborate or ask questions in real time. Students are often expected to just click play on a lecture video, sit back, and passively learn.

They’re stuck studying alone, with no sense of belonging to a broader community. If they find a lesson especially challenging, there’s no one to boost their morale or guide them over the hump. It’s easy to lose motivation.

Meanwhile, interactivity is the rule at traditional schools. Students can raise their hands in class and interrupt their teachers to ask questions. They can go to a professor’s office hours for further clarification. They join study groups and mentorship programs.

And all the extracurricular activities integral to college life — clubs and sororities and sports teams — further strengthen students’ social networks to keep them motivated and working. MOOCs can replicate those connections by incorporating interactive tools that let students share notes, ask questions, and cheer each other on.

A new study from Penn State suggests that social media sites should be a prominent part of the MOOC toolkit. Researchers analyzed data from Facebook and Coursera, a popular MOOC provider. They found students greatly preferred traditional social media channels to Coursera’s built-in message boards. Less than 10 percent of Coursera students used its boards, while nearly 30 percent of students were active on Facebook groups set up for specific classes. Researchers noted that the use of real names on the social site gave students “a sense of community.”

Some of the highest MOOC retention rates are at institutions that have invested in interactive technologies.

Harvard University, for instance, set up small virtual discussion groups supervised by a Harvard Law teaching fellow for an online course on copyright law.  Out of 500 enrollees, about half took the final exam — a completion rate that’s well above the norm.

Likewise, St. George’s University, where I teach, incorporates live sessions and student-led seminars into one of its public-health courses. Completion rates have jumped to five times that of the average MOOC.

Online learning is transforming lives all over the world. But too many students don’t finish what they’ve started. MOOC providers need to create more engaging, interactive experiences. That’s the best way to boost completion rates — and ensure that students take full advantage of this revolutionary new way to learn.

 

Reader Comments 0

23 comments
ljhays
ljhays

"Students can raise their hands in class and interrupt their teachers to ask questions". I'm a professor at a south Georgia university. I long for the day that students ask me questions.

Robolearn
Robolearn

Try a course on a next-generation "MOOC" platform - any course from FutureLearn (built and offered by the British Open University) for instance. They excel in "social learning".

Being free or very low cost makes it possible for many learners to take a course. Being online means all of these courses are available anywhere, anytime -- being "pajama-compatible" -- a big advantage over classroom schooling. But if they are built and delivered as a social learning experience -- where much of what you do in the course is to reflect and discuss with your peers and facilitators -- it's MUCH more fun and MUCH "stickier". 


FutureLearn (and others who are mobile and social) get more than half of every class to contribute and something 25% to complete their courses.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

I can't speak of the college level.  Perhaps, by self-selection, those are stronger, more-disciplined students.


At the high school level there is a perception among many students and their parents that on-line courses are a quick and very easy way to get credits.  Many parents think, "S/he is always on that computer, so this is a no-brainer!"

Starik
Starik

@Wascatlady If a "neighborhood school," becomes a countywide school, dangerous and unpleasant for other than underclass black kids, and the kids have no other option (poor kids, both black and minority), on-line schooling may get them through high school.

Andrea Hicks
Andrea Hicks

So they can get the refund money and buy crap with taxpayer money. It's called Pell runners.

NewName
NewName

The classes are free.

MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

Here is Mary Elizabeth's post that would not appear: 


As technology continues to expand and computers take over more and more jobs essential for humankind's survival, I would hope that more of the world's population will enter into the fields of service jobs, such as teaching others not only in skills but also in knowledge of academics which will foster enlightenment of the human condition, as well as engineers who would train or serve others in poor communities across the globe in farming techniques, sewage control means, purifying water supplies, etc. Moreover, doctors and nurses and caregivers of all kinds could give on-site medical service to those with health needs, such as old age care.

Even with interaction on Facebook and other social media outlets for online learning, nothing can replace love and authentic care between one human being and another, shown through real live hugs and handshakes, among many other ways in which direct contact is operative, such as simple eye contact, with all of the subtleties, contained within that immediate, in the flesh, communion.  

Online learning can make the initial start into educating the world and developing its literacy, but real-time human bodies/souls, interacting, with compassion and knowledge, with other human bodies/souls on the ground - where they live throughout the globe - educates in ways beyond the cognitive, which will help human beings survive on our common planet, together. 

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@Wascatlady @MaureenDowney


When I taught in an essentially all-black high school in DeKalb County during the last half of my career, I would hug the juniors and seniors in high school if I felt that hug was needed (usually at the doorway when students were either entering or leaving my classroom, not during class, which would have been an embarrassment to kids that age in front of peers).  


That well-timed hug seemed to bring "life" back into their eyes and spirits.  It is amazing the power that genuine love communicates.  I took that risk of hugging if I thought that risk in behalf of a student outweighed the risk that hugging was discouraged for legal reasons.  I never had a problem, in the slightest, from any standpoint.  The nature of my affection for my students was obvious to all. However, I used a hug judiciously and not as a pattern daily.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@MaureenDowney Your post reminds me of, as a young teacher, discovering that my struggling learners did much better when they were close (physically) to me. Of course, you would never do it now, but back then children liked to stand close, to lean on you, even to put an arm around you (or you them) or sit on your lap.  I suspect many children are still hungry for this same thing today.  Precious few seem to have a close relationship with their parents.


I know when I see them now, many swoop in for a hug.  I hold out my hand, but it is brushed aside in favor of a small or large hug.  It never fails to surprise me--my oldest "class" is now about 48 years old!

MiloD
MiloD

No place to hide online. One is held accountable for all to see. Many sign up expecting easy peasy. Nothing is further from the truth. It's here to say, it is the future. Might as well spend our energy figuring out how to make it better. 

Aeropro53
Aeropro53

I am currently enrolled in a multi-course series through Coursera and find that it has all the interactivity I need to understand and learn the material. I am attracted to Coursera MOOCs precisely because I can do it alone and without having to rely on another group. I have had to extend a course a time or two to finally get the lessons right-- but that's the beauty of it. It seems like 'social media' is the answer to every need -- how did the world progress for the last 500 years without it? An alternative that would seem to meet the gaps the professor notes above would be to have some of your actual friends join together and take the course, meeting 'in real life' to discuss and coach each other as needed-- no internet or laptop required.

Gene G Johnson
Gene G Johnson

Yes, this article makes common sense. There is no better teacher than a human being who can look at the student's face and ask the student a question to check for understanding and then explain again.
Yet, many teachers advocate for "flipping the classroom," which means sending the student home with a DVD to pop into the computer to "learn the material" and then practice by doing the homework in class....very bad idea.
We've made several nifty improvements to the wheel over a thousand years but a wheel is still round...and human beings still learn the same way:

Explain it.
Demonstrate it.
Try it.
Practice it.
All while being supervised by someone who really knows it.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

Maureen, please allow my post, below, to be published for the public's long-ranged thinking regarding how to better educate the world's population, not just Georgia's or those in the U. S. - relevant to online instruction or instruction and service of all kinds, directly, and not through virtual reality, alone.  Thank you.

Carol Sheridan Dial
Carol Sheridan Dial

Of course they do. They have not been taught to work independently and struggle through the tough stuff. They have been babied, pampered and enabled so that test scores will be higher.

Annette Laing
Annette Laing

Or maybe just staring at a screen is not in any way, shape, or form a real class? Do you actually know any teenagers?

Carol Sheridan Dial
Carol Sheridan Dial

I taught them for thirty years and raised one. The last ten years I was supposed to do " group" work ( required) which meant that one or two did the work. They were given chance after chance to redo assignments and knew they could not fail. I refused to play that game and the kids and parents hated it because I actually expected them to work and think. The first twenty years-- we studied Great Expectations, Huckleberry Finn, The Old Man and the Sea, and The Fellowship of the Ring, besides all the other things in the English curriculum for ninth graders. Kids today should do fine with computers because that's what they are used to doing. But they can't work or learn independently. And this is college, not ninth grade. Have you EVER been in a classroom? Unless you have in the last five years, you know nothing.