MOOC completion rates aren’t all that low

MOOC completion rates aren’t all that low, writes Kevin Carey on EdCentral.

Massive Open Online Courses have puny completion rates, according to a Penn study of 16 Coursera MOOCS. Only 4 percent made it to the end.

That’s misleading, Carey counters. That four percent appears to be the percent of “registrants” who finished the course; it includes people who never logged on and those who logged on and immediately dropped out.

For example, Penn’s “Mythology” MOOC attracted about 15,000 registrants who never started, 20,000 starters who immediately stopped and 25,000 active users. “Nearly 60 percent of the people the study reported as not finishing the course never tried to finish,” writes Carey.

Of 25,000 active users, only 1,350 completed the course. That’s not much, Carey concedes. But it’s very close to the percentage of Penn applicants who complete a degree.

Anyone can sign up for a Coursera course, just as anyone can apply to Penn.

Last year, 31,218 students applied to Penn. Thirteen percent were admitted, and 63 percent of those students enrolled. In other words, Penn had (or will have) roughly: 27,200 Applicants who were not admitted 1,500 Admittants who did not enroll 330 Enrollees who did not graduate 2,200 Graduates Or, to put it another way, about seven percent of all students who “signed up” for the University of Pennsylvania by submitting an application end up graduating four years later, which is almost precisely the same as the percentage of Active Users who completed a MOOC in the study held up as evidence that MOOCs don’t work very well.

Penn doesn’t admit the less capable, less motivated applicants, writes Carey. Coursera lets everyone try.

Applying to Penn takes effort and money, while signing up for Coursera takes 30 seconds and is free.

An apples-to-apples comparison would probably include everyone who requested a Penn application, or logged onto registrar’s website, but didn’t complete an application. That number would be substantially larger than 31,218, and drive the graduation ratio down further still.

Nearly all Penn undergrads are full-time students who’ve invested a lot of money in their degree, so they’re highly motivated to finish. “Coursera students come in all ages and nationalities and many already have college degrees,” Carey writes. They’ve invested no money, so they can quit without penalty.

The Penn study concludes the 16 MOOCS have “few active users” and that “few” students persist to the end. But Mythology drew 25,000 active users, which is more than twice the number of Penn undergrads, Carey points out. The 1,350 who finished represent a huge increase in Mythology completers.  ”The researchers could have taken exactly the same data and issued a report finding that ‘MOOCs achieve ten-fold increase in course completers for Ivy League class, at zero cost to students’.”

After suspending its MOOC trial for a semester, San Jose State will offer three online courses  developed with Udacity in the spring. The online versions of Elementary Statistics, Introduction to Programming and General Psychology won’t be massive or open. Class size will be limited and only California State University students will be eligible.

Udacity: Online pass rates are up

Udacity’s online partnership with San Jose State was suspended because of low pass rates in for-credit classes in its first semester. Pass rates improved significantly over the summer, exceeding on-campus pass rates in statistics, algebra and programming, but falling short in psychology and entry-level math, writes Udacity CEO Sebastian Thrun.

Learning from what didn’t work in the spring, Udacity changed some of the course content, Thrun writes.

We added hints for challenging exercises, and we added more course support staff to assist with online discussions and communications. We also changed the pacing methodology, informing students earlier and as part of their course experience when they were falling behind.

Enrollment was opened to anyone who wanted to try. Only 11 percent were California State University students. Half of the summer students already held a college degree and only 15 percent were high school students. In the Spring Pilot, half the participants were high school students (mostly from low-income areas) and half were San Jose State students.

Earning college credit was not the leading motivation, students said.


“Few ideas work on the first try,” Thrun writes. Udacity will keep working to improve the courses, especially in remedial math, which had the weakest results.

San Jose State, Udacity rethink MOOC pilot

San Jose State and Udacity have put their low-cost, for-credit MOOC experiment on hold for a semester because of high failure rates, reports the Los Angeles Times. In the spring pilot, pass rates ranged from 29 percent in remedial math to 44 percent in college-level algebra and 51 percent in elementary statistics. There was one encouraging sign: 83 percent of students completed the classes.

Udacity, a private Silicon Valley education group, and San Jose State will study ways to improve the classes.

“The improvements we are considering include developing introductory materials that will help students prepare for and engage in college-level online classes. We would also like to look at the impact of the frequency of quizzes for grades and other similar incentives to help students move through the material in a timely manner. Another focus will be to explore opportunities to move to open-registration, self-paced classes with student-set deadlines.”

Students in the summer courses received more orientation and appear to be doing better.

Only half of Udacity students were enrolled in San Jose State and some had flunked remedial math earlier, reports Inside Higher Ed. Some were inner-city high school students who turned out to lack access to computers and community college students. “We stacked the deck against ourselves,” said Provost Ellen Junn.

Typically, online courses work best for mature, disciplined, competent students, which suggests that MOOCs aren’t likely to work well for high school kids and remedial students.

Students said they needed more time, Udacity CEO Sebastian Thrun tells MIT Technology Review.

Online courses for ‘novice learners’

Can “novice learners” succeed in all-online courses? Many believe remedial and entry-level students need lots of personal attention to succeed. But San Jose State is working with Udacity on three online basic math courses that include round-the-clock online mentors, hired and trained by the company, reports the New York Times.

The tiny for-credit pilot courses, open to both San Jose State students and local high school and community college students, began in January, so it is too early to draw any conclusions. But early signs are promising, so this summer, Udacity and San Jose State are expanding those classes to 1,000 students, and adding new courses in psychology and computer programming, with tuition of only $150 a course.

San Jose State professors provided lecture notes and a textbook for the three basic math courses. Udacity employees wrote the script. The nonprofit also supplies online mentors who answer students questions immediately.

The Gates Foundation is giving grants to develop massive open online courses to teach basic and remedial skills, said Josh Jarrett, a  foundation officer.

“For us, 2012 was all about trying to tilt some of the MOOC attention toward the more novice learner, the low-income and first-generation students,” he said. “And 2013 is about blending MOOCs into college courses where there is additional support, and students can get credit. While some low-income young adults can benefit from what I call the free-range MOOCs, the research suggests that most are going to need more scaffolding, more support.”

A bill in the state Senate would let wait-listed students earn credit for faculty-approved online courses, including those from private vendors such as Udacity and edX. The bill is controversial, especially with faculty members.

San Jose State President Mohammad Qayoumi favors blended learning for upper-level courses, “but fully online courses like Udacity’s for lower-level classes,” reports the Times. Online courses can be expanded easily, eliminating wait lists.

“If the results are good, then we’ll scale it up, which would be very good, given how much unmet demand we have at California public colleges,” said Ronald Rogers, a statistics professor. “I’m involved in this not to destroy brick-and-mortar universities, but to increase access for more students,” Rogers said.

‘Flipped’ engineering boosts pass rates

Flipping” and “blending” a San Jose State engineering class has worked so well that most California State University campuses are expected to partner with edX on similar courses in the fall, reports the San Jose Mercury News. San Jose State will expand the model to humanities, business and science courses.

Eighty randomly selected students in an entry-level engineering course watched online lectures from MIT (the flip), while solving problems in class, with the professor’s help (the blend).  Ninety-one percent of the flipped students passed the class. Only 55 and 59 percent of non-flipped students passed. .

“Five hundred years ago we gave them a textbook, and in 1862 we gave them chalk,” said Anant Agarwal, president of edX. “What tools have we given them since then? Please don’t say PowerPoint.”

In-class problem solving is more effective, said SJSU President Mo Qayoumi. However, the new format requires a lot more time from students and instructors.

The online videos and quizzes can take 10 to 12 hours a week to watch and complete, far more than expected in the traditional format. In addition, (Professor Khosrow) Ghadiri said he and his teaching assistants spend a combined 80 hours a week on the class, preparing materials, checking students’ progress and sending them emails when they fall behind.

Students who put in the work have a very good shot of taking the class only once. And if the 91 percent pass rate holds, the engineering department won’t have to provide all those seats for two-timing students.

California’s community colleges and state universities are looking to online learning to shorten wait lists. The state Legislature is considering a bill to require public colleges and universities to accept online credits if students can’t get into conventional classes.

Digital learning expands access

Digital learning is expanding higher education options for California students, reports the  San Jose Mercury News.

Estela Garcia, a working mother from Menlo Park, attends class at her kitchen table after she puts her daughters to bed; Tim Barham, a UC Berkeley senior, takes statistics at home after a day at work; and Oakland teenager Sergio Sandoval studies a college course while in high school.

“I think this is the single most transformational thing that could occur in higher education in decades,” said Ron Galatolo, chancellor of the San Mateo County Community College District.

With the urging of Gov. Jerry Brown, California’s universities are expanding online options. The University of California, whose campuses offer more than 2,500 online classes, may require undergraduates to take 10 percent of classes online. As soon as this summer,
San Jose State University and Udacity, a Mountain View-based company, “could open for-credit math classes to all takers, at $150 each. Some 300 high school, community college and university students are in a pilot program to test the classes.”

Galatolo wants to work with Udacity to design refresher courses to help incoming students ace placement tests, avoiding the remedial “black hole.”

Estela Garcia and a former classmate, Kelsey Harrison, said their online coursework requires self-discipline.

Still, because of the relatively small size of the class, it was easy for them to reach their College of San Mateoinstructors when they needed help. That kind of communication between students and faculty is impossible in a course with thousands of students. Those courses rely on virtual study groups and crowd-sourcing — seeking answers from the whole universe of students.

A well-developed online class might reach struggling students better than a traditional one, said Ronald Rogers, the San Jose State professor who developed Udacity’s statistics course. Rogers said when he stands in a lecture hall and asks if anyone has a question, nary a hand goes up. The new platform inserts short exercises and quizzes into the lecture, prompting instant student feedback.

“Imagine being in a class where if every minute and a half, the teacher shut up and asked if you got it,” he said.

Online courses helped Tim Barham transfer from a community college to Berkeley a year early. Now at Cal, the legal studies major is taking statistics online. Otherwise, he said, “I would have had to graduate later or cut down on work hours, which I can’t afford to do.”

Older students are looking for ways to combine credits earned in many ways to complete a degree, reports the New York Times. New Jersey’s Thomas Edison State College, a pioneer in flexible, low-cost degrees, is growing rapidly. So are Charter Oak State College in Connecticut and the private, nonprofit Excelsior College in New York.  ”The idea of measuring students’ competency, not classroom hours, has become the cornerstone of newer institutions like Western Governors University,” the Times adds.

Pilar Mercedes Foy, 31, a Thomas Edison graduate whose parents did not go to college, said after she got an entry-level job at PSEG, the New Jersey energy company, she realized that she would need a degree to advance. She earned the bulk of her credits through heavily subsidized evening classes offered at work, supplemented by classes at Union County College and 12 credits from the CLEP Spanish exam.

Foy didn’t borrow a penny.

David Esterson, 45, of Whittier, Calif., started taking college classes in high school and attended the University of Washington for a year. After working for years as a photographer and starting a music business, he decided to complete his degree three years ago. He took online courses at the University of Minnesota and the University of Phoenix and at several California community colleges, before earning a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies from Thomas Edison. He’s now enrolled in two graduate programs.

California pilots $150 online courses

For $150 per online course, California students will be able to earn college credit as part of a partnership between San Jose State University and Udacity, a Silicon Valley MOOC start-up, reports the New York Times. Remedial algebra, college algebra and introductory statistics will be the first courses offered.

The pilot won’t be massive:  It will be limited to 300 students from San Jose State, local community colleges and nearby high schools. San Jose State professors will design the courses, which will include interactive quizzes. Udacity will provide the platform and the support services, such as online mentors.

Ellen N. Junn, provost and vice president for academic affairs at the university in San Jose, said the California State University System faces a crisis because more than 50 percent of entering students cannot meet basic requirements.

“They graduate from high school, but they cannot pass our elementary math and English placement tests,” she said.

California Gov. Jerry Brown kicked off the partnership with a phone call to Sebastian Thrun, one of Udacity’s founders.  Brown hopes low-cost online courses will lower costs and speed graduation for thousands of California students who now have trouble getting into the classes they need.

EdX, a MIT-Harvard collaboration, will begin offering “blended” classes at  two Massachusetts community colleges this month, reports the Times.

Recently edX completed a pilot offering of its difficult circuits and electronics course at San Jose State to stunning results: while 40 percent of the students in the traditional version of the class got a grade of C or lower, only 9 percent in the blended edX class got such a low grade.

Unlike the blended class, the Udacity pilot will require students to work entirely online.

If student success rates are high in the pilot courses, the $150 courses could be opened to high school and community collegestudents across the country by this summer, reports the San Jose Mercury News.

It’s not a sure thing, said Thrun at the press conference. ”There’s a big if here because we are very skeptical ourselves whether this actually works,” he said. “We set it up as an experiment of scale, but we don’t know if this is a viable path to education.”

“Failure is the precursor for success,” said Brown, vowing to learn from setbacks.

“I hope this will be such a game-changer,” said Mo Qayoumi, San Jose State’s president.

Online outreach has boosted retention rates for online courses offered by the University of Georgia’s eCore, reports Education Sector.