With abysmal completion rates, colleges move to improve approach to MOOCs


Massive Open Online Courses, known as MOOCs, are a growing part of the education sector’s transition from “brick to click.”

Open and often free to anyone with an internet connection, they offer a large number of students the opportunity to take high-quality online courses with prestigious universities, such as Harvard, Stanford and MIT. While MOOCs don’t always lead to formal qualifications, students can earn certificates that demonstrate competence in a subject area if they complete the course and meet all of its requirements.

But high dropout rates continue to plague MOOCs. Most estimates put the dropout rate at roughly 90 percent. A recent University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education study concluded that only 4 percent of students who register for MOOCs actually finish them.

Whether low completion rates really matter or whether they pose a serious threat to the legitimacy of MOOCs is still up for debate among educators. However, some higher education institutions that offer MOOCs are seeking ways to improve their abysmal retention and completion rates.

At St. George’s University on the island of Grenada, administrators say they have dramatically improved completion rates by making their courses social. Students must interact with their classmates, promote conversations over social media and incorporate live online seminars.

Last year, the university’s One Health/One Medicine MOOC achieved a completion rate of almost 60 percent by requiring students to interact with each other via social media and participate in online seminars, according to Satesh Bidaisee, deputy chair of the Department of Health and Preventative Medicine at St. George’s.

“Coming out of that success, we felt like we had a model of interaction and engagement. That was a key for MOOCs,” Bidaisee said in an interview with EdScoop.

Taking advantage of tech tools

St. George’s, which enrolls over 7,000 students, first offered One Health/One Medicine as a MOOC in 2013. Twelve percent of students who signed up completed the course.

While that completion rate was higher than reported averages, administrators wanted to do better.

“We were not satisfied with our retention and completion rate,” Bidaisee said. “We thought that was unacceptable. We [decided we wanted to] use tools and techniques that can encourage interactions and the engagement of participants.”

Administrators incorporated chat rooms, live office hours for professors and live discussion sessions via Zoom, a videoconferencing platform. They used chat rooms, in part, so students could discuss case studies, Bidaisee said.

“A case study is set up after people review the lectures and recordings and then they have to go into a chat room and discuss the case,” he said. “It leads to very interactive, engaging conversations. It’s actually very intimate.”

When the course was offered a second time, with new interactive features, the completion rate soared to nearly 60 percent, Bidaisee said.

“At this point, we felt like we were establishing a learning community,” he said. “I became very familiar with the students over the past two-plus years. We got to know them personally, and everyone, including myself and the students, began to look forward to these courses.”

He added that the concept of promoting interaction and engagement with students is probably one of the main ingredients for MOOC retention and completion. “Students want to feel that they are part of a learning community,” he said. “They want to feel that they are able to connect with the faculty and their classmates and they want to do it in a user-friendly and convenient way.”

St. George’s continues to experiment with courses to reinforce student engagement. This year, for example, the school is offering a yearlong MOOC that includes monthly live seminars, each on a different topic and led by a different student presenter.

SPOC benefits

Other institutions are adopting strategies to increase completion rates. HarvardX, for example, has started scaling down some courses, an approach called SPOC (small, private online course), in which professors can more fully engage a targeted group of learners, who then benefit from a more personal course setting. In one recent X course on health care innovations, students were divided into 100 teams of three to six students each; 75 of the teams completed the course.

At Harvard Law School, CopyrightX, an introductory course on copyright law, requires students each week to log on to an Adobe conferencing system and spend an hour-and-a-half in a virtual room debating the cases at hand. In a recent year, 80 percent of the students who registered attended the final seminar, and 41 percent of the students who enrolled in the class took the final exam and passed it.

At Penn State University, students taking a Creativity, Innovation and Change MOOC were grouped according to learning preferences — those who wanted to learn at their own pace with common online methods of communication, such as email and discussion boards, versus students who sought to supplement learning with chat and videoconferencing. Researchers at Penn State reported a marked improvement in retention.

What’s ahead for MOOCs? Bidaisee believes coursework should go mobile to boost completion rates.

“Our next move is to see how we can get into smartphones,” he said. “More and more students don’t have laptops, but they have smartphones. If we make these courses more mobile, whether you’re on a train or a bus, for example, you can take this content while you are traveling to work. It’s an evolving process — how we can use technology to make [MOOCs] more available, accessible and equitable for students.”