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MOOCs and the Myths of Dropout Rates and Certification

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When the second iteration of my free mathematics MOOC starts this weekend, I anticipate at least 30,000 students will sign up. Not as many as the 65,000 I got last year, when it had novelty value -- and a lot less competition! -- but still a substantial number.

By the end of week three, that number will likely have dropped to 10,000 (it was 20,000 last time round), and by the end of the course a "mere" 5,000 (10,000 before), with maybe as few as 500 taking the optional final exam in order to earn a certificate with distinction (1,200 in 2012).

This seems to fit the attrition pattern that commentators have most typically described as "worrying" or "a problem," hinting that therein lies a seed of the MOOC's eventual demise. But is an 85 percent attrition rate really a problem? In fact, is it significantly different from traditional higher education?

For comparison, the equivalent figure for my own university, Stanford, is 95 percent. That's right, 95 percent; a higher attrition rate than my online course. That's not Stanford's published "graduation rate," of course. Of students admitted, 79 percent graduate in four years and 96 percent within six. But that's comparing apples with oranges. Anyone who decides to take a MOOC simply logs onto the website and signs up, thereby becoming one of the statistics. So a fair comparison would be to take the number of students who apply to Stanford. That figure is around 35,000, by chance about the number of students I expect will sign on for my course. So considerably more students who sign up for my free online course will graduate than will occur with students who "sign up" (i.e., apply) to Stanford, which graduates about 1,700 students a year.

The (only) point I am trying to make with this comparison (which has numerical significance, but says nothing about quality of education or utility), is that applying the traditional metrics of higher education to MOOCs is entirely misleading. MOOCs are a very different kind of educational package, and they need different metrics -- metrics that we do not yet know how to construct.

Once thing that we have learned from the research done on the first twelve months of MOOCs is that, besides their students being typically much older than the traditional college population (median ages seem to be in the mid-thirties, but the spread is large), people sign up for a MOOC for very different reasons.

A great many never intend to complete the course. Rather, their goal is to sample, in order to get a general sense of a subject or topic. In other words, they come looking for education. Pure and simple.

For those students, the issue of certification never arises. And thereby goes another myth about MOOCs: that they are doomed by the lack of a reliable accreditation. (In fact, there are ways to provide reliable certification, and the different MOOC platforms either offer it already or have it in their plans to offer it in the near future. But that may not be the most significant feature of tomorrow's MOOC.)

MOOCs mean so many different things to so many different people, only time will tell which sections of society they most serve, and what they will ultimately offer. Those of us currently experimenting with their design are already able to take into account the massive amount of feedback data that any online activity yields, and as a result MOOCs are already starting to evolve. But a mere one year in, I don't think any of us could confidently predict where this will all lead.

What is becoming clear, is that evaluating MOOCs in terms of traditional higher education will prove to be about as useful -- and just as misleading -- as the early twentieth century pundits who thought of the first automobiles as "horseless carriages." (Or, for that matter, the 1980s commentators who saw the Internet as a useful research tool for academics, but nothing more.)

With MOOCs, we have a very different entity in our midst. What they become will be determined not by Coursera or Udacity or Stanford or MIT, but by the millions of people around the world who, by the way they use them, will shape their future. That's a flat, global community at work. But don't blink, or you'll miss the action.