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MOOC Revolution
Why MOOCs' Low Retention Rates Aren't a Problem

MOOCs have received some bad press in recent months, and critics have been especially harsh about their low retention rates. Only about 7 percent of people who sign up for the courses actually complete them. Even one of the online courses’ earliest proponents, Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun, has expressed some disillusionment. Late last year, the Washington Post asked, “Are MOOCs Already Over?”

Robert Wright, journalist and founder of, went to bat for MOOCs in Slate. Wright has recently been teaching a MOOC on Buddhism, and he says that this frequent criticism is misguided. Of course students are more likely to drop out of a MOOC than a for-credit class at a university; after all, MOOCs are free. And all you have to do to enroll is fill out a simple online form, which is hardly comparable to the commitment that students make to the colleges they attend. Wright concludes:

Why is “number still participating” [at the end of the class] the key variable? Because it says so much about the future supply of and demand for MOOCs.

First, on the demand side: The demand for MOOCs will depend on whether people see themselves benefiting from taking them. And the number of students who stick around for the whole course roughly captures the aggregate perceived benefit. After all, unlike at a “real” college, there’s no reason to finish a given course other than perceiving real, specific benefit from it.

As for the supply side: Though the downward-sloping participation curve is at first glance a downer, what most professors will, upon reflection, really care about is how many students they wound up reaching in a pretty thorough way. So the number of students still participating at the end is a good predictor of how many professors will consider it worthwhile to keep teaching these courses. Of course, professors may have various specific motivations for teaching an online course—they may assign books they’ve written, etc.—but the strength of all the specific motivations I can think of will correlate with number of students reached, not percentage of enrollees reached.

While Wright’s article won’t quiet all criticisms of this new technology, it introduces a welcome note of sense into the debate. Students who take MOOCs don’t act the same way as students who take classes at brick-and-mortar schools. There are clearly different incentives at work, and critics shouldn’t be comparing schoolhouse apples with MOOC oranges.

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  • David E.M. Thompson

    This article might be more informative if the author had bothered to tell us what an MOOC is.

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