Despite Hype, Few Complete Free Online Classes

Published December 19, 2013

Amid breathless media reports that free online university classes will dramatically change education, a new study finds few who enroll complete or even attend the classes.

Of approximately a million people who enrolled in one or several of sixteen Coursera “massive open online courses,” or MOOCs, on average only 4 percent completed a course. Only half viewed at least one lecture video from their course.

Such results have made MOOC leader Sebastian Thrun, who quit teaching at Stanford University to start the MOOC platform Udacity, rethink his hopes for reaching the world through low-cost online education. He’s turning to training workers through business partnerships.

The sixteen classes analyzed in the University of Pennsylvania study varied in subject, assignment difficulty and type, and instructional time. Subjects ranged from single-variable calculus to first aid to ancient mythology. There was no statistically significant increase in completion rates by instruction type or support offered, such as live online chat and course length. Six percent of enrollees completed courses with lower workloads, versus about 2.5 percent who completed courses with higher workloads. 

Image by Michael Surran.