clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Are MOOCs Really Failing to Make the Grade?

Critics are obsessed with the infamous "five percent completion rate."


Since their inception, there has been a flurry of debate around the legitimacy and efficacy of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). Widely recognized as game-changing in education, they offer radical reach and democratize access to education unlike anything we’ve ever seen. However, the rise of anything new and exciting is typically accompanied by criticism. In the case of MOOCs, it has been heavy. Skeptics point to uncertainty in scalability, assessment, engagement — the list goes on.

The main argument being made against MOOCs attacks the perceived lack of success as measured by their low completion rates (Mass MOOC Dropouts). The interpretation of this metric varies greatly.

Critics are obsessed with the infamous five percent rate, pointing out that “If 95 percent of students who enrolled in a residential college course dropped out or failed, that course would rightly be considered a disaster.”

Some take it further (the MOOC Racket), claiming that MOOCs are a platform for evangelizing academic rock stars to the detriment of students and teachers, and arguing that educators can’t teach tens of thousands of people at once — “that MOOCs only deliver information, but that’s not education.”

What is clear from all the fur flying is that people aren’t satisfied with the current state of affairs in U.S. education. But are MOOCs really failing to make the grade? Is this the right interpretation of that troubling five percent?

As a technologist, I look at the five percent through a very different lens than educators do. Equating online conversion rates to offline behavior is naive, and any attempt to hold MOOCs to a classroom standard for learning is going to lead to disappointment.

Examined through conversion rates, one of the Web’s favorite metrics, five percent is very typical for early Web companies. Through this lens, our criticism of MOOCs instantly transforms into a relatively average complaint. Does this mean that MOOCs are right where they should be for a nascent technology? That’s a question worth asking.

The other group we really haven’t heard from in this debate is students. Sure, we have the infamous “five percent completers,” but do educators really know what’s going on in the heads of the other students?

The answer is no.

The instruments educators are currently using to measure them don’t tell much of anything. For example, time spent watching online video, which seems to be the measurement of choice, if not one of the only measurements of engagement for MOOCs, is a blunt instrument.

Technologists would look at the problem differently. We love data, and as much of it as we can get. And by creating interaction with learners, we could capture data that shows different types of engagement, and whether or not people are actually learning from MOOCs, a question that I don’t believe has been adequately addressed up until now.

Measuring engagement could come in many different forms that educators haven’t explored yet. For example, by intersecting MOOCs with adaptive learning or gaming, we could capture a phenomenal amount of data and have the added benefit of improving how people learn, and how well they remember information. One could also measure rates of learning and forgetting, and effectiveness of content being taught on a very granular level, and ultimately provide instructors with insight into how their content is performing. This, in turn, will let them improve the process or intervene with students when needed.

Before we pass judgement, we need to look at MOOCs again, this time from all angles, and start digging for contextualized data to serve as the foundation for evaluation.

Our education system is in dire need of positive change, and while MOOC 1.0 is not a panacea for what ails the system, the interest in online learning and the fiery arguments around the subject suggest that there’s something here worth exploring further.

If properly channeled — and combined with a bit of forward thinking — I believe MOOC 2.0 will make the grade, and be the game-changer we’re all hoping for.

Andrew Smith Lewis is founder and executive chairman of the memory-management tool Cerego. He spoke last week at SXSW EDU and SXSW Interactive about “Hardwiring the Brain” and improving experiences in education. Follow him @aslives.

This article originally appeared on