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Are MOOCs Serious Competition for Traditional College? (Part II)

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By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, Wallace E. Boston School of Business

This is the second article in a four-part series about the rise of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) as competition for traditional college education.

In the first part of this series, we introduced the concept of MOOCs and the attention they’ve received as potential competitors to traditional colleges and universities. In these next parts, we’ll look at some of the ways that the relative success of MOOCs has been measured, beginning with growth retention metrics.

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The Growth Rates of MOOCs

One way to measure the current success of MOOCs compared to colleges and universities is to examine growth rates within this new field. An extensive review of the astonishing growth of the first three major pioneers in the MOOC field was published in 2013. Udacity was created by a Stanford professor in February 2012 and had enrolled 90,000 students just 14 months later. Coursera — also founded by Stanford faculty — locked in servicing agreements with more than 70 higher learning institutions (including Stanford and Princeton) and generated an enrollment of more than 2.8 million students within the same time since inception.

Finally, edX (founded by Harvard and MIT faculty) had a single course enrollment exceeding 53,000 students within just five months. The demand for MOOCs was so strong that one university president almost lost her job for failing to show “sufficient enthusiasm” for the development of MOOCs.

As for colleges and universities, researchers have carefully tracked their growth across the United States over the last century, but at no place or time has any college ever witnessed the apparent demand of these MOOC offerings. So one point for MOOCs.

The Retention Rates of MOOCs

Another way to evaluate educational performance is by retention rates. While MOOCs may, on their face, appear to be drastically more convenient and value-driven than their traditional counterparts, retention data has been anything but inspiring. That original University of Manitoba MOOC sported a retention rate of just 14%. Coursera measures retention by the proportion of enrollees who complete the final assignment in a course, and Coursera reported figures at a depressing 7% to 9%, depending on the course.

Coursera attempts to sidestep this ominous perspective by noting that many students have no realistic intention of actually following through with a MOOC certification. But they enroll nonetheless due to the cost-free nature of the courses (i.e., there is no penalty for enrollment or failure to attend, unlike with traditional schools).

Additionally, Coursera speculates that many MOOC students may enroll with the intent to learn very specific skills or knowledge. And once those goals are attained, they abandon the rest of the course, unconcerned about completing or acquiring any sort of certification.

However, others are less comforted by these excuses. For example, one researcher opined that the lack of professor accessibility was a primary cause of low retention in MOOCs.

As for colleges and universities, they have little trouble clearing the very low hurdle set by MOOCs. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average six-year graduation rate at public institutions in fall 2012 was 62%. While there is certainly still room for improvement, at the end of the day colleges don’t suffer from low retention rates the way MOOCs do. This point goes to colleges and universities.

Student Demographics and MOOCs

Now that a perspective on growth and retention has been established, a third way to compare MOOCs with traditional colleges is to discuss which student demographics each format addresses most effectively. With respect to the three biggest MOOC providers, preliminary data is suggestive of some trends in this area.

In 2012, researchers surveyed 104,000 students enrolled in a Coursera course. And of the 14,000+ respondents, more than half identified as working professionals, 20% identified as graduate students and only about 12% identified as undergraduates.

In May 2013, a public statement from Coursera that a majority of its enrollees had previously earned degrees supported the notion that most MOOC students are seasoned learners. EdX reported that more than 65% of its enrollees had also completed prior degrees. As far as Udacity, no hard numbers were released, but the company similarly identified that more than 75% of its enrollees were participating for the purpose of improving existing skill sets (emphasis added).

Elizabeth Fomin, online program manager at the University of Michigan, further supports this data. She asserts that MOOCs can be used by institutions as, among other things, “opportunities for non-traditional or returning students to enter a higher education environment without initial cost, therefore making higher education accessible to larger groups of students.

This evidence seems to support the explanation for the abhorrent retention rates offered by Coursera and others that students are picking out the curriculum they need or desire from these courses and neglecting the rest. Accomplished and degreed professionals may be less interested in being certified or in earning college credit from MOOCs, having already run their proverbial collegiate gamut.

Coursera Reported that 74% of Its Students Live Outside the United States

With respect to student national origins, data on MOOC enrollees is much less abundant. However, Coursera did report on this point in 2013 that 74% of its students live outside the United States. This might be reflective of the idea that minimal cost and convenient accessibility of MOOCs have drawn demand from populations around the world that might not otherwise have the opportunity to pursue higher education.

Notwithstanding speculation, however, the fact remains that colleges and universities typically maintain much higher retention levels. They also typically enjoy a more diverse population of students, including primarily undergraduates, both traditional and non-traditional, international and domestic, and others. For this reason, colleges take an arguable victory in this area.

In the next two articles in this series, we’ll look at perspectives toward MOOCs from key stakeholders, including students, faculty and higher education administrators.

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.

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