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Should MOOCs be free? | The problem of the MOOC completion rate

by Ed Youron via Flickr

by Ed Youron via Flickr

One of the most attractive features of MOOCs is the price point. You can’t beat free, right? And if your goal is to offer an experience as widely as possible, then taking away the barrier to entry of cost is one of the quickest ways to that goal.

On the other hand, one of the alarming flaws in the model so far is the low MOOC completion rate or “MOOC churn.” It sure sounds cool when 100,000 people sign up for a course, suddenly motivated by free access to a valuable resource they never would have been able to access before. But the reality a couple months later sounds a little ickier. Often only about 5-8 percent of the students enrolled make it through to the end.

The companies offering this amazing free resource point out that even if “only” 5,000 people complete the course, that’s a huge increase in the number of people who can be touched by a given teacher over a traditional classroom.

But what about that other 95 percent? The fact that they are likely to drop out under the current model doesn’t stop MOOC providers from boasting about their enrollment. They are part of the case being made about the “huge potential” of MOOCs. Are they part of this market are not? Are they students or not?

Of course, those students are responsible for their own actions. (I’ve dropped out of a couple myself, and I don’t “blame” anyone else.) But every experienced teacher knows you have to make some attempt to “meet students where they are” and help them over their motivation barriers. Those other 95,000 students, in my totally made-up example, did show some degree of initiative. And that initiative is now . . . where? What happened to it?

It seems to me the “huge potential” here is not simply the marriage of what technology makes possible multiplied by the number of people who could benefit from it. It’s about the level of energy invested. And right now, in the infant stages of this model, a lot of that energy is being dissipated in a kind of transfer loss.

The MOOC providers are no dummies. Apart from the icky impression the low completion rate makes and the apparent inconsistency of boasting about a market size of X but only really serving five percent of X, they’re going to want to make money off that other 95 percent. Or to realize their full value, whether that is motivated by altruism or profits. Both the altruistic value and the profit potential will require increasing that completion rate. No doubt, they are working on it. Daphne Koller at Coursera has been vivid in how her company (only one-year-old, remember) track every click to find out what’s working and what’s not. They are understandably enthusiastic about the data-mining potential of the scale they are working on.

Many MOOCs begin with a pre-course survey that is strongly encouraged or perhaps required. (One I’m currently enrolled in is quite unclear on that point. The professor asks politely that we do the survey. But the language at the survey page implies that a certificate of completion at the end of the MOOC depends on completing the survey by a due date like any other assignment.) The surveys typically ask about the student’s motivation. So-far, so-good. If some percentage self identify as rubberneckers and that population corresponds with the drop outs, that might not be seen as the kind of lost potential I mentioned above.

Conversely, if the same people not completing the course are the ones who say their motivation is to learn the material (which, by the way, wasn’t one of the choices on one survey I took recently – a telling omission, I thought), then the course designers know they have a more significant problem to work on.


What is the impact of free?

If it were me, one piece of data I would be trying to gather is how true my pre-suppositions about cost are. How important is it that it be free? Perhaps they shouldn’t be. Maybe those 100,000 enrollees should be paying a fee.

Crazy, right? Well, I prefer the term “counter-intuitive,” which is the egghead way of saying, “Hear me out for a second, because this might work.”

I don’t suggest charging a fee as a means for MOOC providers to make money. I do think  finding the profit through the other avenues they are pursuing is the way to go. I suggest it as a means of social influence, to actually increase the completion rate.

The psychological phenomenon this theory rests on is explored in a lot of disciplines. For example, marketers know that when thinking about price point, cheaper isn’t always better, because sometimes a higher price increases conversions.

My own understanding of this comes from my work in the world of nonprofit social service providers, which are also in the business of distributing their value as widely as possible. That usually means for free. It would be churlish for a charity organization to charge money, right? You’re hungry, you go to a soup kitchen, you eat for free? How else could it possibly work?

Actually, it does work many other ways. For example, it’s quite common for homeless shelters to charge a small fee each night. Three dollars at one I know.

I assure you this is not a profit-making enterprise. Their sincere goal is to get people housed, as many as possible. But if a venture capitalist swooped in a gave them a check that would allow them to rent every apartment in town and make sure no one was homeless, I believe they would still charge some kind of fee. This homeless shelter judged that the “completion rate” depends on some level of investment.

I used to have a job at one nonprofit, a kind of umbrella organization, providing consultation and training to the staff of other nonprofits. The organizations didn’t have any money to spare, and it my time was already budgeted, so why would we charge for the training? But my boss encouraged me to look at it another way. “They don’t value what they don’t pay for,” she would say. “I don’t care what it is, but charge them an admission fee.” The goal wasn’t to make profit on the training or even to recoup our costs. The goal was to increase the effectiveness of the workshop by increasing the participants’ commitment.


Skin in the game

All of this is a way of suggesting that maybe MOOC students should have skin in the game. What would be the completion rate if every student paid a nominal fee? Would it be more or less than the five percent under the current model? Would it be a different five percent?

More to the point, what would be the impact on educational outcomes? If, hypothetically, the conversion rate was identical under each model, would students learn more when they had skin in the game?

Think of it this way. A MOOC provider’s goal shouldn’t be to provide education. It should be to help people get educated, which is not precisely the same thing. And the best way to help people get educated may not be to give away the goods for free.

There are several obvious and valid objections to what I’m suggesting. For example, there will inevitably be some students who genuinely are motivated without having to pay and for whom even the smallest fee would be a barrier to entry. But other sectors have grappled with these issues and come up with imaginative approaches.

For example – back to the world of nonprofits working on housing – consider Habitat for Humanity, which requires clients to invest “sweat equity,” because they’ve figured out that increases the likelihood that the family won’t become homeless again. MOOC providers already use a form of sweat equity in the form of peer review of final projects. Students have to put in that effort evaluating peers in order to receive the certificate completion. What if a similar kind of sweat equity was required to even begin the course? Perhaps the original 100,000 wouldn’t go through with the sign up process. But would more than 5,000 be still standing – and better educated – at the end?

Or students who could afford it could choose a “refundable fee” model instead. One after-school program I know uses this method for an SAT exam prep course they offer in the summer. Students pay a small fee at the beginning of the course, which is refunded to students who meet certain completion benchmarks. It sounds like a lot of complication for the money to end up where it started, but the friction of moving the money around increases the value of the course. More students get more out of it.

More could be done with that model with some creative thought. For example, what if instead of having the money directly refunded to them – along with their certificate of completion – students were encouraged, or even incentivized, to set up some kind of account to invest in their own future, such as a savings account?

Or what if the fee, say $10, was matched with the investors at Gamin Bank or Kiva? Suppose a student under this model completed eight MOOCs over the period of a year and had $160 at the end to invest in their small business? Then the increased educational value that I’m arguing would result could be leveraged into increased economic value. I assume Kiva investors would respond positively to people who had already invested in themselves and demonstrated follow-through, not to mention the acquired competencies resulting from the courses themselves.

World-class instructors offering well-designed courses for free is nothing to sniff at. A five percent completion rate on 100,000 enrolled students is nothing to sniff at. But if the course providers really want to change the world by making this resource as broadly available as possible, they might do better by playing a little harder to get.

Robert McGuire (52 Posts)

My content marketing services firm provides all-in-one external staff solutions for companies looking to grow their business through thought leadership. I started MOOC News & Reviews in 2013 out of a fascination with the economic, demographic and technological forces impacting edtech, online education and higher education, and I wanted to provide a forum for serious discussion of this new phenomenon. I love building communities of writers engaging in lively critical dialogue about emerging issues.