Massive Open Online Courses and Completion Rates: Are Self-Directed Adult Learners the Most Successful at MOOCs?

Massive Open Online Courses and Completion Rates: Are Self-Directed Adult Learners the Most Successful at MOOCs?

Amanda Sue Schulze (Pepperdine University, USA), Doug Leigh (Pepperdine University, USA), Paul Sparks (Pepperdine University, USA) and Elio Spinello (Pepperdine University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-0522-8.ch002


Millions of adults have registered for massive open online courses, known as MOOCs, yet little research exists on how effective MOOCs are at meeting the needs of these learners. Critics of MOOCs highlight that completion rates can average fewer than 5%. Such low completion rates raise questions about the effectiveness of MOOCs and whether all adults have the skills and abilities needed for success. MOOCs have the potential to be powerful change agents for universities and students, but it has previously been unknown whether these online courses serve more than just the most persistent, self-directed learners. This study explored the relationship between self-directed learning readiness and MOOC completion percents among adults taking a single Coursera MOOC. By examining self-directed learning - the ability to take responsibility for one's own educational experiences - and MOOC completion rates, this research may help to confirm the knowledge and skills needed to be a successful adult learner in the 21st century, as well as how to improve online education offered to adult learners.
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Online courses for adult learners have traditionally suffered from lower course completion rates than face-to-face classroom courses (Rovai, 2002). Dropout rates for online university courses have been found to be 10% to 20% higher than traditional college classroom courses (Carr, 2000). Barriers to completion of university and continuing education online courses for adult learners are often linked to feelings of isolation, lack of support from the learning community and instructor, and challenges with persistence (Rovai, 2002). Massive open online courses, called MOOCs, are a new platform and online course structure being used to deliver instruction simultaneously to thousands of learners. Yet, completion rates for MOOCs are not nearly as high as what has been found for similar university classroom or online courses (Watters, 2012).

There are three unique features of MOOCs that may contribute to the low completion rates and corresponding high enrollment numbers that other online courses offered at universities do not have. First, in terms of cost, MOOCs are free of charge, which removes the barrier that higher education is only available to the wealthy. When examining the universities that offer MOOCs, such as Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Stanford, it seems likely that MOOC learners now have access to education from Ivy League universities that many may have never thought possible (Pappano, 2012). Second, MOOCs are usually taken asynchronously when individuals have time, making them a flexible education option for working adults, parents, and anyone with a busy schedule. However, MOOCs are still only available for a scheduled period of time. If a leaner registers, but has scheduling conflicts during the MOOC period, then that learner cannot complete the course. Third, MOOCs are open and accessible to anyone with an Internet connection, making them available to adults located across the globe. Given these three criteria alone, MOOCs may be the beginning to the various challenges facing universities today. However, while these three factors may be some of the reasons why MOOCs are attracting large numbers of registrants, they may also offer insight into why low numbers of learners complete MOOCs.

Though millions of adult learners have registered for MOOCs, there are few empirical studies at this time that examine MOOCs and their value for learning. Critics cannot help but point out that MOOC completion rates can average fewer than 5% of those registered (Kolowich, 2012; Pappano, 2012; Balch, 2013). A recent unofficial study examined enrollment and completion rates of MOOC learners from data made available to the public. This study reported enrollments for MOOCs were typically around 50,000 learners with most MOOCs having completion rates lower than 10% (Jordan, 2013). Such evidence raises questions about the effectiveness of the MOOC learning environment for adult learners, and whether all adults have the skills and abilities needed to succeed within MOOCs.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Open Education: Free education that is accessible to all.

MOOC: A massive, open, online course about a specific topic, guided by an expert. Learners access free resources on the subject presented in the course.

Course Completion: A measure of course success.

Adult Learner: Those that have taken on adult roles, such as a parent or spouse, and are responsible for their own lives.

Andragogy: A key component of adult learning theory and describes how adults learn and adult preferences for learning.

Self-Directed Learners: Are responsible for planning, managing, and evaluating their own learning experiences.

Scaffolding: Instructional strategies that can be used to move students successfully through a course.

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