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Low MOOC completion rates back in the limelight

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The University of Pennsylvania is at the forefront of a movement to experiment with free open online courses, but the undertaking, as its own researchers are finding out, has yielded mixed results.

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Professors were surprised by the low MOOC completion rates.

While massive open online courses (MOOCs) have attracted millions of viewers and been heralded as a potential way to address skyrocketing tuition, very few of their viewers – 4 percent on average – actually complete the courses, according to the latest study by researchers in Penn’s Graduate School of Education.

Many who register drop off after the first week or two, the researchers found in a study they will present Thursday at a MOOC conference at the University of Texas, Arlington.

About half who registered viewed at least one lecture.

The results come on the heels of another Penn study, released in November, that showed a vast majority of students enrolled in MOOCs already hold college degrees and are taking the courses primarily to advance in their jobs, which called into question the notion that the courses were providing greater access to the world’s underprivileged.

“The technology offers some promise of a new approach to addressing both” costs and access, said Laura Perna, a lead researcher on the new study. “We just don’t know to what extent this is going to be more than a promise.”

The researchers looked at one million users who registered for the 16 free courses offered from June 2012 to June 2013, among them “Calculus: Single Variable,” “Greek and Roman Mythology,” and “Fundamentals of Pharmacology.” The classes were taught by Penn professors and offered in partnership with Coursera, a California-based online-education company and a pioneer in MOOCs.

The study, conducted by the newly created Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy at Penn, delved into when users enter and leave courses and when and how they participate.

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