MOOC attrition rates — running the numbers

The prosecution against MOOCs usually starts by highlighting the huge attrition rates for massive open courses, often claimed to run as high as 90-95 percent, The Huffington Post reports.

Who in their right mind would trust their kid’s education to a program that can’t even hold onto one out of ten students? Case closed.

Or is it?

In order to answer that question, we need take a look at the calculation used to determine these alleged drop-out percentages. It’s actually not all that complex since it starts by taking the number of people who hit the enroll button on a site such as Coursera or edX and sticking it into the denominator of a fraction. After that, it’s just a matter of placing the number of students who earned a certificate of completion into the numerator and, voila, you end up with your completion rate!

The completion rate is actually the opposite of attrition, but for purposes of this discussion we’ll use it to see what happens to the percentage of course finishers if we start looking more closely at the numbers used in our fraction (particularly the one below the line).

Basing our denominator on enrollments assumes that everyone who hits the enroll button on a MOOC web page should be considered the equivalent of a college student who signs up to take a course at their university. But is that an appropriate assumption?

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