Mark Guzdial, in his post Lessons Learned From First Year College MOOCs at Georgia Tech (and SJSU), points out the astonishingly low completion rates for some MOOCs (about 1% of registered students, 2–6% of those who did the first assignment):
Karen Head has finished her series on how well the freshman-composition course fared, published in The Chronicle. The stats were disappointing—only about 238 of the approximately 15K students who did the first homework finished the course. That’s even less than the ~10% we saw completing other MOOCs.
Georgia Tech also received funding from the Gates Foundation to trial a MOOC approach to a first year of college physics course. I met with Mike Schatz last Friday to talk about his course. The results were pretty similar: 20K students signed up, 3K students completed the first assignment, and only 170 finished.
Note that the composition course had only 3 major assignments, one of which was to produce a video, so it probably did not do a lot for the writing skills of even the students who completed it, compared to a normal freshman composition class with feedback from experienced instructors.
I can’t help thinking that for the cost of creating the MOOCs, a lot more students could have completed conventionally taught courses. After all, 238 students is only 10 sections of normal freshman comp, at about $6k per section or $60k, and 170 physics students is one lecturer and 6 discussion sections, or about $50k. (And a real physics class would have had an associated lab.)
I’m sure that the MOOCs cost a lot more than $60k—or they wouldn’t have needed Gates Foundation grants to run them. If the courses had really managed to get a significant number of students to finish, they might have been worth the huge price tag (despite the arguably lower quality of the education). But having fewer completions than higher quality, cheaper traditional education does not make for a convincing argument in favor of MOOCs.