Why Do Online Courses Have A Low Completion Rate?

“Go to school, get good grades, get into a good college, keep getting good grades, get a degree, get a good job and get a career”

This fundamental formula for life has been hammered into the heads of most youths around the world for decades (and emphasised by most African parents), and for the most part, the formula continues to perpetuate itself from generation to generation.

The reason this formula doesn’t seem to have evolved very much over the years is because it has, to an extent, historically been proven to work for a large portion those who follow it judiciously. Graduate a Baker Scholar from Harvard Business School and chances are that you will get a really high paying job after graduation. Traditional educational institutions thrive on this formula continuing to hold true.

That said, we all know that the education infrastructure in the form it currently exists is broken.

We have hundreds of thousands of students accruing tens of thousands of dollars in student debt every year to sit through generic curriculums that for the most part have no practical application in the real world jobs that most of these students eventually take on after graduation.

I haven’t directly used 90%+ of the knowledge I learned in classes in any meaningful way in my Product Manager job since graduation, yet I probably would not have been hired into my current role without my costly college degree.

Regardless of the utility (or lack thereof) of expensive college coursework in real world jobs, the best employers continue to care deeply about high grades from the best schools and students continue to accrue debt to get expensive diplomas from the best institutions.

It’s a vicious cycle.

Enter MOOCs

Platforms like Coursera and Udacity began to gain widespread attention around 2011, and they came in with a noble goal to democratize education and release coursework from the best institutions for free to anyone with a computer and an internet connection. Universities have offered online courses for years, but the world seems to only have started paying serious attention to them after the likes of Coursera started aggregating the best courses from the best professors in the best schools on their free and intuitive platforms.


The caveat is that most people who start MOOCs are not really completing them.

The typical MOOC completion rate is less than 13%. To understand why this is the case, it helps to understand why many college students spend long nights in their college libraries painstakingly studying for midterms and completing assignments. For the most part, the driving force during those long nights is the hope that a good grade would give them an edge in the eyes of employers and graduates school admissions officers while bad grades would be we considered a negative strike.

Because MOOCs have yet to gain much weight in the eyes of these very same employers and admissions officer who ultimately make the calls that determine one’s life and career trajectory, the incentives to push through hard assignments and problems encountered in a MOOC course do not exist in the same way that they exist when taking courses in a traditional paid accredited institution. The company recruiters at college senior career fairs are not hanging around at the MOOC certification finish line.

For MOOCs to be successful, students need to have a clear incentive to complete courses. This incentive would most likely have to surface itself in the form of a clear path from completion to getting a paying job and ultimately serving as a career launchpad for students who complete courses. I suspect that this path will not build itself organically, there will probably need to be pro-active efforts involved in fleshing out the path from MOOC certification to job offer.

One way this could work might involve MOOC providers building strong partnerships with reputable companies to curate course curriculums around jobs requirements and to ultimately establish a clear pipeline at least to the interview stage for the best performing students who complete these custom tracks. Udacity has already started this with its Open Education Alliance program and Coursera launched Career Services.

Udacity Open Education Alliance

Even if the MOOC to job void begins to get filled, I suspect that the most successful use cases would be for working professional with 4-year degrees who are looking to switch career paths and leverage MOOCs as a platform through which to learn a core set of skills needed to make a successful career transition i.e. more like a platform to bridge a skill gap as opposed to a complete replacement for traditional college education.

For instance, an investment banker looking to make a move into a development role could use certification in a curated software engineering MOOC track as a baseline to make a stronger case to employers during the career transition process.

Education is not a zero-sum game, so the disruption in this space is going to come in so many different interesting forms, from platforms like Blackboard and 2Uthat help move traditional offline institutions online, to brand new learning and workforce deployment models such as with the new company, Andela, which aims to provide free technical education to the brightest people in developing countries and to ultimately deploy the workforce that they train on demand to employers using a McKinsey style workforce deployment model, as opposed to leaving students in the wild to fend for themselves after course completion.

We will continue to see new, cheaper, and more effective avenues for knowledge acquisition emerge from within education sector, and the most successful models will probably be the those that successfully disrupt traditional educational institutions in a way that preserves the “get a good job and get a career” part of formula in the first paragraph of this post while also catering to the individual career goals of students in a way that feeds each student with the right types of practical knowledge that will be directly applicable in the real world jobs that they subsequently take on.

Technology and the Reinvention of Education in Africa

Cover Image: The Graduates | Luftphila