Duke University’s Bioelectricity MOOC

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Yvonne Belanger, who leads assessment and program evaluation at the Center for Instructional Technology at Duke University, recently published a summary of enrollment in Duke’s first Coursera MOOC, Bioelectricity: A Quantitative Approach. Only about three hundred fifty of the approximately 12,700 registrants took the final exam—a dropout rate of ninety-seven percent.

Noting that “Student motivation in the MOOC environment is a significant area of interest to stakeholders at Duke and elsewhere,” Belanger surveyed the participants with both pre- and post-course questions about their reasons for enrolling and completing the course. As part of a Coursera-supplied, pre-course survey instrument, “fun and enjoyment” were identified as important reasons for enrolling by a large majority of students, and Belanger included that data in her report:


Figure 3-2

On her post-course survey, students responded to a broader range of questions in which Belanger separated motivations for enrolling from initial intentions once enrolled. Respondents had the option to select all applicable choices.  Regarding initial intentions and objectives, the following graphic summarizes student motivations for enrolling:


Figure 3-3 

Mining information in user-supplied comments from both the survey and course discussion forums, Belanger identified four categories of participant motivation including:

  1. Lifelong learning.
  2. Social experience.
  3. Convenience.
  4. Exploration of online learning.[1]

Writing on the Center for Instructional Technology blog, Belanger notes that motivations for MOOC participants vary, and she cautions against comparing MOOC demographics and completion rates to traditional campus courses.  She identifies five reasons that may help us understand why individuals sign up for MOOCs but fail to complete them:

  1. A significant number (1/3 to 1/2) of those who registered for the course never actually started it. As Belanger says “Based on data about Duke’s Coursera courses, anywhere from 1/3 to 1/2 of students who enroll in our MOOCs never come back and log in after the course begins.”
  2. A majority of those who registered for the course never intended to finish it. According to the statistics gathered by Belanger, “earning the Statement of Accomplishment . . . was very important to only about 10% of them.”
  3. The course was open to anyone without restriction. Several factors and requirements contribute to limiting class sizes and participation in traditional courses including “a secondary school education, the admissions office, the bursar’s office, whether or not they’ve passed the prerequisites as defined on our campus, and the number of seats in the classroom.” These requirements are absent in MOOCs and this contributes to the inflated registration numbers.
  4. For many, perhaps most, there is no concrete value in completing the course.  Qualifying for a “Statement of Accomplishment” that currently carries little if any credibility beyond individual satisfaction fails to motivate most registrants.
  5. The course simply was not a priority for most of those who registered. Despite curiosity and interest in the potential of the course, most have more pressing things to attend to:  “In our largest course, about 2/3 say they work either full or part time, with full time outnumbering part time 2:1. About 1/3 are currently students (including pre-college, undergrad and grad). And quite a few are students who work.”

(Source: Blogpost, “Participation And Completion Of Moocs,” Yvonne Belanger, March 1, 2013. http://cit.duke.edu/blog/2013/03/participation-and-completion-of-moocs/)

[1] Yvonne Belanger and Jessica Thornton, “Bioelectricity: A Quantitative Approach Duke University’s First MOOC” (2013), http://dukespace.lib.duke.edu/dspace/handle/10161/6216.


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