MOOC completion rates low despite high cost to UT system

A year after UT began rolling out nine Massive Online Open Courses, the results are in:

Completion rates for the classes, which offer anyone with Internet access free online courses from high-ranked UT professors, but no course credit, are very low — ranging from 1 to 13 percent, according to the Texas Tribune. 

The University hasn’t laid out long-term goals for the MOOCs, and the numbers don’t bode particularly well for the courses’ overall success. Still, the System says they will continue funding UT’s MOOCs to the tune of $150,000-$300,000 to produce each new online course. We’re confused as to why an unproven and unused educational experiment that isn’t even aimed at UT students is something the System feels they should continue funding. 

MOOC supporters suggest that the low completion rates are not a valid measure of success for a course anyone could sign up for and never return to. After all, students have little incentive to finish the courses other than an interest in the material. 

And the low rates were by no means unexpected. Similar results were seen at other universities’ MOOC programs as well. Inside Higher Ed reported that San Jose State paused its MOOC program in July — just before UT launched it’s own — after the first round of classes showed similarly disappointing completion results.

Understandably, these courses are a different animal, but, if we can’t gauge their success from completion rates — the classic measure of success in college courses for years — how can we? The problem with other measures, such as student engagement or course transformation, is that the MOOC structure isn’t quantifying that information into data that we can evaluate. 

And we can be certain that the measure of a MOOC’s success will not be profitability.

The MOOCs were, apparently, designed without revenue in mind, though the System invested $10 million to both develop the MOOCs and to host the courses on edX, an online platform created by Harvard and MIT.

Pharmacy professor and MOOC instructor Janet Walkow told The Daily Texan that there are ways to squeeze revenue out of the courses, including charging $50 for completion certificates, selling e-books created for the course and asking for donations from MOOC students. None of those revenue initiatives, however, were considered in the initial planning of the courses. 

Of course, the System has made large and unproven investments in online education platforms before — MyEdu rings a bell. The Tribune recently reported that the System will see no financial return on its $10 million investment in MyEdu, which was ultimately sold to Blackboard. Again, there was no long-term financial plan in mind, but there was a lot of money on the table. 

The System should stop investing millions of dollars on gambles like these, which lack financial exit strategies and viable forms of revenue. If the founding structure of a project doesn’t include a business model for growth and profitability for the University, who is expected to fund it? 

“Our initiative with MOOCs is evolving as we search for a sustainable business model, and this transition is part of that evolution,” UT System spokeswoman Karen Adler said. 

Math professor and MOOC instructor Michael Starbird said his course, which launches in February, required hundreds of hours of work to put together. 

“We are at a moment of experimentation,” Starbird said. “The expectation should be that many things go wrong. Is it a good idea for UT-Austin and the System to be involved in experimentation in new ways to deliver [education].” 

Germanic Studies professor and MOOC instructor John Hoberman said that more than 1,500 people completed his MOOC — one of the four launched in the fall — around the world, which is more than he has taught in person in the past 30 years. 

“Criticism of MOOCs for not providing instant revenue streams is naive,” Hobermand said. “The economic future of MOOCs, like the future profitability of Amazon, is unknown at this time.”

This semester, five more experimental MOOCs will be launching, despite the results seen by the last four. The UT System has rushed into investing in online innovation in an effort to be the first to find the “future” of higher education. But its strategy of throwing a few million dollars here and a few more there and hoping the investments pay off is irresponsible and short-sighted.