MOOC study highlights massive Higher Ed fraud


Study after study after study…every day another study, because they’re so easy to do now. The modern world runs on computers, and computers are just awesome at collecting and storing numbers. Statistics is good at simplifying those numbers into easier-to-understand numbers. Nowadays, all a “study” is, is someone taking a few minutes to use statistics to get some numbers.


Time and again, I see a study where, even though the statistics are done well enough to get some numbers, the implications of those numbers is either never considered, or simply incorrect.

Another thing I see time and again are administrators pushing online education. I see their point: if you don’t care anything for education, online courses make much sense. Massive profit margins and incredible growth of the student base—the only two things I’ve ever seen admin care about—are both quite possible with online coursework.

MOOCs, Massively Online Open Courses, don’t come from admin. They are labors of love, created and presented to the public, for free, by scholars who legitimately want to preserve and spread knowledge (you know, the whole purpose of higher education before admin re-purposed it to growth and profit).

MOOCs are, of course, online, and open to anyone—admin loves “open admission” normally, since that greatly enhances growth. They’re also quite free, so not popular with admin. Trouble is, MOOCs have terrible completion rates.

And here we have yet another study showing to the public what everyone in higher education already knows:

The average completion rate for massive open online courses is less than 7 percent, according to data compiled by an Open University doctoral student as part of her own MOOC studies.

–29 courses were looked at, involving hundreds of thousands of students. Yes, hundreds of thousands.

That’s right, we’re looking at a 7% completion rate. Granted, it’s common enough to see dubious schools, even fully accredited ones, get graduation rates below 0.7%, less than 1/10th as “successful” as the incredible failure rate of MOOCs…but here we’re just looking at course completion.

Now, the researcher here thinks that the miserably low completion rate signifies the overall failure of MOOCs, and explains as much:

“…she said completion rates were indicative of how successful a course had been. “People might have no intention of completing assessment when they register, but I don’t agree that completion rates are entirely meaningless.”

In no way am I criticizing MOOCs; they’re free, and open, and perfectly within the mission of higher education. I want to get to the real issue, the interpretation of the results here, and there are two things we learn. The first interpretation of results is straightforward:

  1. The vast majority of college students get nothing out of online courses.

While this is bleeding obvious, it must be kept in mind. Our “leaders” in higher education know full well indebting people for online education is hurting people, often hurting our most vulnerable citizens just as they escape high school. Our “leaders” should also be able to conjecture that the debt that comes from open admissions is also hurting people. Never in my whole career has a “leader” in higher education admitted these obvious things, even though every study indicates as much.

Now I’ll come to the less obvious result from this study:

  1. The vast majority of non-free college courses are bogus.

Allow me to explain. MOOCs are free…they’re very truly open admission, and nobody gets a check for signing up. I totally approve of MOOCs, in much the same way I approve of people just going to the library (or carefully perusing the internet) and learning things on their own. Part of the rationalization for MOOCs’ low success rate is their open-ness: quite possibly, people are signing up for a MOOC with no intention of completing the course.

Everyone nods their head in agreement at this reason, myself included.

MOOCs are free. College coursework isn’t. While students ultimately can go into debt for their coursework, in the interim they can get a check. At the often bogus local community college, students can even get the check without the debt.

Me: “I have a number of students registered for my class I’ve never seen, but are getting financial aid, checks for signing up. Their contact information is hundreds of miles away. Why are we even registering these students for courses here which they can take much closer to home? Don’t we have an obligation to help our students better than this?”

Admin: “They have a right to come here, and we can’t stop them from checking the box applying for financial aid.”

–I’m not just picking on a particular school here, lots of community colleges have this business plan.

When I try to tell admin that students are coming on to community college campus with no intention of completing courses, that they’re obviously just coming for the check…I get no nods in agreement. The “Pell Runner” scam of students wandering from campus to campus, is well known in higher education, but no real effort is made to stop it.

But there’s more to the interpretation of the results of the study than this.

Admin: “We’re placing you on probation. Your retention rate fell below 50% last semester. If this happens again, we will not renew your contract.”

Me: “Did I mention I have many students that never came to class even once? How can I possibly be held responsible for their failure?”

Admin: “Get your numbers up, or you will be terminated.”

If my retention rate, the rate at which students pass the course, drops below 50%, admin lets me know I’m screwing up. There are campuses where faculty must pass 70%, even 85% of students in their courses, every semester. Faculty who pass 100% of their students generally get awards for “good teaching,” even when they pass students who never spent an hour on campus.

Many studies have been done on passing rates in college courses, particularly at the remedial level. You see around 50% completion rates there, and, as the coursework gets more advanced, the completion rates actually go higher (I know, that’s a little unintuitive, but bear with me—there’s a self-selection process at work here).

Most MOOCs are introductory level courses, so a 50% completion rate seems reasonable enough. And yet we see around 7%.

MOOCs9What’s wrong with this picture? MOOCs are put together by faculty who really care about education, who know what normal coursework should entail, and what it should mean to complete a course. There’s no profit motive here, just a pure focus on education.

Most college courses are not assembled as labors of love. They’re taught by sub-minimum wage adjuncts, pressured to pass as many students as possible by an administrative caste that cares nothing at all about education. These administrators just want to keep students in the system long enough to extract every dollar possible.

So, to summarize, for MOOCs: online, open admission, no profits, scholarly designed, 7% completion rate. On the other hand, for non-MOOCs: online, open admission, massive profits, massive administrative control, 50% completion rate.

Gentle reader, keep this in mind: every study that shows the low completion rate of MOOCs should raise the question of why non-MOOCs have high completion rates. Even a cursory inspection of the differences between MOOCs and non-MOOCs will suggest an answer.