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Only 6% of Enrollees Actually Complete a Massive Open Online Course – and Here’s How They Do It

We’ve all been there: You click “yes” to attend a community flea market on a Saturday afternoon. Two Saturdays later, you roll over in bed and see the event in your phone. No one would know if you showed up, and there really isn’t a consequence if you don’t show up. Plus, there’s Netflix. And GrubHub. And a comforter.

Welcome to an example of a daily choice presented to students enrolled in free massive online open courses (MOOC). According to reports from leading MOOC platforms, only 6% of those enrolled in a free MOOC go on to complete the course. In the simplest sense, this means that 94% of enrollees figuratively (or literally) binge-watch Gilmore Girls instead of work towards their course.

The 94% course incompletion rate in free MOOC is a result of how behavioral cues impact success in a digital learning environment.

The 6% completion rate is by no means a marker of one or many life-threatening societal conditions. Free MOOCs are not tuition-based course through Blackboard nor are most dependent on keeping a job. The 94% course incompletion rate in a free MOOC is a result of how most enrollees negotiate behavioral cues and how these negotiations impact success in a digital learning environment.

Free, university-led massive online open courses carry a low completion rate (~6%). Source:

What’s the purpose of a MOOC?

Researchers at the University of Prince Edward Island say it best: the MOOC is built for a world where information is everywhere. Check out the dynamic presentation (00:04:26) from these UPEI researchers:

At the granular level, the team breaks down what makes MOOC a unique platform for learning:

A massive online open course (MOOC) is an online course with the option of free and open registration, a publicly shared curriculum, and open-ended outcomes. MOOCs integrate social networking, accessible online resources, and are facilitated by leading practitioners in the field of study.


What is so special about the 6%?

Short answer: They just finish the course. Long answer: The 6% operate within a sphere of cognitive resilience. Some call it grit, some call it determination and some call it ambition. All of these terms make sense as an explanation of an end product (in this case, completion of a MOOC) but does not articulate HOW this group operates and makes microdecisions.

For this, we visit the transtheoretical model of change, a model frequently used in health promotion to describe how people incorporate new behaviors.

The transtheoretical model, or stages of change model, begins with “pre-contemplation” and ends with maintenance or, more often than not, goes to relapse and then cycles again. Source: Pro Talk.

Let’s layer this model over the expected timeline for MOOC completion, beginning with pre-contemplation. Boston University has a great example of this model’s common use (for changing health behaviors), which I have modified based on the intention to complete a MOOC:


In this stage, a person does not intend to take action in the foreseeable future and does not see the value in enrolling in a MOOC. A person will underestimate the pros of changing behavior and place too much emphasis on the cons of enrolling (e.g., too much time, not enough space in their house).


In this stage, the person is intending to start the MOOC in the foreseeable future. They recognize that not enrolling may limit their opportunities and a more thoughtful and practical consideration of the pros and cons of changing the behavior takes place, with equal emphasis placed on both. Even with this recognition, this person may still feel ambivalent toward enrolling. Examples of this behavior is perusing MOOC platforms, talking with others enrolled in a MOOC, or looking for jobs where employers highlight and value the skills from a MOOC.

Preparation (Determination)

In this stage, the person is ready to take action within the next 30 days. They may narrow down the desired topic, course and platform. They believe enrolling can lead to an intellectual and/or professional advantage that they did not have before. Enrollees of free MOOC offerings must see a global advantage which overrides their current behaviors, as there are no monetary or tangible enforcements. A common practice is sharing their desire to enroll with their social group.


In this stage, the person has recently enrolled and intends to keep moving forward with the course. The enrollee may exhibit this by modifying their study environment and making other adjustments to review lectures and complete assignments. You can already see how adjustments in the face of little to no consequence can dissuade even a dedicated student.


In this stage, the enrollee sustains their behavior change for a while and intends to maintain the behavior change going forward. This means that they sustain their environmental changes (study space, internal/external rewards) to support their completing the course. Here, again, we see a world of opportunities where even the best intentions may derail someone’s progress (C‘est la vie).


In the world of MOOC, relapse means that coursework is incomplete or is backlogged. Some programs such as Coursera offer enrollees the ability to “rollover” their registration (think rollover minutes à la 2006) for a future session. Some enrollees may choose to do this, in which case we would go back to “pre-contemplation” of re-enrolling; otherwise the individual would abandon the course. The current data does not capture attempts and re-enrollment.


Grit, ambition, and stick-to-it-ness. These are the buzzwords and amorphous terms that are meaningless without operationalized definitions. Setting up an environment for behavioral change involves a constant set of microdecisions:

  • Will I set aside fifteen minutes to do this?
  • Will I say no to that so that I can pursue this?
  • Do I truly believe that this is the best use of my time?
  • Who is holding me accountable?
  • Will I know my limits and commit to a different type of course?
  • How will I measure my success outside of completion of this course?

Now go ahead and take on the free MOOC offerings with gusto!

As for me? I’m only on week 5 of the JHU’s MOOC on statistical reasoning. And boy, am I behind.

Note: If you have an interest in the history of MOOC completion rates and associated publications, then I recommend that you explore the sites listed in Dr. Katy Jordan’s MOOC Research Literature Browser (last updated in 2015).
Header photo courtesy of 

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