Case study: Low participation rate raises question about effectiveness of Massive Open Online Course (MOOC)

The plummeting participation stats of a MOOC course in basic website design offered by University of Massachusetts may raise questions about the effectiveness of MOOC as a learning solution.

About the course and the participation stats

The MOOC course being examined is a six-week course in basic website design offered by University of Massachusetts Amherst in May 2013, with 742 participants from around the world. The course uses a Moodle platform. The stats being analyzed are numbers of post and reply, on a weekly basis, in open forum discussions.

Forum is a major teaching tool in a massive open online course; with a forum, course instructor can specify a topic for class discussion, and course participants can either start a new discussion post or reply to other posts. Without being able to examine detailed activity reports, which are restricted to course instructor/administrator, forum posts and replies provide me a good indicator of the level of participation in a MOOC course.

For the UMass MOOC course, I compiled weekly forum topics and numbers of new post and reply into a table, which is then presented as an interactive line chart in the next section:

forum stats

A few notes about stats in this table:

  • Week 1 and week 6 both have multiple forums; for each week, a composite number (weekly total) is calculated for new post and for reply.
  • Week 1 and week 5 both have a Q&A forum, where course instructor asks a specific question for participants to answer. This is not an “open forum” as other forums, thus is not included in the stats.

MOOC participation drops as course proceeds

We can see from the line chart below that in this MOOC course, participants are more active in the beginning for general discussions; as the course proceeds to concrete learning and coursework, participation drops dramatically.

Comparing the line chart with the weekly forum topics, we can see that course participants were very active in the first week talking about general topics such as “websites we like;” whereas new posts and replies dried up in the sixth week for forum discussions on specific learning issues.

It reflects a general pattern of low MOOC completion rate

The dropping participation in the UMass MOOC course is not unique, a recent study found that the average completion rate for massive open online courses is less than 7 percent.

MOOC has been the buzzword in the education circles in the past year or two; however, for MOOC to be treated as a serious learning solution, we need to figure out how to deal with the low participation and completion stats. Whatever the course format is (online, mooc, face-to-face), it is not a successful session if more than 90 percent of the class is not paying attention or participating.

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Mu Lin

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Dr. Mu Lin is a digital journalism professional and educator in New Jersey, United States. Dr. Lin blogs about digital journalism education and offers free digital journalism courses at MulinBlog Online J-School, which is a free, open, online program for people seeking web-based training in digital content production.
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About Mu Lin

Dr. Mu Lin is a digital journalism professional and educator in New Jersey, United States. Dr. Lin blogs about digital journalism education and offers free digital journalism courses at MulinBlog Online J-School, which is a free, open, online program for people seeking web-based training in digital content production.
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