How Online Learners Are Redefining Course Completion

Milo Goodman
Aug 29, 2017 · 4 min read
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Recent studies suggest that online courses have low completion rates. The potential value of online learning can be overshadowed by these numbers and subsequent assumptions. To fully understand what “completion” means in the world of online learning, it’s worth taking a look at how students’ motivations and goals differ online from in person.

What’s the Difference Between Online Learning and Traditional Higher Education?

Though online learning and traditional classes have many similarities, from course content to assignments, the two forms of education are significantly different. Typically, online classes have many more participants than the number of students found in most college classrooms. Plus, traditional online courses can have over 100 participants per class, while hundreds of thousands of students enroll in any given massive open online course (MOOC).

There’s also the fact that it’s easier to sign up for a free online class than it is to register for an iTunes account. That said, it’s even more simple to disappear guilt-free from a group of e-learners that could fill a stadium. This cannot be said for brick-and-mortar universities.

The demographics of e-learners typically differ from those of the average college student too. Most students enrolled in a traditional university are under the age of 30, and more than half of them aren’t working. However, studies show that the average online learner is in their mid-thirties with a full-time job and two figure income. They are also more likely to have children at home.

It helps to use Adult Learning Theory to better understand the majority of e-learners and their motivations. Compared to college students under 30, these multitaskers are independent and experienced enough to identify the skills that are of immediate value to them. Most adult learners are less likely to focus on obtaining a certification since their primary goal is learning exactly what they need to know. This information shapes and challenges the concept of completion in online learning.

What Does “Completion” Actually Mean?

Although low retention rates are a known issue in the world of online learning, on-campus students may not be much more likely to finish a degree than their online counterparts. Research shows that the majority of on-campus courses are completed by 81 percent of those who enrolled, while traditional online courses are finished by 78 percent of students. In contrast, only up to 40 percent complete the larger MOOCs.

Jeremy Osborn, academic director at Aquent Gymnasium, says that while his popular Responsive Web Design course had about 10,000 enrollments in its debut year alone, only around 600 completed the full class. Although this only accounts for 6 percent of students, the number is significant. As a former program director for a comparable nine-month certificate program at Boston University, Jeremy noted that only 100 students actually graduated that program within an 18-month span — six times fewer than online.

According to research by Harvard and MIT, completion rates are, as a whole, misleading and misrepresentative of the “impact and potential of open online courses [given that] large numbers of non-certified registrants access substantial amounts of course content.” In other words, it’s entirely possible that many students take free online courses solely to supplement what they already know rather than to complete an entire curriculum.

Jeremy affirmed that “perhaps some students [who did not complete the course] got exactly what they needed in the first lesson, or perhaps some were cherry-picking the topics that they needed by browsing through the lessons and doing only what they needed.” The idea that different people enroll with different intentions is backed up by research; over a quarter of students in one study stated that they did not have any intention of completing the course when they initially signed up for it.

Because few of Gymnasium’s courses — and few online classes in general — are meant for true beginners and are instead targeted toward professionals with a bit of experience under their belt, it makes sense that many participants choose to seek the specific skills valuable to them rather than complete an entire course.

So, How Do I Measure Completion in Online Learning?

Short answer: you don’t.

Rather than using completion as the primary indicator of success, we might consider looking at student satisfaction instead. Measuring what students find meaningful can be easily determined through surveys and exit interviews. Shifting gears in order to better understand online learners’ motivations and goals is essential when striving to accurately quantify success.

Recent research shows that 33 percent of students sign up for online courses with no intent to finish, so we can’t accurately evaluate the success of an online course by the same metrics as a typical class at a traditional university where all attendees are working toward a degree. The average online student is focused on learning new things and developing useful skills, not racking up credits. In this light, it makes sense to measure completion by progress made toward developing professional skills.


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