Importance of course content and instructor involvement in MOOC retention rates

In general, massive online open courses (MOOCs) have a significant retention problem with perhaps only 10% of people completing the MOOCs they start. The authors of this paper interviewed almost 400 university students, including those who completed a MOOC and those who didn’t, to find out why. What they discovered is that people were more likely to complete a MOOC if they felt the course content was effective and if they had interactions with the MOOC instructor.

Hone, K., and El Said, G. (2016) ‘Exploring the factors affecting MOOC retention: A survey study’, Computers & Education, vol. 98, pp. 157-168 [Online]. DOI: 10.1016/j.compedu.2016.03.016.


  1. Introduction
  2. Literature review
    1. MOOC learner retention
    2. Dimensions of online learning effectiveness
  3. Research model
  4. Research method
  5. Results
  6. Discussion
  7. Conclusion


What we already know about MOOC retention

This paper is different than other ones that look at MOOC retention rates because previous papers:

  • Look at only one MOOC, or
  • Offer ideas but do not have data to support the ideas, or
  • Focus on the characteristics of the MOOC participants, but do not look at the course itself

Previous papers have also looked carefully at how the “funnel of participation” affects MOOC retention numbers. That is, many people sign up for a MOOC when they become aware of it, but shortly after the course starts they drop out. One theory is that the participants may be signing up without any serious intention of completing the course. This would explain why many people drop toward the beginning of the course start date, but much fewer people drop the course as it progresses.

Who they surveyed

The authors surveyed university students who took a self-selected MOOC for personal enrichment. They didn’t get any incentive or reward for doing so. The MOOCs they chose lasted 6 weeks or less. The MOOCs were hosted on a variety of platforms (Coursera, FutureLearn, Khan Academy, and EdX). Most of the students were under the age of 30 and most were full-time students who were not employed.

Retention rates

Overall, about 32% of the students completed their MOOCs. This is better than average, and the authors speculate that it might be because the MOOC was part of a larger program. That is, the participants in this study were already enrolled in a university as full-time students, and they were approached about this study within the larger context of their university engagement.

Most of the students who completed half the course went ahead and finished the entire MOOC. A 79% variance in retention is attributed to two factors: content effectiveness and interaction with the instructor.

See also: Student-student, student-teacher, and student-content interactions are a topic of discussion in Anderson’s (2003) article.

There was no correlation between retention and gender, level of study, or platform. Course structure used to be a problem, but was not correlated with retention in this study. Instructor-student interaction proved important and the instructors play an important role in facilitating online discussions, but the data was inconclusive about the effects of student-student interaction on retention.

Their conclusion: Content effectiveness is critical, but so is interaction with the instructor. Thus, ‘[t]his may represent a limiting factor of the viability of very large scale MOOCs and suggests that MOOC providers need to think carefully about how to provide appropriate human interactive elements to their courses as well as excellent content’ (Hone and El Said, 2016, p. 166).

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