For online courses, what counts as completion?

For online courses, what counts as completion?

MIT Open Learning

Why the definition of course completion depends on the learner

Illustration Credit: Aleksei Naumov on iStock

By Meghan Perdue

Since the first massive open online courses (MOOCs) were published, a large share of the MOOC research has focused on understanding learner completion. Or more specifically, why a relatively small number of learners complete MOOCs, while most do not. In these papers, completion is typically defined in the same way: when learners earn a certificate of completion.

Researchers have theorized models of engagement, categorized learners based on their behavior, and they have used artificial intelligence to predict at what point a learner will drop out. Others have investigated the personal characteristics and qualities of learners, like grit, goal orientation, and academic efficacy. Interventions have been waged, to try to help learners follow through to completion. But do learners think about MOOC completion in the same way that researchers do? Is this the way they understand their own experience of taking MOOCs?

To answer this question, I interviewed fifteen learners who had enrolled in five MITx MOOCs about the courses they had taken. In these interviews, we had wide-ranging conversations about why they sign up for MOOCs, how they work through the courses, and what they hope to get out of them. I also asked:

  • When they felt they had “completed” a course
  • When and why they tried to earn a certificate for a course
  • If they had ever “dropped out” of a course and why

When I asked learners what it meant to complete a course, they mostly said that they had participated in as much of the course as was of interest to them. This amount could vary a lot, depending on whether someone wanted to take the whole course, or perhaps just a specific part of a course. Regardless, the learners I spoke with reported similar reasons for dropping out of a course, or not finishing it to their initial idea of completion.

One common reason was that unexpected conflicts arose that took priority over the course. As one learner said, “I want to complete them most of the time, but I have my work assignments, I have a family to look after, and I have all those requirements and then also do courses.”

Another common reason for not completing a MOOC was because the course wasn’t what they were looking for. Perhaps it was too hard, too easy, or didn’t cover the material that they originally thought that it would. Sometimes learners admitted that they dropped out of a course because they lost interest or slacked off.

A variety of reasons for course completion

Before they commit to completing a MOOC, many learners will audit it first so they can review the course materials. This free audit helps them determine whether they want to pursue the course more seriously. One learner credited faculty members as a deciding factor in taking the course, saying that “[a faculty member] who is really engaged, and seems to know their subject matter and loves teaching” was a reason they decided to take the course.

Often, learners decided to continue to audit the courses saying they would “complete as much as I can access for free.” Most of the MITx courses have some degree of content gating, so learners can’t access all of the materials for free unless they pay to for a verified status which allows them to earn a certificate. Some learners will even pay for verified status — not to earn a certificate — but so that they can access all of the course on their own timeline. Or as one learner put it, “I think for me, the problem is not the certificate, I want to have full access to all the content, that is why I pay the fee.”

For learners who did choose to earn a certificate, they justified why they chose to earn it. One potential reason for earning a certificate is a personal sense of accomplishment.One learner said, “I think if one has a certificate, it also gives a sense of achievement, although maybe it won’t matter much at my level, I still felt like happy [because] okay, I’ve done this.’”

But not everyone felt this way. Some learners needed more of a professional motivation to earn a certificate. As one person explained, “For work purposes, certificates are still important, but for personal things, I don’t think it is important. I mean, it’s cool to show family and friends, but in the end, it doesn’t affect much.” Others decided to earn the certificate in case it became handy for future career aspirations, even if they didn’t currently have a use for it. Some even earned a certificate, but still didn’t feel that they had actually completed the course to their satisfaction. One person said, “I wasn’t able to submit the essay on time, because I was working on the policy paper [for work] and they had the same deadlines, but I had already received a passing grade. You know, maybe I will still write that essay though, and try to publish it somewhere else.”

Learner accountability

These conversations suggest that learners thinking about completion and certification are fairly nuanced. Most learners create their own terms for completion and hold themselves accountable to this regardless of whether they earn a certificate or not. MOOC learners are engaged in a fluid and ongoing experience of lifelong learning that extends beyond the timeline or expectations of a single course. This raises interesting questions about how to design MOOCs for these learners, perhaps by using the MOOC as a jumping off point for giving learners lots of ways to dive deeper into different areas of study in the future.

This research was presented at the 9th International Conference on Higher Education Advances (HEAd’23). The proceedings can be accessed at the HEAd website.

Research was sponsored by the United States Air Force Research Laboratory and the Department of the Air Force Artificial Intelligence Accelerator and was accomplished under Cooperative Agreement Number FA8750–19–2–1000. The views and conclusions contained in this document are those of the authors and should not be interpreted as representing the official policies, either expressed or implied, of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. Government.

For online courses, what counts as completion? was originally published in MIT Open Learning on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.


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