Thursday, October 17, 2013

Idea: MOOC's Completion Problem and Loss Aversion

A few days ago, in the Instructional Design group on LinkedIn, Franciso Costa posted a thread about an upcoming MOOC on The Future of Storytelling. In a skimming rush, I misread the meaning behind the title, but it resulted in a 'happy accident' that triggered an idea....

One of the common criticisms of MOOCs is their generally low completion rate (most people who start a course do not finish it). Although it's arguable whether or not this actually IS a negative (different students have different goals, after all), if some future MOOC host does have the explicit goal of maximizing completion rates, I wonder if there might be an angle to play by exploiting most people's feelings about money and loss?

I'd originally misread the thread's title ("This course is for FREE with certificate") to mean that "if you complete the course and receive a certificate, it'll be free. Otherwise, (if you sign up but do NOT complete it), it'll cost you $X." 


This is clearly a knee-jerk idea that blossomed out of my reading haste and, thus, probably has some holes in it, but maybe there is something here.... Would this be a viable alternative approach to addressing the "completion problem" that might provide the extra 'umph' some learners need to stick with the course and see it through? Maybe it could be a sliding scale concept, where learners receive progressively larger discounts (starting at 0% and running up to 100%) with the number of sessions/modules/units they complete?

Does the whole psychological principle of "loss aversion" apply here?  Perhaps people will be more interested in NOT losing money than they are about gaining the (free!) knowledge/skills associated with the course's content (as sad a commentary as that may be)?

Thoughts? Thanks!


  1. (reproduced from the LinkedIn ID Group discussion thread)
    Posted by: Tracy Jones (

    This idea has merit. I like it.

  2. (reproduced from the LinkedIn ID Group discussion thread)

    Thanks for the input, @Tracy. I wonder if people would be overly reluctant to provide a credit card number up front, which would drive enrollment down, but that's (part of) the idea, I guess.

  3. (reproduced from the LinkedIn ID Group discussion thread)
    Posted by Randy Tanner (

    Although I am also intrigued by the “free-upon-completion” strategy, I stumbled over your comment that “it's arguable whether or not this actually IS a negative.”

    Are you suggesting that when discussing the quality of an online education/training course, the percentage of completion is not a significant factor? The 2011-2012 Quality Matters Rubric is based on eight general standards, one of which is “learner interaction and engagement,” which is implied/assumed to be sub-standard by a significantly low course completion rate. Most colleges include this metric in their assessments of teaching and learning quality reviews. With your extensive background in instructional design and e-learning, how would you feel (what would you assume) if you discovered that only 3-5% actually completed the training courses that you designed?

    Robert Nash (2005) summarized the continuing importance that community colleges place on improving attrition rates among distance education students, and provided an interesting literature review focused on course completion rates by online students.

    I have often stated that the fundamental fly-in-the-ointment of the majority of ScMOOCs (xMOOCs) is poor pedagogoy/andragogy as evidenced by their phenomenally poor completion rates. Evaluating most xMOOC offerings against any established quality standard for online courses reveals a non-existent metric for interactivity and engagement. Although I predict that your pay-if-you-quit would probably increase course completion rates, it would also significantly reduce initial enrollments as well. This is the result of the “fly.” The proponents of the poorly-designed xMOOC model are focused on the Massive enrollment of tens of thousands to establish a future revenue source based on the Internet Business Model. Without the massive student body, the business model fails.

    Nash, R. D. (Winter, 2005). Course completion rates among distance learners: Identifying possible methods to improve retention. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, VIII(4). University of West Georgia, Distance Education Center. Available at:

  4. (reproduced from the LinkedIn ID Group discussion thread)
    Posted by Tim Dawes (

    @Randy, I get Jon's point that it may not be the case that everyone who starts gets most value by completing.

    I sit across the hall from an ID who bought a $300 course on improving his memory and mental speed. He completed something like 6 of 22 modules. He gained an enormous amount. And he was exhausted. And very satisfied.

    He said it already paid off for him. He may go back and complete and may not.

    That's outside the norm of courses I design. But so are MOOCs.

    So I can imagine people who get value without completing a MOOC.

  5. (reproduced from the LinkedIn ID Group discussion thread)
    Posted by Tracy Jones (

    How about providing another type of incentive for completion? Upon completion of a course One could gain access to additional materials, another course, some sort of recognition within a group of peers, credit or points towards a reward (i.e. starbucks points or a higher level of membership) The incentive would be driven by the audience and customer and whatever they would be willing to support.

  6. (reproduced from the LinkedIn ID Group discussion thread)

    Thanks @Randy. You raise some good questions/points.

    I agree that a low score on the metric you mention (learner interaction and engagement) is a solid indication that the something may be in need of review/investigation. I cannot claim that I would be proud/excited if I discovered only 3-5% of learners completed my courses. But it may be worth considering that this metric (a) has a direct focus on "what" is happening, but only an inferred focus on "why", and (b) is primarily "instructor-centric" rather than "learner-centric" in perspective.

    When a course is (a) optional and (b) free, the locus of control suddenly shifts from the designer/provider to the consumer. The primary reason for attending/continuing turns from some nagging sense of obligation or requirement to simply an ongoing evaluation of value - as long as the perceived benefit outweighs the effort demanded, the learner will keep coming back. If they drop out before "the end", it's reasonable to assume they the 'benefit' fell short. This is the interpretation I think your response represents. Another potential reason exists, however. It may be that the course delivered (maybe even exceeded) the expected benefits the learner had/needed, and they saw no need to continue. From the learner's POV, it was a great experience. Now, I'd imagine that this isn't an "either/or" situation, but a "both/and" - there are undoubtedly some pretty poorly designed MOOCs out there, but some are pretty good and yet still have eye-poppingly high attrition rates (by traditional standards).

    A little while ago, I posted a minor 'manifesto' on my blog related to how ID's would be better served if they approached their design work with the assumption that learners are NOT required to complete it - design as if everything is optional ( I won't rehash the posting here, but it seems to have some relationship with this discussion. ID's shouldn't rest on the fact that, in most cases, the learner has little/no option regarding completion. They (WE) should endeavor to create material so compelling / relevant / beneficial that learners wouldn't drop out, even if they could. But, again, that's adopting a designer-centric POV. In the end we can only do our very best to apply our knowledge of adult learning theory and cross our fingers our products resonate with the audience.

  7. (continued, due to comment character limitations)

    This is, in part, the reason I'm growing increasingly fond of smaller, shorter learning elements that lean towards JIT performance support, rather than big, long courses that aim to exhaustively cover a subject. I wonder if the completion rate of MOOCs would change if they were measured in terms of how many people finished the *modules* they started, rather than the entire course? What if we treated the smaller components of the course like Performance Support elements that learners could consume a la carte based on interest/need?

    Finally, regarding your closing comment, I'm honestly not sure what the 'business model' is for most of the MOOCs out there currently. Yes, the "M" is for "masssive", but it seems unclear what revenue will result with increased volume on something that is free. (I'm reminded of the SNL fake ad for First Citiwide Change Bank - "how do we make money? Volume!" ( Maybe it's primarily a loss leader that is offered to generate positive impressions that will (hopefully) encourage paid enrollment for other courses (online or on campus)? I'm not foolish / naive enough to think it's based on some philanthropic aim to offer 'commoners' top-rate learning experiences for free, but the potential path to profit is still a bit foggy for me. (perhaps that's what you meant with the "Internet Business Model" reference - do something new/cool/innovative for free now and worry about monetizing it later?)

  8. (reproduced from the LinkedIn ID Group discussion thread)

    @Tim - Thanks for offering the read of my point. I think you summarized it well and your example is spot on.

    Last year, I subscribed to an email newsletter that highlights ebooks that Amazon is offering for free download each day. Most of the time it's pretty marginal stuff (read: romance novels - not my cup of tea), but every once in a while, some interesting non-fiction pops up and I grab it. I've downloaded approximately 20-30 free books so far. Have I read them all in their entirety? Nope. Not even close. Maybe 2 or 3, at most. So should that be interpreted to mean 90% of the books I've downloaded have been "bad" or "low quality"? I'd firmly say, "not at all". In fact, I've derived a fair amount of value from each of the books, even if I only read a few (often non-consecutive) pages/chapters. Would I have bought all 20-30 books had they not been free? Nope. But the entry barrier was so low (non-existent, financially!) that I had nothing to lose and everything to gain by clicking "Buy".

    I wondering if a similar situation is in play with most MOOCs? Why not sign up, sample the goods that look interesting, and let the rest go? Some mythical "Writers Quality Guild" would likely experience some hand-wringing if they saw my 'completion rates' on these free ebooks, but it would be an error to conclude that I didn't like them or learn something new/valuable. I'm entirely satisfied, especially given the price I paid. Are most MOOC learners so different? Maybe not...

  9. (reproduced from the LinkedIn ID Group discussion thread)
    Posted by Randy Tanner (

    @Jon/Tim - I must admit that I had not considered the notion of "partial satisfaction" as a motivation to discontinue a course. Hmm... interesting. Also, I must confess that I have enrolled in a couple of xMOOCs as a matter of curiosity. However, since I had already been exposed to a true cMOOC, I was quickly disappointed and dropped out of both.

  10. (reproduced from the LinkedIn ID Group discussion thread)
    Posted by Tracey Stokely (

    Interesting idea Jon. I have experienced a MOOC I liked (an xMOOC) and one that was, just OK (a cMOOC). You can read more about my MOOC experiences at

  11. (reproduced from the LinkedIn ID Group discussion thread)

    Thanks for sharing, @Tracey. Interesting...

  12. (reproduced from the LinkedIn ID Group discussion thread)
    Posted by Lori Catan

    My understanding of a MOOC is a free course offered by a prestigious university, with a well-known professor/author/researcher. The main source of revenue are the students in their physical class paying tuition. The MOOCers, as I'll call them, are permitted the privilege to view recordings of the class and participate much like any auditors would but the idea of interacting with the professor is ridiculous---their schedule is too full already with 300+ students in lecture halls. Sounds like a lot of institutions are mimicking the idea but not able to pull off the same quality experience. What is to be gained from having MOOCers complete a course if they are free? What is to be lost if someone doesn't?

  13. (reproduced from the LinkedIn ID Group discussion thread)
    Posted by Randy Tanner (

    Lori, if I might suggest a little reading of some well-researched articles instead of the business-focused hype articles by non-educators. First, there is no such entity as a "MOOC." The original MOOC Model for Digital Practice (Cromier & Seimens) is based on a new connectivist learning theory. This is not referred to cMOOC. What EdX and others did was to attempt to mimic the "massiveness" of class size with boring videos of boring lectures (xMOOC).

    MIT and others would prefer for people to adopt your "definition" of a MOOC. However, it is completely wrong. There are significantly more non-prestigious schools offering xMOOCs (via EdX, Coursera, etc.) than the "elite" class of schools. And many of those are far superior to the best that the "prestigious" examples.

    So, for a definition...
    1. Not necessarily free
    2. Not equated to a "prestigious" source/sponsor
    3. No existing revenue source, yet
    4. Does not meet existing best practices or quality standards for online course offerings

  14. You do not know that MOOCs are just an experiment now .
    Even Coursera did not decide on their business plan how to make Money.
    As it is MOOCs service to only curious people who are mostly degree holders.

    Complition rate does not have meaning .

    Udacity gave up the experiment, they are doing now another experiment vocational education . Good for them .

    Ultimate goal must be classical education for degrees online by elite schools . I favor edx since they are non profits.