Online Pivot questions – online completion rates

I’m responding to queries from a number of different routes, so I thought I would post responses to them here also.

This one came via Contact North’s Ask an Expert site.

Question: I am worried about completion rates in online learning – I gather that they are really low. What do we know about completion rates?


It depends on what is meant by online learning. That is sometimes equated with MOOCs, ie free, open courses that are unsupported. Here the completion rate is very low – about 10%. But in this case the learner has no investment in the course (they often sign up and never even attempt one element), and no human tutor or teacher support. For more carefully designed distance education courses where there is active human tutor support (such as we have at the Open University or Athabasca), the completion rate is much higher. Here there can be a number of other factors also. For instance, we operate open entry at the OU, so no entry requirements. This can mean people are not prepared for study and so completion rates are lower than for courses where there is a formal entry. But that is unrelated to the ‘online’ element.

But it does generally require more self-motivation from the learner to learn online, away from the physical cues that prompt learning. It also requires more organization of their time and study environment. But there are lots of things you can advise students to do to help here (eg see these tips

The level of study can also be important – people in the final year of a degree are more motivated to finish for example.

So, yes there are some added complications for the learner when you switch to online delivery, but these can be alleviated to quite some degree by good design, advice and just providing contact. Being online doesn’t necessarily equate to a low completion rate.

One Comment

  • Gavin Moodie

    I find this one of the great mysteries of education. Mediated education (the issue far predates online education) can match if not exceed almost all of face to face education’s characteristics, yet even the best structured and best supported mediated education has completion rates around 15% to 30% lower than campus based education, even after correcting for the obvious demographic variables such as prior preparation and age.

    I suggest it is because from an early age we are schooled in all the disciplines of face to face education such as getting to school on time, going into class when the bell rings, paying attention in class, etc. In contrast, many learners are expected to managed mediated education with little prior coaching and support, and what little is offered is offered in the unfamiliar mediated mode.

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