A recent surge of online education is raising several key questions. Are we in the new era of education? Is the delivery of lectures through video conferencing software over the Internet good enough to replace physical classrooms, pens, and whiteboards? Should we continue this online way as opposed to going back to physical campuses? There have many questions like these. However, online education is not new. It has been around us for more than 20 years. Like the present, we also experienced multiple waves giving the impression that we were on the verge of entering a new era. The hype created by each wave eventually died down, leaving some additional options. Despite the upsurge in enrollment, the completion rate on major eLearning platforms is as low as 5%. It’s a concern indeed.
Why is easy access, often at very low cost, to high-quality eLearning resources offered by global best performers suffering from such as low completion rate? However, not all online education programs suffer from the same low rate. Upon showing a high interest in enrollment, most of them are failing to continue to the end. Why is it low, and why does it vary deserve investigations.
First Wave of online education–Television
To shed light, we need to go back to the past and draw some lessons. The first major wave came from the democratization of television. As opposed to radio, teachers delivering lectures were visually live, even in color. Many stretched the imagination to conceive that Television-based lecture delivery would proceed to replace conventional classrooms. Projects were taken, which led to ‘Open University’ or ‘Distance Education’ programs in many countries. Many of these open universities enjoy very high enrollment. Nevertheless, none of them has grown as a preferred place for having an education. They have not grown as a creative destruction force to campus-based learning practices. Instead, they have become secondary options for those who cannot afford to be full-time students. As far as competence is concerned, graduates of these technology-rich universities are nowhere close to graduates of conventional brick and mortar campuses.
Second Wave—MIT Open Courseware
With the growth of the Internet and personal computer penetration, MIT open courseware emerged, forming the 2nd wave. As of May 2018, among over online 2,400 courses, 100 courses included complete video lectures. Its emergence in 2001 created the hype that we were about to make physical classroom history. Subsequently, within a couple of years, the reality started unfolding. Life on campuses did not change; enrollment did not fall. Instead, the hype died down. Eventually, MIT open courseware, even video lectures, remained as supplementary study materials.
By the way, many of the engineering schools in developing countries are suffering from quality teachers. Why have not those engineering schools adopted those lectures, delivered by renowned MIT professors, as a substitute to the delivery of lectures by their own faculty members? There could have been a question of poor Internet connections. In fact, nowadays, most of the engineering schools in developing countries neither suffer from the Internet nor the computer. Should the situation change now? However, there is no sign so far.
3rd Wave—Khan Academy
The 3rd wave came from the tutoring exercises of Mr. Salman Khan. His appealing tutoring practice with electronic blackboard created a buzz in 2008. Recording of Salman’s tutoring with the support of drawings on an electronic blackboard, which is similar to the style of a teacher giving a lecture, created huge attractions. So far, close to 20,000 Khan Academy’s videos have been translated into multiple languages. As opposed to causing creative destruction to the physical delivery of lectures covering many of those video lecture clips, Khan Academy content has ended up becoming supplementary learning material. Why are not academic institutions, particularly those suffering from the limitation of quality teaching staff members, adopting them as a replacement of conventional methods? Is it because of students, particularly school-going ones, who are not used to learning from recorded lectures?
The fourth wave came from MOOCs—massive open online courses. Under the leadership of MIT, Harvard, and Stanford, it started to unfold in 2012. Many of us believed that, unlike in the past, MOOCs would create the history—end of many universities and colleges. Yes, the number underscores that belief from the surface. By 2019, the major MOOCs platform experienced enrollment of 110 million students in 13.5 thousand courses offered by more than 900 universities. Many of these universities are globally highly reputed ones. Students have the option to choose programs from MOOCs based on 50 degrees, and 820 micro-credentials. Yes, it’s remarkable progress.
Nevertheless, MOOCs suffer from an astronomically high dropout rate. A study undertaken by MIT academics reveals that about 96 percent of enrolled students drop out on average over five years. Does such an alarming low completion rate indicate that hype of MOOCs has also evaporated? Will massive online courses meet the same fate of the past three waves?
Completion rate on eLearning platforms—varies highly
Studies find that students by themselves fail to remain motivated in completing all outputs for meeting completion requirements. Often, they need to be “nudged’ by human faculty, as opposed to automatic reminders. Expert opines that engagement is 30 percent higher when students have been nudged. It has been observed that students often suffer from a lack of attention in attending full lectures in one seating. Interactivity and the scope of guided application of theory increase the completion rate.
Particularly, the completion rate has been found to be high for professional training. An education technology company 2U, in partnership with Rice University, has developed a portfolio of short, online courses for business executives. It’s being reported that the completion rate in 2U’s courses is as high as 88%. Similarly, online programs of Harvard business school have reported 85% completion. Selective short courses, as opposed to full-length courses for the fulfillment of degree or micro-credentials from MOOCs, appear to be enjoying far higher completion rate than MOOCs’ 5 percent.
Driving up the completion rate on eLearning platforms
There have been some practices for moving the completion rate on eLearning courses up from 5 to 85 percent. It has been found that charging fees upfront is one of the effective tools to increase the completion rate. The 2nd most effective method is limiting the freedom of course material’s availability and imposing deadlines strictly. It’s essential to combine payment with a sense of urgency. The freedom of learning anytime from anywhere repeats the past saying, “what can be done at any time, often gets done at no time.” Hence, freedom itself is undermining eLearning possibilities.
Using peer pressure through team assignments appears to be another useful means. Simultaneously, the engagement of the teaching assistant or program manager to maintain communication with each student and provide feedback on submitted works has also been found useful. So far study reveals that learners, particularly in their 20s, are not capable of maintaining attention and motivation to keep learning by themselves from online lecture delivery. They need to be guided by human teachers as opposed to Chatbot to keep going through a long path of completion of each full-length course. Therefore, eLearning experiences a major roadblock.
Udemy and many more suffer also from low completion rates on eLearning platforms
There has been an emergence of more than a dozen online platforms. Some of them are Skillshare, Udemy, Pluralsight, Future Learn, and many more. As opposed to offering conventional degree programs, they offer courses for the purpose of micro-learning. In fact, they target quickly closing skill and knowledge gaps, which often arise due to the change of technology and job switching needs. Nonetheless, it’s quite disappointing to share, “Udemy reports that the average student enrolled in a Udemy course completes just 30% of the content. And an average of 70% of students never even start the course!” There are reports that Udemy and Skillshare suffer from an 80% drop-out rate! Such a low completion rate on eLearning platforms is alarming indeed.
On the backdrop of unprecedented access to quality learning materials, at a substantially lower cost than in the past, why are we experiencing it? Why is not freedom of learning from anywhere anytime leading to a high completion rate on eLearning platforms?
Hype cycle—where are we?
The hype cycle associated with all major online waves and a high degree of variation of the completion rate of online programs offers us valuable lessons. The first one is that students in their 20s are not sufficiently self-disciplined and motivated to complete a full-length course comprising of 90-minute-long 26 lectures through online delivery. The next is about hand-holding. They need to be “nudged” and placed in teamwork under the guidance of human teachers. Moreover, the situation is getting worse as youths lose attention span due to the obsessive use of smartphones. Finally, frequent checking of smartphones is also causing destruction in the absorption of online lectures.
Contrary to youths pursuing undergraduate or graduate degrees, professionals are looking for micro modules to sharpen their management or other professional skills. Moreover, professionals do not suffer from the same level of lack of attention span or self-discipline. They are not also equally obsessed with smartphones. Hence, the completion rate for professional courses or executive business degrees is far higher than found in MOOCs.
Unfortunately, this new internet utopia of online education isn’t totally working for the youths. On some platforms, the completion rate is as low as 4%. On top of it, even after paying fees, as high as 70%, students do not begin the course. In conclusion, it appears that online education has yet to grow as a substitute for undergraduate education. Nonetheless, online learning materials will be playing useful supplementary roles.