Meet Me in the Middle: Retention in a “MOOC-Based” Degree Program

Brief Abstract

In this session, we will present the results of our research on retention rates in an at-scale degree program. We find that despite the accommodating admissions, retention is comparable to other more selective online programs, and not far behind on-campus programs.


David Joyner is the Associate Director for Student Experience in Georgia Tech's College of Computing, overseeing the administration of the college's online Master of Science in Computer Science program as well as its new online undergraduate offerings. He has developed and teaches CS6460: Educational Technology, CS6750: Human-Computer Interaction, and CS1301: Introduction to Computing, all online.

Extended Abstract

In this session, based on the paper "Meet Me in the Middle: Retention in a "MOOC-Based" Degree Program" presented at Learning @ Scale 2022, we will present the results of our research into retention rates in MOOC-based degree programs.

"MOOC-based" degrees are degree programs often offered in partnership with MOOC providers that provide the flexibility and scale of MOOCs while also awarding accredited degrees. This positioning between MOOCs and degrees raises interesting questions regarding retention: MOOCs are famous for their low completion rates, but accredited degree programs often strive for high retention rates. MOOC-based degrees thus lie between traditional programs and MOOCs: more affordable, accessible, and scalable than the former, and more rigorous, respected, and comprehensive than the latter. Given the gap in retention between MOOCs and traditional programs, where do these new degrees fit?

This study examines this research question: what trends in retention rates do we see in a MOOC-based degree program? To answer this, though, we must also note that retention and completion rates have subtly different meanings in these different contexts: in MOOCs, we typically refer to the completion rate of a single course, while in a degree program, we typically refer to retention across the degree as a whole. This study thus examines retention in a MOOC-based degree program from both angles: first at the level of the program as a whole, and second at the level of individual courses. This presentation aims to answer the broad question: what does retention look like in a "MOOC-based" degree program?

At the program level, 84.5% of students who have met the program’s foundational requirement (a B or above in two courses) either have graduated or remain enrolled; among all students who have matriculated, this percentage is 67.9%. Thus, most students who drop out do so early: 45% never completed a single class with a grade of B or above, and 64% failed to complete half of the courses they attempt. At the program level, it is generally the case that students who succeed in the first couple semesters are highly likely to complete the program. This ratio puts the program on par with other online graduate programs despite the scalable structure.

At the course level, withdrawals are common: 22% of all student-course enrollments have ended with a withdrawal. Withdrawal rates differ wildly by course, from 5% to 40%, suggesting that the nature and difficulty of the course itself is a significant determinant of its withdraw rate. Similarly, classes with high withdrawal rates also see lower overall grades, suggesting that students may at times withdraw in order to prevent a bad grade. In a quarter of cases, students reattempt the class in a future semester, at which time most will get As. In some cases, students continue to try the same course over and over, semester after semester, though the likelihood of earning a good grade decreases as more attempts are made at the class.

This presentation presents these results in greater depth, along with background research and related literature to put these findings into context. We will then compare these results more deliberately to MOOCs and to more traditional degrees, and attempt to set up frameworks for what should be expected from at-scale online programs with accommodating admissions.