Massive Open Online Courses Have High Drop-Out Rates, Study Finds

By Dori Meinert Feb 1, 2014
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​​February 2014 CoverMassive open online courses (MOOCs) have attracted a lot of attention over the past two years as a way to make college education more affordable and accessible.

However, early data from the University of Pennsylvania show lackluster results.

Many who registered for the courses dropped out early. Only about half viewed at least one lecture, and an average of just 4 percent completed the courses.

Researchers tracked more than 1 million students who registered for 16 free MOOCs offered by the University of Pennsylvania through Coursera, a California-based online education company, from June 2012 to June 2013. That was the first year they were offered. Subjects ranged from calculus and pharmacology to modern poetry and Greek and Roman mythology.

Completion rates were higher on average for courses with lower workloads for students and fewer homework assignments, about 6 percent compared with 2.5 percent, according to study results released in December 2013.

Another University of Pennsylvania study found that MOOCs aren’t reaching many less-educated students in other countries. More than 80 percent of MOOC students worldwide already hold a two- or four-year college degree, and 44 percent have advanced degrees. Students tend to be young, well-educated males who are trying to advance in their jobs.

For this November 2013 study, researchers surveyed 34,779 students worldwide who took 24 online courses offered by University of Pennsylvania professors.

While MOOCs may not be breaking down barriers of high cost and limited accessibility, they show promise as a means for providing professional development for employees, says Laura Perna, lead researcher on the December study.

"I think there could be some things that could help improve engagement," Perna says. "We’re still learning what’s the right number of assignments, the right way to encourage learning without having demands that are too onerous. Figuring out that balance is part of the learning curve."

For more information on MOOCs, read "Are Massive Open Online Courses in Your Future?" in the August 2013 issue of HR Magazine at

Young Women Are Narrowing the Gender Pay Gap

Women in the Millennial generation are closing the gender wage gap—at least for now.

In 2012, women ages 25 to 34 earned 93 percent of what their male counterparts made, up from 89 percent in 2005.

That’s significantly better than the 84 percent wage gap for all women in 2012, according to a Pew Research Center survey released in December 2013.

With more education, greater workforce participation and an increased presence in more-lucrative occupations, women have seen their median hourly wages rise by 25 percent over the past 30 years, the study found. Meanwhile, the median hourly wage for men decreased 4 percent from 1980 to 2012. In 2013, female Millennials were more likely than male Millennials to have bachelor’s degrees—38 percent compared with 31 percent.

Median Hourly Earnings of Women as a Percentage of Men’s

However, today’s young women may not retain that near pay parity. Previous generations of women have fallen further behind their male counterparts as they have aged and dealt with the responsibilities of parenthood and family, according to Pew researchers.

Despite the strides they have made, a majority of women—51 percent of Millennials and 55 percent of older women—say society favors men over women. Three-quarters of female Millennials say the country needs to continue to work toward achieving gender equality in the workplace, compared with 57 percent of men in that generation.

Even so, just 15 percent of young women say they have been discriminated against at work because of their gender.

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