Recent analyses released online has shown that completion rates for massively open online courses (MOOCs) are less than 10%. Some commentators take low completion rates as an indication of serious pedagogical and/or economic issues with MOOCs.
While I don’t think that MOOC’s are as revolutionary as perhaps their most ardent backers do, I also don’t think these completion rates tell us much (yet). Right now, my understanding is that almost everyone enrolling in these courses is not doing so for credit and are paying nothing to take the course. The cost to signing up and not finishing it is zero aside from whatever guilt the person may feel for doing so. It’s likely that many of the people who sign up to take the course do not even intend to finish it. MOOCs are still a novelty, so they attract a good deal of curiosity. They sign up, look around and watch a video or two.
That said, I guess much depends on when payments are expected. Say a college allows a certificate verifying MOOC completion as a substitute for taking a particular course. If students pay for their certificates after the course is completed, I imagine course completion rates will remain low (although not as low as they are now). But if students are required to pay upfront, and hence make a financial commitment to course completion, then completion of a MOOC could be comparable to completion of any other online course.
These completion rates for MOOCs aren’t so much a function of anything inherent to the medium, but are instead a function of how the medium is currently implemented.
All of that said, I think Arnold Kling is right that customized multimedia textbooks stand a better chance of revolutionizing education than do MOOCs.