Increasing Completion Rates Of Free Online Learning Platforms Offer Powerful Insight Into The Future of Higher Education And Skills Training

Free online course completion rates are stronger than most people think, but that is just the beginning of the immense value and opportunity free learning platforms provide, says Alison CEO and Founder, Mike Feerick.

When the first online learning platforms arrived, and later on the MOOC variety, these new educational providers were dismissed by traditional education institutions as a temporary fad. It was argued that they will fade away once the real value delivered was experienced and understood.

But they did not go away. Today, nearly 200 million students are enrolled on free online learning platforms. Some early innovators, such as edX and Coursera, retreated from the fully free learning space by introducing payment for certification. Others such as Udacity went fully paid.

Other platforms like Alison (the earliest of these large global empowerment platforms) embraced free even more. Beyond its free learning portfolio of 2,000 free courses, 17 million registered learners, and three million graduates, it has expanded its offerings to free publishing, group reporting, psychometrics, recruitment services and more to drive all costs of education for everyone to zero.

The most publicised criticism of free online courses is low completion rates. There are many reports to reference, on both free and paid online courses. Some say that completion rates are as low as 2%, while others put it at 10%. These claims, however, do not stand up to scrutiny with the more successful platforms, not least Alison. Comparing completion rates between these innovators and traditional education institutions is simply not as straight-forward as some want you to think.

Online courses are invariably shorter. With free courses, people can browse before committing. How many readers feel free to walk into class at their local university to sample their teachings? You will be told to leave. No payment, no education. With free courses, many take time to experience the course because there is no cost in doing so. This is much like window shopping. Is someone who browses a customer? Of course not.

So before we ask: “What are the learner completion rates for free online courses?” we need to  instead ask: “When is someone a learner?” At Alison, someone must read the course learning outcomes and complete one topic or at least five minutes of learning before they are considered a course learner. That way we remove many of the window shoppers who are just browsing from the pool.

The average learner completion rate across Alison’s 2,000 courses in Q2 2020 rounded out at 32%. For some courses, completion rates exceed 60%, and any courses below 20% are immediately reviewed by our publishing team. This 32% completion rate has profound implications. Let’s look at this in another way: how society as a whole might value it?

Firstly, how many of all the people who think about studying a paid course for five minutes actually go on to complete it? Very few! With free learning, you can change your mind and switch courses at no cost other than sunk time. Try that at a college. At university, you usually pay upfront and are then tied into a course that might not be right for you. Also, consider the cost. How many stress days are caused by the $1 trillion in debt owed by US citizens who once were paying students? Free online education keeps lifelong learning feasible without learners fearing long term burdensome debt. How much more welcoming of learning and upskilling are employers when they know that their employees can study and learn continuously at no cost?

There is a separate argument here on why learners need to complete? Of course, if you are training to be a medical doctor, there is no substitute for completion. However, for general learning for the workplace, is it not more important that you keep learning across the board, rather than necessarily complete every course? 

We all agree that the widespread reading of the daily news is very important for a healthy society, yet, when someone chooses a paper to read, do we insist that the reader reads all of it? Of course not. Yet to say they are not informed because they have not studied all that has been put before them is an absurdity.

My own view is that completion rates for free courses on average will rarely exceed 50% given the sheer billions of people who will soon have access to any course they want to study, when they want to study it, in a language of their own preference.

With COVID, those of us with kids in college see the ridiculousness of their children studying online courses through college at significant expense to our families when the same courses are available for free online. Parents and governments are being asked to foot these unjustified bills. This is not a situation which will be tolerated by either parents or governments beyond this crisis.

Even at the levels of completion that we see at Alison, what alarms the sharper traditional providers most of all is where these completion rates are heading, not least where completion is a requirement for various types of qualifications. They are improving steadily and rapidly. Why?

Platforms like Alison are now harnessing, with huge enthusiasm, artificial intelligence and machine learning. Using this power we can become ever more efficient. For instance, it allows Alison to automatically identify drop off points in courses and notify authors to remedy these issues in their courses.

Key is the size of the user databases that online learning platforms like Coursera, Udemy and Alison work with - all in the tens of millions of students. The quality of online courses increases over time as a result of the feedback of these millions of students.

Additionally, this data reservoir allows online platforms to make each individual learner’s education more and more relevant and personalised to them. Few, if any, traditional universities or colleges have this kind of personalisation capability.

Online education is not the end-all of education. Much must be viewed and experienced offline. In the post-COVID world where remote working and learning are becoming the norm, the true game-changing economic efficiency of these platforms needs to be recognised by governments. Governments need to awaken from being blindsided by the educational elite and status quo to the huge innovation developing in online learning that cannot only drive a more productive economy and a more equitable society but save it some enormous and unnecessary annual expenditure.

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About the Author
Author: Mike Feerick
Mike Feerick, CEO and Founder of Alison.com. Alison is one of the world’s largest and totally free-to-use online learning and employment empowerment platforms, with +18 million learners. It is the global leader in free learning for basic education, workplace skills and psychometric testing with over three million graduates of its +2000 courses.

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