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The Fact That Only 10% of People Who Enroll In Online Classes Finish Them is a Good Thing

In a recent very interesting Fast Company article on Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun, he reveals a so-called hidden truth of online learning – that very few students who enroll in online classes finish them:

As Thrun was being praised by Friedman, and pretty much everyone else, for having attracted a stunning number of students–1.6 million to date–he was obsessing over a data point that was rarely mentioned in the breathless accounts about the power of new forms of free online education: the shockingly low number of students who actually finish the classes, which is fewer than 10%. Not all of those people received a passing grade, either, meaning that for every 100 pupils who enrolled in a free course, something like five actually learned the topic. If this was an education revolution, it was a disturbingly uneven one.

This is not entirely shocking. I’ve signed up for dozens of online classes, and only finished less than two dozen. I often wonder, what do the professors think when I don’t finish the class? I wish there was a way to tell them why.

Sometimes the class is just too difficult, and not what I was expecting when I signed up. For instance, I took Andrew Ng’s famous Machine Learning class the last time it was offered. I didn’t enjoy it. Not only was the video of poor quality, but it the course almost immediately jumped into mathematical topics. I just could not spend the time required to even get past the first week of the course. It was essentially a mistake to enroll. And as previously mentioned, I actually accidentally failed a course I really enjoyed and watched every single video off because I wasn’t aware of a writing assignment that was due until after the due date had passed. I loved that class! And I failed!

So while Thrun believes that the system does not work for most people, I actually believe the system is working for me. I come and go as I please, I sign up and sample a course and decide if it’s worth my time to continue. Perhaps the professors and company owners don’t like that. That’s fair. But the real reason people stop attending some classes is more complicated that one expects.


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