What’s the story about completion rates?

FutureLearn CEO, Simon Nelson, tackles the frequently asked question about how we compare to other online learning platforms.

If ever there was a tricky area in the delivery of online learning at scale, it’s the analysis of meaningful data from learning platforms. Despite the rapid growth of MOOC platforms around the world, the fact remains that massive open online learning is still a fairly nascent area, and as such, one thing it lacks is common benchmarks for measuring success.

Selecting the right metrics

A starting point for us at FutureLearn is to focus on the numbers that give us an indication of how we’re performing against our objective to create a product that supports learning through conversation. As a social learning platform, learner interaction is one of our most important metrics, alongside others that we’ve outlined in the past.

In selecting our data pool, we’ve also found it more meaningful to focus on ‘learners’ who showed up to a course, rather than ‘joiners’ who initially expressed an interest in the course when it was advertised. A percentage of these joiners find that for a number of reasons they end up unable to commit the time to begin the course.

Measuring participation

Among the metrics we obsess about are rates of ‘full participation’, which we define as completing the majority of steps in a course, as well as all the assessments. We do this so we can assess the quality of the whole learning experience, and make sure learners are taking away the knowledge that is important to them. For us it’s not enough that they’re simply visiting the course in the final week, or have just done the assessments. At FutureLearn, only fully participating learners qualify for our Statements of Participation.

On average, 22% of our learners are fully participating, which tells us that they’ve been motivated to engage in the full learning experience. That also speaks to the effectiveness of the storytelling techniques that we build into courses to compel learners through to the end. Even if we looked at the number in comparison to everyone who signed up to the course, that number still comes in at 12%.

Comparing to other MOOC providers

Compared to other MOOC providers who’ve shared data, that’s still a good indication that our learners are enjoying their time on FutureLearn. This report from MIT and Harvard points to completion rates of 8% among the equivalent of learners on the courses they analysed, as well as 5% of all joiners of the courses. Another references 5% of joiners officially completing a course. These numbers are representative of what many others have reported as being average completion rates for MOOCs.

Of course the caveat to this discussion is that different providers select metrics that are relevant to them – each product is different, and so it’s impossible to make a direct, like-for-like comparison between them. However, we believe that when benchmarking our rates of full participation against how others measure ‘completion’, we stand out as having highly engaged learners who are enjoying their experience.

Full participation is definitely a number we care about. But is it the only measure we look at? Certainly not. Our aim all along has been to create a product that gives people a high quality learning experience by provoking conversation, telling stories and celebrating progress. And so we measure and celebrate the different ways that learners engage in our courses. Our high levels of social engagement are also something that we’re incredibly proud of. It’s because of these measures that we feel confident about claiming that we produce the best free online courses in the world.

We’ll keep sharing our data on a regular basis so we can continue to make a meaningful contribution to the ongoing development of MOOCs and our general understanding of how people use them.

Category FutureLearn news

Comments (24)


  • Uncontrolled Admissions

    Imagine a beginners piano course. The blurb says it’s complete beginners with no previous knowledge nor experience. It says, come and join this course now. It begins in 6 months’ time and it’s suitable for rank beginners who’ve never touched a piano or keyboard. Then, for some reason, half of the local university’s music undergrads sign up for the course. Mixed, of course, with 60+ year old piano-obsessed autists… Even though so many sign up, they make up only about 20% of the entrants. The rest are genuine beginners. Then the course begins, and 80% of the entrants (guess who?) complete it in 10 minutes and show off their awesomeness to the 80% of beginners, getting a slight confidence boost to offset feelings of inferiority they get at the college. 80%, meanwhile, get nothing out of it and drop out. The course proceeds with more lessons discussing useless academic themes and questions, e.g. ‘what are your ideas for spreading music education among the masses’. The smug professors behind the course praise the elite answers, ignore the weak ones and the beginners, and, most importantly of all, funding is secured for their institution! That’s FUTURELEARN in a nutshell.

  • Steven Stone

    I’ve taken numerous Future Learn courses and most of them are great. Curious if that 22% completion rate is going all the way through a course or just 50% you require to be eligible for a certificate?

  • mike kane

    I have signed up for about 11 courses. I have completed 2/3 Holocaust is in 2 parts. The first course was Cyber Security which I recently complete WAY past the deadline. Most of the other courses I intend to complete but I don’t have sufficient time at the moment to do them all at once. I was pleased that the courses ‘hang around’ for me to complete when I am ready.

    Please pass on to the Holocaust providers my thanks for the course, I’m not sure this course can be enjoyed but it is important to me.

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  • Deergha

    I have just landed here today and came to know about this massive opportunity for those who are interested to learn something new and something of worth spending time productive way for future growth. Like others I am surprised at the high rate of drop outs and equally astonished to know about 22% fully participating learner members. I wish I knew it earlier. I am interested to go for courses online as I am a full time working lady with a 9th standard grown up Son. Its very nice to read the comments from so many people here which has really encouraged me to this new opportunity called FutureLearn.com…Thank you all the team members@ FutureLearn… for your effort and energy which surely will help people like me who wish to study apart from being tied up with so many things in life. Its a wise endeavor from the team there… to reach out to the World for those who seek knowledge. Thank you and best wishes from Assam, India.

  • Brian Murray

    Fully participating learners on average 22% is a big surprise to me. I had no idea that it was so low. I am on my fourth course and signed up for a fifth starting in January. I love learning new things or expanding what I think I know already. Sometimes I don’t believe these courses are free because they are so good especially when you look at the effort that has gone into making them. I feel some people don’t know how lucky they are to have these courses for free. All the people involved in these courses should be congratulated and I send them a happy birthday.

  • John Bello

    For me, I have just started my first course which will be finishing in about two weeks’ time; Am already contemplating on my next course which will surely begin on the 5th of January, 2015. Its amazing, the knowledge am getting through this medium.

  • jane Elizabeth Carter

    I’ve completed all the courses I’ve engaged in so far and have signed up for two more. I have had taster courses on a wide variety of subjects that I never thought to study earlier. I have encouraged friends o try them and I think they are happily MOOCing. Its great to get feed back from others on the course and its generally encouraging positive feedback. The one I have enjoyed the most so far is Hadrians Wall as each module begins with a video to set the topic up for us so it feels like a mini lecture and I’m fascinated by the archaeological evidence Another one that really engaged me was Witness reliability in Forensic Psychology

  • sid virk

    Your the best!

  • Brendan Newman

    I have started 5 FL Moocs this year. I dropped out of one in the first week but went on to complete 3 more and I have now completed the first week of No 5 (Aviation comes of Age) and am starting Oceans next week. I love them!!

  • Tim Sankey

    Like others I am surprised at the high dropout rate, after all I assume people are signing up because they are interested in a subject. It may be interesting to canvas the dropouts to find out why they quit. Also to know what the dropout rates are for first year undergraduates, and for paid correspondence courses. Would a minimal charge change the statistics and/or discourage potential students

    Also can you clarify how you assess someone to have fully participated in a MOOC?

  • Ian Fleming

    I`ve just started my 5th MOOC with Futurelearn. I was very surprised by the completion statistics, although perhaps the rate will improve over time. I agree that there is a lot of sampling going on, and the fact that these programmes are free probably leads to a slightly cavalier attitude on the part of many participants. Maybe its is my age and generation, but I always believe in finishing what you start! I found International Law most demanding in terms of engagement, Irish Lives, War and Revolution 1913-1923 most fascinating and well presented and Causes of War most thought provoking. But they all have excellent features and I love the format

  • Shaun Foster

    This is my first course and I have been surprised to learn of the high drop out rate. I haven’t had a university education, in fact I left school at 15 (it was legal all those years ago. If this type of thing had been available then who knows. It has awakened a desire to learn again and I have already signed up for 3 other courses. Who knows where it may lead. At 58 years old I appreciate that it may not help with my career, but it’s jut so much fun and talking to people of very diverse backgrounds is a totally new thing for me. Thanks Future learn for introducing me to so many interesting people and subjects. Many Happy returns and hopefully many more to come

  • ben

    for me i have just started ma first future learn course and i hope that i will gain alot from it .

  • Iain Cameron

    I got involved in futurelearn through a friend that I used to work with. The standard and professionalism on all the courses I have undertaken has been nothing short of excellent.
    The courses so far have exceeded my expectations and this goes for the interaction with other futurelearners.
    Well done to all and thanks.

  • Raksa Khem

    The futurelearn website is the greatest. Happy Happy Birthday! All courses are interested and useful very much. And all professors are the best. Thank You!

  • Jsn Emerson

    I am currently on my 11th course (Electrify – content of which is all completely new to me!) with my 12th coming soon. These courses are incredibly good and I am very surprised that only 22% of joiners finish. Of course, their variety is such that some appeal more than others but personally I would not think of giving up mid-course – a matter of personal integrity.
    So, thank you to all tutors, course developers and especially other participants. There is a real sense of community!

  • Richard Wheal

    Given the very high quality of the courses and the enthusiasm shown by the participants, the course creators and the guides who help us through the courses, I am amazed that more people don’t complete them.
    I am currently working on ‘Shipwrecks …..’ and it is brilliant.
    I suppose that it would be tricky to create a metric based on enjoyment, intensity of participation or student satisfaction?

  • Penelope Ardizzone

    I have completed several of these courses and intend to complete many more. The fact that the specified time schedules are not particularly important is a bonus as it allows for computer breakdown, family crisis e.t.c.

    Personally I enjoy these courses and there really is something for everyone, whatever their interests. But have not had much success interesting my friends.

    Happy Birthday FutureLearn and many happy returns of the day.

  • Ana

    I have to say I’m shocked that not even half the people who join a course, end up finishing it. And MIT/Harvard figures of 5% are even worse.

    • renatof

      85 % they were just curious.
      and only 20 % they arrived at the second lesson.
      For some, the course was too easy; of course for many others it was too difficult.
      Some have lost interest, for others what not that they expected.
      Others had no time: for work, for family, because they had other courses.
      Some were interested in only one part of the course’s program.
      One in that period has gone vacation. One found a book that was better of the course.

      Most of those enrolled is a student or already has a higher education. Or are life learners.
      None of them is interested in a on-line diploma.

      for me a course had too technical and difficult English an other required a lot of high mathematics beyond my skills; in an other I understand almost everything after the second video.

      I hope this helps you to understand that 5% of 25’000 person is much.

  • Joan Greenleaf

    I have completed 5 FutureLearn courses though one not by the official end date. What I have noticed recently, looking at people’s profiles, is that some are signing up for a number of courses running concurrently. I suspect they are going to sample some and if they don’t like them drop them. I suspect that is an inherent problem with free courses. In general I have been very impressed with the standard.

    • Ana

      Joan, I’m on my 11th MOOC and have another 5 starting within the next month (4 with FutureLearn). I am able to do this because I am currently out of work and feel that they may help my job prospects.

      The free nature of the course may mean that people feel less commitment and drop out, but there are also plenty of people who drop out of paid courses, especially where they have not had to pay for them themselves (ie. their employer pays).