Remember that time you signed up for a MOOC and forgot to do your homework?

New research on the popular massive open online courses finds that one way to keep students engaged in the free classes offered by hundreds of universities is to offer a certificate of completion for a fee.

“The act of paying for the certificate and the motivation derived from wanting to earn the certificate lead to a 10- to 12-percent rise in student engagement,” said S. Sriram, associate professor of marketing at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business.

Sriram was joined in the research by Ali Goli and Pradeep Chintagunta of the University of Chicago.

MOOCs have the potential to democratize access to education. Platforms such as Coursera, edX, XuetangX, Udacity and FutureLearn have partnered with hundreds of universities to provide thousands of courses to millions of users in recent years.

Coursera, for example, has 30 million users, offers more than 3,000 courses and 177 university partners, including U-M. However, retention and completion rates for free users have not been promising. Attempts to improve retention have focused mostly on modifying course design.

Using data from more than 70 courses offered by a large public university on the Coursera platform from 2012-16, the researchers found that the engagement and course completion statistics are much better for paid users who receive a certificate upon completing the course.

This prompted them to ask if having participants pay for courses can improve engagement, and consequently course completion rates. Of course, the challenge is that participants who choose to pay for a certificate are likely to be different from those who take the course for free, the researchers say.

In order to answer the question, Sriram and colleagues needed to separate these inherent differences between the two groups from the effect of payment on engagement. The researchers use the granular nature of the data, some unique aspects of the Coursera platform in terms of requirements for paying users to receive a certificate, and the variation in the timing when payments were made by paying users to separate out the effect of paying on engagement. 

“The effect of paying is transient and lasts only for a few weeks, but the certificate effect lasts until the participant reaches the grade required to be eligible to receive the certificate,” Sriram said.

The study found that paid users aiming to earn a certificate spent 10 percent more time on the course portal. This level of engagement lasted until the students reached a passing grade, which was typically around 70 percent for the courses researchers evaluated.

The research provides new ways for understating how platforms and content creators may want to design course milestones and schedule the payment of course fees.

“As more employers begin to consider these certificates in making hiring and promotion decisions, the higher value of these certificates should increase engagement even more,” Sriram said.

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