Online Education's Dirty Secret — Awful Retention by Peter Reinhardt

Peter Reinhardt

Co-founder @ Segment.io

Online Education's Dirty Secret — Awful Retention

I’m extremely excited about online education, but I’ve noticed that online education products have a really serious problem: low retention. I’ve used Coursera, EdX, Hack Design, Duolingo, Codecademy… and I’ve churned from all of them. I bet you did too!

I don’t want to tear down these products or the people who’ve built them, I’m rooting for them all the way. They just need some tough love, and so this article explains why I churned: the starting commitment is too high, the re-engagement emails are terrible, and the pacing is impersonal.

How low IS their retention?

Coursera founder Daphne Koller said last year that only 7-9% of students who sign up actually “finish” the class. The definition of finish is a bit fuzzy, so I wanted to collect some more data.

The Coursera class Introduction to Operations Management had 87,000 people sign up, but only 4,360 views on the final lecture. This is a 5% retention rate for viewership, and presumably worse for the assignments.

Probabalistic Graphical Models taught by Daphne Koller herself signed up well over 35,000 people (announced a while before the class started, via email). In week 4 there were 433 posts about the homework, week 6 there were 316 and by week 8 only 275 posts (hand-counted in the class forums). Even if you assume 10x as many people completed the course as posted in the forum, that’s about 6% retention rate.

Introduction to Algorithms Design and Analysis Part I got 10,000 likes, tweets and +1s. Presumably at least that many people signed up for the course. But the first video in the course got only 2,500 views and later videos got about 500 views. Showing a maximum retention rate of about 5%.

So the data from Coursera shows about a 5% retention rate from Class Sign Up to Class Completed. If you’ve signed up for one of their super-popular classes with “80,000 students!” then you were almost certainly one of the ~76,000 that did not finish the class.

We could come up with a bunch of excuses about why online education will always have worse retention, or we could figure out ways to fix it.

How can we fix it?

Coursera and EdX do have amazing content from top-notch professors at the world’s best universities. That’s why 3+ million people have signed up for Coursera and EdX classes.

But my favorite teachers didn’t just have great content, they also had great content delivery. They made the content fun. Gripping even. And thats where Coursera and EdX have let me down.

I think Coursera and EdX can learn a lot from three other online education products: Codecademy, Hack Design and Duolingo. These three online education products have each impressed me with their delivery of content, for three different reasons.

Codecademy asks for no commitment.

They completely eliminated the starting level of commitment: you arrive at the site and started learning javascript. No signup, no complex reading or video lectures, no commitment whatsoever. You just start following simple instructions. Of course you slowly escalate to harder and more compelling material, increasing your commitment every step of the way.

Codecademy starting screen

And boy has that worked! They’ve gotten 75,000 tweets and millions of users. It’s been hailed as the future of programming education and is seeing adoption at schools around the world.

Hack Design has amazing emails.

They nailed email re-engagement. Since they’re a weekly email course about web design, they’ve put a lot of thought into the structure and copy of their emails. They use beautiful images and similar visual structure every week so that I know exactly where to click and what to do.

Here’s an example email with with huge, enticing links to the newest content.

Hack Design email

The beauty is that every week I get an email that motivates me to learn more about design, and makes it incredibly easy to get started again. I just click some links and start reading.

And Duolingo has perfect pacing.

Duolingo teaches you a new foreign langauge, through a series of automated question-answer exercises. I’m learning German and my wife is learning Italian. And WOW has their gamification sucked me in and made me competitive. My wife and I regularly compete to get more points on Duolingo:

Duolingo pacing

You can see in this screenshot she’s got more points than me! (She kindly reminded me of this fact while proof-reading this article.) I need to get my German game back on!

Coursera and EdX have disappointed me on all three fronts.

They ask for huge time commitments right at the beginning. The re-engagement emails are de-motivational and full of administrative details. And the classes move way too fast unless you’re a full-time student.

I’ve put together some screenshots to show you what I mean.

You must commit to the class.

The “Class is starting” announcement from EdX says “stay current with the material. Don’t fall behind.” which is a nice bit of positive reinforcement. Yes sir! And apparently I need to do something every couple days. Not sure what yet, but ok!

The email is incredibly demanding, and gives me nothing to be excited about. What is the class about again? And where’s the link?

edx-starting-class

Oh boy this sounds like a lot of work, and I’m not even sure how to start. Definitely not happening this week, we just launched Segment.io!

The structure they’re trying to impose is a throwback to how real universities operate. You pay a ton of money up front, move across the country, leave your family behind… it’s a huge commitment! But that’s not how online works. Online you have to suck people in like Codecademy. Inch by inch you get them more engaged and more committed.

Awful re-engagement emails.

Then in week two of the class I get an unmotivational email saying that “this week’s [stuff] is available.” What are we covering this week? Anything interesting? And where’s the bloody link??

Coursera not enticing

Are you serious? Look at this gorgeous video email I get from Wistia:

Beautiful, enticing Wistia email

They have an enticing still-shot from the video and two huge links to watch it. I click through this email to watch their video every time. I would love to get this high-quality email from Coursera whenever there’s a new lecture to watch.

This class is too fast for real people.

Then in week three of the class I get an email telling me to join a Google Hangout, watch 6 videos, do the in-video questions, read the notes, do two problem sets, and prepare for an upcoming exam.

Coursera pacing all wrong

Let me clarify: I want to learn human physiology, but I work at a startup. I’m completely lost in this artificially-imposed schedule. There is no point in trying any more. Forget it.

The content available on Coursera and EdX is amazing.

The problem is that I need help to stay motivated and engaged. Coursera and EdX must figure this out… otherwise they’ll just keep losing 95% of their students.

I’m very worried that they don’t understand this. Here’s what Daphne Koller, founder of Coursera, said in November:

“Many of these students never really intended to seriously take the class in the first place.”

I did intend to take Introductory Human Physiology and Data Analysis. Stop blaming your users and instead say “Wow, so many people want to learn. How can we help them stay motivated and engaged? Let’s help them achieve their dreams.”


Edit: I’ve heard from EdX that they’re thinking about this :) Very excited for the improvements!


Many thanks to Erika Reinhardt and Ian Storm Taylor for their comments and corrections.