Online DSP Classes: Why Such a High Dropout Rate?
Last year the IEEE Signal Processing Magazine published a lengthy article describing three university-sponsored online digital signal processing (DSP) courses . The article detailed all the effort the professors expended in creating those courses and the courses' perceived values to students.
However, one fact that struck me as important, but not thoroughly addressed in the article, was the shocking dropout rate of those online courses. For two of the courses the article's authors presented the following two tables. The tables' rightmost columns, "Yield", show the percentage of enrolled students who actually completed the courses.
[Tables reproduced from the IEEE article without permission.]
Shockingly, the average dropout rate is 97%.
I wondered, "Why do 97 out of every 100 online students drop out of the courses before completion?" My guess at the answer is that the courses are far too mathematically intense for the average young person who wants to learn something about DSP. On their home pages the EPFL course is described as "a mathematically solid introduction" to DSP. The Rice University course states that prospective students should have an "advanced mathematical background."
Introductory DSP training material whose recipe is too rich in complex-variable mathematics is hard for beginners to digest. Most DSP beginners choke on such material and give up.
I believe another contributing factor to the online courses' appalling completion rate is that these courses are not "self-paced"—-students must keep pace with the courses' nonstop schedule. The Instructors' predicted that the "effort" needed to complete the courses is 8 hours/week. My guess is that the average student ends up spending, say, 10 hours/week or more on a course. And that much intense effort, week after week, is more than many young students are willing to put forth.
Considering the courses' dreadful completion rates, it seems to me the courses' creators should now step back and ask "What can we do to improve our courses' completion rates?"
[Postscript: Thinking more about this topic, I may be making a very false assumption that everyone who enrolled in an online DSP course actually intended to complete the course.]
References [2-5] are the home web pages of the three DSP courses discussed in the Reference  IEEE Sig. Proc. Magazine article. References [6-11] are other online DSP courses I discovered on the Internet.
 Thomas A. Baran, et al, “MOOC Adventures in Signal Processing”, IEEE Signal Processing Magazine, July 2016, pp. 62-83. https://infoscience.epfl.ch/record/221379/files/07503171.pdf
 École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne’s "Digital Signal Processing" course on the Coursera.org web site.
 Rice University’s "Discrete-Time Signals and Systems, Part 1: Time Domain" course on the edX.org web site.
 Rice University’s "Discrete-Time Signals and Systems, Part 2: Frequency Domain" course on the edX.org web site.
 Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s "Discrete-Time Signal Processing" course on edX
 Universitat Pompeu Fabra of Barcelona and Stanford University's "Audio Signal Processing for Music Applications" on the Coursera.org web site.
 Indian Institute of Technology Bombay's "Signals and Systems, Part 1", on the edX.org web site.
 Indian Institute of Technology Bombay's "Signals and Systems, Part 2", on the edX.org web site.
 "Fundamentals of Digital Image and Video Processing " on the Coursera.org web site.
 A. V. Oppenheim, “1975 version of a videotape lecture series and study guide on digital signal processing,” MIT Center for Advanced Engineering Studies.
 A. V. Oppenheim. “1987 version of a videotape lecture series and study guide on digital signal processing,” MIT Center for Advanced Engineering Studies.http://ocw.mit.edu/resources/res-6-007-signals-and-systems-spring-2011/
Previous post by Rick Lyons:
Errata for the book: 'Understanding Digital Signal Processing'
I think if you separate the online courses that are offered by accredited institutions such as Universities, require payment, hold students accountable, and have a clear prerequisite you will find the drop-out rate is lower (my intuition). Whereas a free (or low cost) on-line courses such as edx, coursera, MOOC, and others have a higher dropout rate. My rational is two-fold; first, a student that has a financial commitment to a course has an incentive to get their bang for their buck and may be perusing a degree, or is motivated enough to meet the financial commitment. Second, free on-line courses are often not maintained. I realize the phrase, "your mileage may vary" applies here as the free on-line course do have a bit of difference. Free on-line courses (especially coursera) do track student's progress but there is no "penalty" to not complete, or, the certificates offered, IMHO, don't really mean much. So, I think a key reason for lack free drop-outs could be that, like browsing for a book in a book store, one that "signs up" for the course could be simply testing the water to see what is "inside" and may decide the course is not for them ; complex variables or not.
All that said, books such as yours and other Authors on this site (and a few others) seem to have hit a sweet spot. Personally, I highly value both the print and those that take their time to publish on-line. I would like to recognize on site (I hope this does not break the rules on Embedded Related). That is Dr. Wickert at UCCS (www.eas.uccs.edu/wickert). Although Dr. Wikert does protect some material, he is generous enough to offer a lot of great material from his courses, and takes great pain to organize his material for his students, his primary goal is not to publish free materiel (That I can tell). He does offer the material for those that really want to learn on their own time, at a distance, without any offer to respond to email. One really nice feature of his classes/we site is lab demonstrations and configurations that have made a huge difference, in my opinion, in one can or should learn DSP - hands-on in conjunction with lectures. That's not a new concept, but is evident in his "free" on-line material.
Finally, and I apologize for the verbose comment, I value HAM radio material and have thought about writing myself and approaching my writing similar to how you did in your books (disclaimer: I do not consider myself even 1/100000th the author you are. Your books are great). I have noticed that material, that I've read, seem seem to be shy about going into depth in the theory. I think there is a way to accomplish the simple, beginner hand-on, to the advanced with a bit of solid theory with hand-on, if a setup that just works, is presented with appropriate material. That's one of my goals....
By the way, your recommendation on the ASN filter designer is one piece of advice I took. It's really good. They have just added CMSIS support for the CORTEX M4. If only I can get PayPal tom complete my upgrade... ;)
I hope all is well in your part of the world.
As Always, I am A Rick Lyons Fan :)
Hi Dave. Nice to hear from you, and thanks for your thoughts. I agree that one of the big problems with online DSP courses is that you have to sign up for the class to see what topics are covered. (Sound familiar? "We have to pass the bill to see what's in it.")
I checked out Prof. Wickert's web site. He has several courses that I'd like to attend. His "Real_Time Digital Signal Processing" class looks technically intense and awfully interesting, but being "C-language challenged" I'm not sure I'm up to such a task.
This makes me wonder, how many people who visit our blog entries on DSPRelated find them helpful, or for that matter read them in whole or in part.
I recall reading an article a few years ago on Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) in engineering -- apparently the initial offerings had horrible completion rates. There had been a lot of hype on how they would change education.
Maybe just sitting in a room with other humans is underrated.
Question: Did the students pay for the courses, or were they free?
Hi Neil. You wrote: "This makes me wonder, how many people
who visit our blog entries on DSPRelated find them helpful, or for that
matter read them in whole or in part." I'd sure like to know that answer to that. I'll bet that less than 20% of the folks who start reading our blogs end up reading them in full.
As for your question, as far as I can tell the three online DSP courses are free but the EPFL course offers some sort of official "Certificate" if the student pays $40 and competes the course.
Neil, thinking more about this topic, I may be making a very false assumption that everyone who enrolled in an online DSP course actually intended to complete the course.
In my experience if you give something away for free, even if it's extremely valuable, people are happy to disregard its value. When people pay for a thing they are far more likely to see it through as they have investment to recoup.
Hi andrewstanfordjason. "Bingo! Give that young man a kewpie doll."
I wish our State and Federal politicians understood human nature as well as you do.
Where's your control group? What's the completion rate for courses with similar estimated levels of difficulty and esotericity (I just made that word up) in radically different fields -- i.e., statistical methods in early childhood education research, 2nd-kingdom Egyptology, genetic factors in oncology, etc.
It's possible that a large percentage of people sign up for the course, click into a few videos, feel uninterested, and hence drop. I wonder what is P(drops the course eventually | completed the first half lectures & exercises) ?
Hello khuasw. I don't know the answer to your question. However, perhaps the answer is buried somewhere in the article given in my above Reference .
Thank you Rick.
"those who survive Fourier seem to keep
their interest alive throughout the rest of the course"  pg. 66
This is actually not a completely bad result. The same thing happens in college courses while the online audience generally takes a less serious approach and it can be expected that they're on a lower "weed out" threshold.
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