The courses varied in use of quizzes and homework and instruction time. Completion rates were slightly higher in courses with smaller workloads. Most courses focused on personal enrichment or occupational skills, such as “Cardiac Arrest, Resuscitation Science, and Hypothermia.”

Perna said she was a bit surprised by the results.

“Four percent is low. I didn’t expect it to be quite this low,” she said.

But Ed Rock, who heads Penn’s MOOC initiative, called the findings “entirely unsurprising and not at all troubling. Four or five percent of 1.6 million [current users] is still 80,000 people, and 80,000 people is a huge number to educate.”

Rock, senior adviser to the president and provost and director of open course initiatives, also said those who do not complete have gotten something from the experience.

The majority of MOOC users are doing it for leisure learning or job development, so it’s not surprising that few finish, said Cathy Sandeen, vice president for education attainment and innovation at the American Council on Education.

“There is a place for MOOCs in terms of degree attainment, but it’s probably a smaller component overall than we might have originally thought,” she said.

Rock acknowledged that educators have a way to go in learning how best to fit MOOCs into the educational mission. Penn has partnered with 10 high schools locally and nationally whose teachers are using Penn’s calculus course to supplement classroom learning.

“Our hope is our material will be of value. We won’t know that unless [high school teachers] try it out and tell us,” he said. “We believe these materials have the potential to revolutionize education, but they’re only going to work in a partnership.”

Perna, whose team includes researchers Alan Ruby, Robert Boruch, Nicole Wang, Janie Scull, Chad Evans, and Seher Ahmad, agreed that MOOCs could have advantages to society.

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