MIT and Harvard: Stop focusing on MOOC completion rates

There were 55 million viewings of recorded lectures, problems attempted, web pages read, and forum comments posted in Harvard and MIT’s massive open online courses (MOOCs) since 2012.

That — not course completion rates — is what should matter, officials argue.

Many students joined edX MOOCs in the final week of the class.

MIT and Harvard on Jan. 22 released a treasure trove of online learning research for public consumption based on the results of a thorough study focusing on MOOCs offered through edX, the nonprofit platform for the experimental classes.

Among the points driven home by edX researchers was one often cited by MOOC advocates: judging the success of massive courses solely on that course’s rate of completion is missing the point.

About 5 percent of those who signed up for MIT and Harvard edX courses earned a certificate, according to the research. Thirty-five percent of students did not engage with any of the edX online course content.

“Course completion rates, often seen as a bellwether for MOOCs, can be misleading and may at times be counterproductive indicators of the impact and potential of open online courses,” the university researchers wrote.

The 55 million “events” in edX’s tracking log — every action taken by a course registrant on the MOOC site — showed the “variety of approaches” students could take in the various classes.

“We found students in the courses who engaged with every single piece of the courseware, students who only read text or viewed videos, students who only took assessments or completed problem sets, and students representing nearly every possible combination of these behaviors,” said Isaac Chuang, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT. “Experimentation is part of the learning process.”

Andrew Ho, an associate professor in Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, said the public’s focus on MOOC completion rates is stifling the online courses’ potential.

“A fixation on completion rates limits our imagination of what might be possible with MOOCs,” he said. “A better criterion for success might be for students to complete more of the course than they thought they would, or to learn more than they might have expected when they first clicked on a video or course forum.”

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