The tricky task of figuring out what makes a MOOC successful

With a few keystrokes, you can register for a HarvardX MOOC on Computer Science, Genomics, Justice, or China.

Hundreds of thousands of people have done so, and in a report that we and our coauthors released this week, we show that only about 5 percent of these registrants go on to earn a certificate of completion these courses. We could have titled the report: “MOOCs have low completion rates,” The Atlantic reports.

Completion rates in courses, and graduation rates in colleges, have long been important metrics for measuring college success. If students invest time and money into earning college credit and then fail to complete a course, this represents an implicit breach of a commitment made by the students, instructor, and institution alike. If 95 percent of students who enrolled in a residential college course dropped out or failed, that course would rightly be considered a disaster.

After digging deeper into the data, however, we decided that completion rates are at best an incomplete measure, a position that is increasingly shared by many others. We would argue further: at worst, completion rates are a measure that threatens the goals of educational access that motivated the creation of MOOCs.

Our data show that many who register for HarvardX courses are engaging substantially in courses without earning a certificate. In these course, “dropping out” is not a breach of expectations but the natural result of an open, free, and asynchronous registration process, where students get just as much as they wish out of a course and registering for a course does not imply a commitment to completing it.

Read more