The MOOC metrics we should be tracking

Studies released by the University of North Carolina, the University of Edinburgh, Harvard and MIT document a wide range of student behaviors within a MOOC. For instance, while 40-50 percent of enrollees might never do anything but sign up (which likely makes their activity the equivalent of browsing through a course catalog, rather than committing to take a class), a large percentage of those who do not earn a certificate of completion watch most or all lecture videos. And like auditors in a traditional college class, these students are getting the educational value they want from a MOOC.

Research also shows that among students who demonstrate engagement with course material (by completing the first assignment; for example) graduation rates can top 40-50 percent. And demographic data from millions of existing MOOC enrollees also shows that the majority of those participating in MOOCs are not college-age students but older learners who already have a BA or an advanced degree.

Results from this research are already finding their way into the development process of new MOOC classes. For example, usage patterns have demonstrated to MOOC developers the importance of starting a course with an overview lecture that gives students a better understanding of what they are committing to, or revised enrollment procedures that allow enrollees to specify from the outset if they are auditing or planning to take the course to completion.

Improving retention rates

More fine-grained data (such as completion rates for individual lecture videos) has also led course developers to break lectures into ever-shorter increments in order to increase retention. And given that student response data and scores are available for every question and assignment given within a MOOC, statistical information is available to help improve the types of assessments that typically contribute to grading (still considered one of the weakest elements in most massive courses).

Student demographic data are also contributing to the kinds of courses chosen to be given the MOOC treatment. For example, decisions to release courses for professionals like in-service teachers or public health professionals are based on the assumption that college-level classes provide important social benefit even when taken by those who already have a diploma. And another important number to watch is the total number of available MOOCs since, even with new players entering the space, a comprehensive catalog of MOOC classes still does not compare in scale or scope of what is offered by a moderately-sized residential college.

Finally, those 5-10 percent who complete their MOOCs are worth more careful anthropological study. For these are students who tend to do far more work than is necessary to receive a passing grade, meaning they are eager to learn, self-motivated, and able to succeed in an online learning environment.