The Tricky Task of Figuring Out What Makes a MOOC Successful (The Atlantic)

The Tricky Task of Figuring Out What Makes a MOOC Successful (The Atlantic)

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.”

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 bymany 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.


Some MOOC students are even re-enrolling in courses they’ve passed. There were over 400 students who earned a certificate in The Ancient Greek Hero in Spring of 2013 who enrolled again in the Fall of 2013 in the same course. There are rules at places like Harvard and MIT that prevent students from re-enrolling in courses they’ve already passed, even in topics like ancient Greek literature that can reward a lifetime of study. (RCF: my emphasis)

As this research effort continues, our hope is that our frames of reference for MOOCs can change.  The story of MOOCs is not going to be told with conventional statistics borrowed from brick-and-mortar classroom models. Rather, our research describes an emerging learning ecosystem, one where enrollment can be casual and nonbinding, learning happens asynchronously, and registrants come from all countries in the world, with diverse intentions and patterns of learning. The metrics we choose should respect their intentions and encourage their learning.

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