The Mirage of MOOC Completion Rates

From John Lauerman of Bloomberg News:

About 95 percent of students enrolled in free, online courses from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology dropped them before getting a completion certificate.

Out of 841,687 registrants in 17 courses offered in 2012 and 2013 by the universities’ joint EdX program, 43,196 saw the classes to conclusion, according to an e-mailed statement from the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based schools. Some of the students signed up for multiple courses, according to the statement.

Those numbers sound discouraging. Yet as Kevin Carey of the New America Foundation argued last month, the real comparison isn’t between the share of registrants who complete an EdX course and the share of Harvard or MIT undergraduates who complete a course in which they’ve enrolled. Rather, it is between the share of students who applied to Harvard or MIT and managed to gain admission and attend Harvard or MIT, and then managed to complete a given course offered by other school. The “completion rate” of students in the former scenario would if anything be even lower than what we’ve seen in EdX. The purpose of the EdX initiative is to make educational opportunities more accessible; hence the barriers to entry are lower, and many people, as Lauerman explains, do little more than dip a toe in the water. I am one of the hundreds of thousands of people to have registered for an online course without ever doing a lick of work, and if you’re reading this, there is a decent chance that you’ve done the same. So the next time you see someone use low “completion rates” against efforts to experiment with creating more accessible learning opportunities, keep this in mind.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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