Harvard, MIT Online Courses Dropped by 95% of Registrants

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.

Harvard and MIT began the $60 million EdX project in 2012 as an experiment to research the potential of massive open online courses, or MOOCs. The data released today show that while there’s broad interest in the classes, people are accessing them for many other reasons besides obtaining a certificate of completion, said Andrew Ho, an associate professor in Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

“The data are demanding that we think of new metrics beyond certification rates to capture the diverse goals of users,” Ho, who conducted the research along with MIT electrical engineering and physics professor Isaac Chuang, said in a telephone interview. “I don’t think there’s any reason to be concerned that many more people are interested and many more people are learning.”

Diverse Reasons

The research looked at data from 597,692 students who registered for the courses. In about 55 percent of all registrations, students viewed less than half of the course material they’d signed up for, and in about one-third, users never looked at the course material.

People probably had diverse reasons for signing up for the classes, Chuang and Ho said. Some may have been teachers looking for ideas for how to teach their own classes or students looking for additional explanations of material for classes they were taking in another, more formal setting.

About half of registrants who dropped their courses did so within a week or two of enrolling, the researchers said. Students browsed the free course material, just as they might look at any other Web-based content, they said.

Many were probably just curious. Registration soared after EdX president Anant Agarwal appeared on “The Colbert Report” in July, the researchers said. Interests of online students don’t necessarily reflect those of people who sign up for standard classroom courses, Ho said.

Browsers Welcome

“We welcome browsers and people with diverse learning goals,” he said. “We don’t want to weed them out.”

Chuang and Ho said they’re now collecting more data on why people register for the classes.

Online learning has been increasingly used by colleges, especially for-profit institutions such as Apollo Education Group Inc.’s University of Phoenix, to reach students with jobs, families, tight schedules and remote homes. Teachers at Harvard and MIT have already begun using some of the teaching innovations developed for EdX -- puzzles and challenges used to teach how proteins are constructed, for example -- to supplement classroom teaching, Ho and Chuang said.

About 4.2 percent of registrants, or 35,937, completed half or more of their courses without seeing them to completion, the researchers said.

“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,” Chuang said in the statement. “Experimentation is part of the learning process.”

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