Only 5 percent of people who start a free online "massive open enrollment course," or MOOC, finish the course. This a fact often cited as an indictment of MOOCs. But is that really the measure of success?
MOOCs are courses provided by some of the world's best universities free online to anyone who wants to sign up, watch the lectures, read the materials and participate in online forums. Some classes provide completion certificates to participants who pay a small fee and complete all the assigments.
Brandon Alcorn, Gayle Christensen and Ezekiel J. Emanuel, all from the University of Pennsylvannia, argue in The Atlantic that critiques based on completion rate miss the point, and that MOOCs serve a valuable function even when the course is not completed.
Using data from 1.8 million students enrolled in MOOCs offered by U. Penn, the authors conclude that "that students treat MOOCs like a buffet, sampling the material according to their interests and goals."
Some students, they find, are merely sampling out of curiosity, while others are primarily interested in discussion forums that link them to others with similar interests.
The Pennsylvannia study is a response to growing concern that MOOCs are not reaching their hoped for goal of providing high quality legitimate education to millions of underserved students.
In December, NPR ran a widely cited report that found few students completing courses and some widely touted experiments failing. Failures included a high profile experiment at San Jose State University that sought to offer for-credit coursework.
"But by all accounts, the San Jose experiment was a bust," NPR reported. "Completion rates and grades were worse than for those who took traditional campus-style classes. And the students who did best weren't the underserved students San Jose most wanted to reach."
"The people that do well in these kind of courses are people who are already studious. Or ... who are taking courses for their own enrichment after they've graduated," Peter Hadreas, the chairman of San Jose State's philosophy department, told NPR.
The disconnect between the upbeat assessment from U. Penn and the more skeptical view from NPR lies largely in objectives. Those who see MOOCs as cost-effective alternative for post-secondary training for nontraditional students will not likely be reassured to learn they are primarily serving motivated consumers who use them strategically.
Google recently announced a research partnership with Carnegie Mellon University to figure out how to make MOOCs work for regular students.
"The goal is to get online courses to be as successful as the best courses in brick-and-mortar classrooms," said Justine Cassell, associate vice provost of technology strategy, in a press release.
"A MOOC today typically means a lecture-style presentation with little if any opportunity for interaction with other people in the course," Cassell said. Not surprisingly, most students drop out long before the courses are complete, and learning gains are often low even for those who stick it out. "Unless the MOOCs pay attention to how people actually learn, they will not be able to improve effectiveness and will end up as just a passing fad," she added.