EdX enrollment data shows online learners are more browsers than finishers

Most people who signed up for MOOCs offered by MIT and Harvard never looked over half of the course material

MIT and Harvard released first-year enrollment data on edX, their online learning platform.

MIT and Harvard released first-year enrollment data on edX, their online learning platform.

Online course participants are more likely to browse lesson material than stick around to earn a completion certificate, according to a report examining enrollment and usage data from edX, an online learning platform jointly launched by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the fall of 2012.

Of the 841,687 people who registered for classes on edX during its first year, 469,702 saw less than half of the course content. An additional 35,937 viewed at least half or more of the course material. And 43,196 people engaged the material enough to earn a completion certification. The remaining 292,852 registrants never accessed the content, said the report, which was released Tuesday.

The schools cautioned against only using certification figures to judge the success of massive open online courses, saying that "certification is a poor proxy for the amount of learning that happens in a given course." Many people who failed to earn certifications still accessed "substantial amounts of course content," and focusing just on completion rates "penalizes" browsing and exploring, behavior that massive open online courses (MOOCs) are designed to accommodate. People who didn't earn a certificate and just browsed course material "may have learned a great deal from a course, and certified registrants may have learned little."

Some participants, said Harvard and MIT, may have enrolled in courses without the intention of earning a certification. This first report, though, doesn't offer data on a person's intentions because edX initially lacked a method to capture this information across all courses. A survey feature and instructor tool now included in the platform will be able to collect this data for future reports.

The report emphasized that traditional education metrics focusing on accountability, students and grades aren't applicable to online learning environments where registration requires only "a few seconds and zero dollars" and "registrants are accountable to no one and use course resources whenever and however they wish."

Anyone with a Web connection can access MOOCs, which

offer university classes on a variety of topics for free. In addition to edX, other online learning platforms include Coursera and Udacity. Participants earn certificates for completing course lessons and assessments.

The data revealed that people used online courses in a number of ways. Some participants only read text and watched videos and others focused on testing their skills by taking assessments. Course sampling also occurred, with people signing up for a course, reviewing some material and then signing up for another course and looking over certain portions of its material.

The more time people engage with a MOOC the more likely they are to continue accessing the material. People determine if they'll stick with a MOOC during the course's first week, according to the 20GB of data gathered from each of the 17 classes offered in fall 2012 and summer 2013. During the first week, when the dropout rate is the highest, around 50 percent of participants stop accessing course material. That figure declines to 16 percent during week two and continues to decrease in the following weeks.

As for who is taking online courses, the typical participant is a 26-year-old male with a bachelor's degree, a profile fit by 222,847 enrollees. The report noted however that at 31 percent of applicants, "this profile describes fewer than one in three registrants." Female enrollees totaled 213,672 (29 percent), and 234,463 people (33 percent) said they had a high school education or less. Baby boomers are interested in MOOCs, with 45,884 (6.3 percent) of them signing up for edX courses.

Some people took to online learning with zeal, with approximately 4,000 registrants earning more than one certificate. Of that figure, 1,912 earned at least one certificate from both schools and 76 people earned five or more certificates.

Instead of viewing online learning platforms as "a monolithic collection of courses," the report called for reviewing the impact of MOOCs on an individual class basis since the material, context and audience of each course vary. Harvard School of Public Health courses, for example, have public policy implications and enrollees with more advanced educations. These factors need to be considered and mean different evaluation criteria is needed than what is used for reviewing classes on basic computer science.

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