January 23, 2014, 5:17 PM — 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.