Harvard and MIT make a compelling case for MOOCs


Harvard and MIT have released the draft of a working paper that makes a strong case for the potential benefits of massively open online courses, or MOOCs, despite low completion rates. The paper is rich on data about their respective HarvardX and MITx courses (although they plan to release significantly more data and analysis soon) and focuses on what I think has always been a faulty focal point of many MOOC criticisms. In a free, online environment, completion rates are vastly overrated.

This chart from the paper about sums up the message. Every person who registered for a class between Fall 2012 and Summer 2013 is represented by a dot. Those who got certified are above the horizontal line, but as the authors note, it’s the bottom-right quadrant that’s the most interesting. They’re the ones — like myself in some cases — who explored at least half the course content but either didn’t pass certification muster or never tried. But they likely learned something.

moocsIn the long run, that’s potentially the real value of MOOCs. Even if we count as a loss the 91 percent of HarvardX and MITx students who viewed less than half the course content or never did anything more than enroll in a course, 79,133 people likely learned some valuable information without paying thousands of dollars or even having to leave their homes. Of those, 43,196 actually obtained their certifications. Read more.