Completion rates remain a contentious issue when discussing massive open online courses. Yet, new papers released Tuesday by Harvard and MIT argue there’s more to learning online than a shrinking number of registrants would suggest.

The academic pair powering edX published the first in a series of working papers based on 17 courses offered through the local online learning platform. From ancient Greek poetry to electromagnetism, the course topics varied, covering a range of disciplines researchers were able to draw insights from.

When Harvard and MIT first announced edX in May 2012, the mission was to create an effective teaching environment that would improve learning both on-campus and online. These papers are designed to determine if that desire is being met, and represent a collaborative research effort between the institutions.

Led by MIT Professor Isaac Chuang and Andrew Ho, an associate professor in Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, the research shows course completion rates can be “misleading” and potentially a “counterproductive indicator of the impact and potential of open online courses,” as highlighted in the papers’ key takeaways published by MIT News.

In total, the 17 online courses garnered 841,687 registrations from 597,692 unique users. Of that number, only 43,196 registrants earned certificates of completion, while another 35,937 enrolled explored half or more of the units, yet didn’t finish the course.

Although startling to some, Chuang explained, “Experimentation is part of the process,” adding that some students only took assessments or completed problem sets; read text or viewed videos; or performed a combination of the two and engaged with every single piece of the courseware. Ho went on to add:

A fixation on completion rates limits our imagination of what might be possible with MOOCs. A better criterion for success might be for students to complete more of the course than they thought they would, or to learn more than they might have expected when they first clicked on a video or course forum.

Daphne Koller, co-founder of fellow MOOC platform Coursera, acknowledged in a previous interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education that most students who register for an online course have no intention of completing it. Rather, she said, “Their intent is to explore, find out something about the content and move on to something else.”

And should we knock that? Learning is learning, and education is power. Why knock a platform delivering that power to the entire world? Seventy-two percent of edX registrants were from abroad, while nearly 21,000 of those individuals had IP or mailing addresses from countries on the United Nations’ list of Least Developed Countries.

Another component to consider is how many people register for a course out of sheer excitement. Nearly 155,000 students registered for MIT’s prototype MITx course90,000 of those within its first month of being announced. Only 7,157 people passed the course as a whole, but that doesn’t mean the class was a flop.

“If you look at the number in absolute terms, it’s as many students as might take the course in 40 years at MIT,” explained edX President Anant Agarwal at the time.

The number also represents a larger online trend. As researchers explain, the persistence rates in MOOCs “look very similar to how people interact with other Web-based media, such as video or social network sites.”

So, why not stop harping on the negative? MOOCs can’t be judged solely by completion rates. As Ho poignantly argued:

This isn’t just about MOOCs. This is about the democratization of learning: Learners are in control. We are at the beginning of an exciting effort to understand how people learn and how to educate well and effectively at scale.

Featured Image via edX