Harvard Graduate School of Education Associate Professor Andrew Ho collaborated with HarvardX Research Fellow Justin Reich on a post for The Atlantic, based on newly-released research from Harvard and MIT, the academic pair powering edX. The duo discussed the massive open online course platform’s completion rates, acknowledging:
We show that only about five percent of these registrants go on to earn a certificate of completion in these courses. We could have titled the report: “MOOCs have low completion rates.”
In total, 17 of edX’s courses garnered 841,687 registrants. Of that number, only 43,196 students earned a certificate of completion. Researchers note course completion rates can be “misleading,” however, and Agarwal’s appearance on The Colbert Report is a prime example of why.
Overnight, following Agarwal’s debut, daily registrations in HarvardX MOOCs tripled from 406 to 1,356. “The number of certificates earned by these students doubled from an average of 12 to an average of 24 per day,” wrote Ho and Reich, who went on to explain:
By tripling registration rates but only doubling certification rates, Stephen Colbert single-handedly lowered the completion rate for all open HarvardX courses. With a flood of curious browsers from Colbert Nation, hundreds of students explored our courses, and dozens of students ultimately completed them.
What happened, according to the pair, is representative of most MOOC certification rates, though.
Daphne Koller, co-founder of fellow 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.”
What’s more, when Agarwal appeared on The Colbert Report, nearly half the registrants started enrolling in courses already closed for certification. “That’s right, you can sign up for a HarvardX course after it ends,” reported Ho and Reich. “You’re a dropout the second you’ve registered.”
Although the edX team is still trying to determine how MOOCs should be evaluated, it’s clear there’s more to online learning than course completion rates. To relive the rates’ demise, however, take the time to rewatch Agarwal’s rather humorous interview with Colbert.