Education Opinion

The Truthiness of MOOC Completion Rates

By Justin Reich — January 23, 2014 2 min read
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One of the arguments that we are trying to make in our recent HarvardX and MITx research is that there are some real pitfalls in using completion rates to judge and compare open online courses like MOOCs. It’s well documented now that about 5% of folks who register for a MOOC, finish one. If you can raise that rate by getting more people who show up to pass a course, that can be a good thing. If you raise that rate by making the course easier, that may not be a good thing. If you raise the rate by making the course more compelling or more supportive that’s assuredly a good thing.

There are also some things that you can do to lower the completion rate of a course that are actually pretty good for students and learning. The best example we have of this is the story of when HarvardX got hit by the Colbert Bump, as my colleague Andrew Ho and I exaplin in an article at The Atlantic today:

On July 24, 2013, Stephen Colbert, of Comedy Central’s Colbert Report, welcomed Anant Agarwal, the president of edX, a MOOC platform that hosts courses from HarvardX and MITx. Overnight, edX certification rates for daily registrants in Harvard MOOCs dropped noticeably, from a five-day average of 3.2 percent to an average of 2.5 percent.

How do we know that the Colbert Bump was responsible? Daily registrations in HarvardX MOOCs more than tripled that summer night, from 406 on Wednesday to 1,356 on Thursday. The number of certificates earned by these students doubled from an average of 12 to an average of 24 per day.

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.

Should HarvardX instructors be disappointed that Stephen Colbert tripled registration and doubled certification? They might if they believed certification rates had any relevance to open online education. Instead, the Colbert Bump reveals the truthiness of MOOC certification rates.

Certification rates aren’t necessarily false, but they obscure a larger story: a story of the wide variety of learning practices emerging in open online learning environments.

You can read the whole article at The Atlantic.

You can also watch me telling the story and providing some context in this talk at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

Then after all that, you can head off to read more details in our report on The First Year of HarvardX and MITx.

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my publications, C.V., and online portfolio, visit EdTechResearcher.

The opinions expressed in EdTech Researcher are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.