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Harvard Online Courses Dropped by 95 Percent of Registrants

Tuesday, 21 Jan 2014 01:07 PM

Jan. 21 (Bloomberg) -- About 95 percent of students enrolled in free, online courses from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology dropped them before getting a completion certificate.

Out of 841,687 registrants in 17 courses offered by the universities’ joint EdX program, 43,196 saw the classes to conclusion, according to an e-mailed statement from the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based schools. Some of the students signed up for multiple courses, according to the statement.

Online learning has been increasingly used by colleges, especially for-profit institutions such as Apollo Education Group Inc.’s University of Phoenix, to reach students with jobs, families, tight schedules and remote homes. Harvard and MIT began the $60 million EdX project in 2012 as an experiment to research the technology’s potential.

“This is about the democratization of learning: Learners are in control,” Andrew Ho, an associate professor in Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, said in the statement. “We are at the beginning of an exciting effort to understand how people learn and how to educate well and effectively at scale.”

The research, conducted by Ho and MIT electrical engineering and physics professor Isaac Chuang, looked at data from 597,692 students who registered for courses. In about 55 percent of all registrations, students viewed less than half of the course material they’d signed up for, and in about one- third, users never looked at the course material.

Dropping Out

About half of registrants who dropped their courses did so within a week or two of enrolling, the researchers said. Students browsed the free course material, just as they might look at any other Web-based content, they said.

The researchers cautioned against a “fixation on completion rates” that might distract from the impact of educational materials that reach hundreds of thousands of students. Many students who don’t complete courses may still be achieving more than they would have thought possible, Ho said.

About 4.2 percent of registrants, or 35,937, completed half or more of their courses without seeing them to completion, the researchers said.

“We found students in the courses who engaged with every single piece of the courseware, students who only read text or viewed videos, students who only took assessments or completed problem sets, and students representing nearly every possible combination of these behaviors,” Chuang said in the statement. “Experimentation is part of the learning process.”

--Editors: Chris Staiti, Lisa Wolfson

To contact the reporter on this story: John Lauerman in Boston at jlauerman@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Lisa Wolfson at lwolfson@bloomberg.net

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