Out of all the students who enroll in a MOOC, only about 5 percent complete the course and receive a certificate of accomplishment. This statistic is often cited as evidence that MOOCs are fatally flawed and offer little educational value to most students. Yet more than 80 percent of students who fill out a post-course survey say they met their primary objective. How do we reconcile these two facts?

We’re used to focusing on completion rates in higher education, but they’re not the only—or even the most meaningful—indicator of engagement in open online courses. With no cost to enroll, no penalty for dropping out, and little reward for actually earning a certificate, MOOCs are fundamentally different from traditional classes— and students use them in fundamentally different ways.

Data from more than 1.8 million students enrolled in 36 MOOCs offered by the University of Pennsylvania show that students treat MOOCs like a buffet, sampling the material according to their interests and goals. Some are curious about the subject matter and just watch one or two video lectures; others use the discussion forums to connect with their intellectual peers around the world. Of all enrolled students, nearly 60 percent watch at least one video, complete at least one assignment, or post at least once in a forum.

The data show a pattern we call the “rule of thirds”: approximately one-third of students who sign up for a course watch the first lecture. One-third of those students watch the Week Four lecture, and of those, another third watch the Week Eight lecture. Finally, one-third of the students who watch the Week Eight lecture go on to complete enough of the assignments, quizzes, and exams to pass the course and receive a certificate.

But focusing on the tiny fraction of students who complete a MOOC is misguided. The more important number is the 60 percent engagement rate. Students may not finish a MOOC with a certificate of accomplishment, but the courses nonetheless meet the educational goals of millions. 

The “Rule of Thirds” in MOOCs
(Yellow = Participate; Pink = Don't participate)