Overblown-Claims-of-Failure Watch: How Not to Gauge the Success of Online Courses

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Online courses are experiencing sky-high dropout rates, and that's probably a good thing.

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Last summer, when Stanford announced its free, online artificial intelligence course, much of the attention celebrated just how *many* people would be able to partake of the intellectual delights normally reserved for the Stanford student body. "Virtual and Artificial, but 58,000 Want Course," the New York Times announced. The story led, "A free online course at Stanford University on artificial intelligence, to be taught this fall by two leading experts from Silicon Valley, has attracted more than 58,000 students around the globe -- a class nearly four times the size of Stanford's entire student body."

The number of those enrolled would eventually top out at 160,000 students, and other online courses followed suit, trumpeting one by one the massive numbers of people wanting to get in on the goods.

But the massive enrollment numbers have not been trailed by massive completion rates. About 35,000 people (or a little more than 20 percent) finished Stanford's AI course. The Times today notes that the debut course of MIT's experiment in free online education had a similar experience. "Of the 154,763 who registered for 'Circuits and Electronics,' fewer than half even got as far as looking at the first problem set, and only 7,157 passed the course," says Tamar Lewin in an interview with MIT's Anant Agarwal. Likewise, UC Berkeley professor David Patterson said that 3,500 people of 50,000 registered passed his online course. Across the board, online classes (or MOOCs, as they are sometimes called, meaning Massive Open Online Courses) are seeing consistently high drop-out rates.

But don't be disappointed! This is just as it should be. On their own, these statistics tell us little about the efficacy or quality of online learning. They tell us even less about how these experiments will or will not remake the face of American higher education. What they do tell us is that lots of people are aspirational learners -- a fact we should celebrate in its own right -- and that the bar for passing these courses is high enough that many will not make it to the end.

This is, in some ways, exactly why MOOCs are exciting. The bar for entry is so low that anyone with a passing interest can check it out -- quite unlike America's rarefied and costly system of higher education. Similarly, the costs of leaving are low, and people who don't have the time, find its not quite right for them, or just plain aren't so interested after all can leave with few consequences. If anything, the low rate of success is a sign of the system's efficiency.

Certainly if our education system had MOOCs at its core, we might worry about the big numbers of people flaking or failing out. We might see to it that students on the cusp of quitting had extra resources and help, that people didn't just struggle and give up. But for now, that's not the case at all. These courses are still in their infancy, and many pople are seeking them out just to see just what exactly a MOOC is, how it works, and maybe hear a lecture or two by an MIT or Stanford great.

So for now, all praise the MOOC dropout, our best indication yet of system just beginning to find its footing.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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