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