Harvard and MIT make a compelling case for MOOCs

Harvard and MIT have released the draft of a working paper that makes a strong case for the potential benefits of massively open online courses, or MOOCs, despite low completion rates. The paper is rich on data about their respective HarvardX and MITx courses (although they plan to release significantly more data and analysis soon) and focuses on what I think has always been a faulty focal point of many MOOC criticisms. In a free, online environment, completion rates are vastly overrated.

This chart from the paper about sums up the message. Every person who registered for a class between Fall 2012 and Summer 2013 is represented by a dot. Those who got certified are above the horizontal line, but as the authors note, it’s the bottom-right quadrant that’s the most interesting. They’re the ones — like myself in some cases — who explored at least half the course content but either didn’t pass certification muster or never tried. But they likely learned something.

moocsIn the long run, that’s potentially the real value of MOOCs. Even if we count as a loss the 91 percent of HarvardX and MITx students who viewed less than half the course content or never did anything more than enroll in a course, 79,133 people likely learned some valuable information without paying thousands of dollars or even having to leave their homes. Of those, 43,196 actually obtained their certifications.

Although it’s not a perfect analogy, I like to think about MOOCs as kind of the education equivalents of cloud computing servers. Cloud servers in many ways are not as good as physical servers, but in some ways they’re much better. Cloud servers cost a lot less to get started on, they’re easier to use and to access, and they enable the kind of experimentation that helped fuel the startup boom over the past few years. Because it doesn’t take millions in venture capital just to buy enough gear to get a web company off the ground.

It’s a mystery why we can’t think about online courses in the same way. For a true education, they’re presently no match for an actual college, for many reasons. But for people who want to learn a new area or skill on their own time, or want to experiment with a topic to see if they like it — perhaps even as a precursor to enrolling in college — MOOCs are great. They’re the cheap, flexible, easily accessible education option that never existed.


What’s more, scientific and engineering courses — areas that many argue are key to the future global workforce — at HarvardX and MITx (this is not to mention the numbers at Coursera, Khan Academy and Udacity) reached more than 100,000 individuals without bachelor’s degrees. Enrollees with high school educations or less accounted for up to 40 percent of registrants — and, yes, certificate earners — in some of those courses. Harvard has released an early set of data tools on education levels, among other metrics, here.

Yes, talk of MOOCs and online education replacing traditional education is probably premature. Using them as an excuse to cut university funding at this point almost certainly is. But talk of them disrupting and democratizing education by at least reaching millions of people who might not have the time, money or geographic proximity to follow traditional routes is not premature.

With a little time, who knows. We might actually find that MOOCs can make a meaningful difference even if we don’t yet know what that will look like.