Education has come a long way since the days of one-roomed school houses. In elementary school classrooms, single desks are being abandoned for group tables; women are earning bachelor’s and graduate degrees at a higher rate than men; and Smart Boards are replacing blackboards and chalk. But, one of the most revolutionary and controversial changes to the face of schooling is the MOOC–the Massive Open Online Course.

The most recent controversy surrounding these online courses is the fact that a vast number of registrants fail to complete their them. With the debate raging over the importance of these findings, one is forced to ask, “Can a MOOC’s success be measured by the number of graduates?” And, if not, how can one possibly quantify its success?”

The Numbers

Just as their name suggests, MOOCs boast massive enrollment. In fact, an article in MIT’s The Tech, “Are Massive Online Open Courses Right For You?,” purports that at the end of 2013, 4.5 million students were enrolled in a MOOC and that 6 million are projected to be enrolled by 2015. That’s a huge volume of potential learners. The operative word being “potential”

After all, a 2013 University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education study reveals that only 4 percent of MOOC users actually complete their courses. Surely, one must conclude that in light of these astonishing statistics, MOOCs fail to deliver, right? Not necessarily.

The Big Picture

In order to determine whether or not a MOOC has done its job, one must first identify what that job is. Why do people enroll in MOOCs?

  • The Curious. With many MOOCs being free of charge, there are going to be a large number of “tire-kickers” and Curious Georges who simply sign up to see what it’s all about. According to Time‘s “All Hail MOOCs! Just Don’t Ask if They Actually Work,” a survey conducted by Qualtric revealed that “75 percent said the main reason they signed up for a MOOC was that it didn’t cost anything.” In these cases, once their curiosity is satiated, the MOOC has, in fact, done its job.
  • The Post-Graduates. A vast number of MOOC students already possess a degree and simply want to brush up on some skills to help with their current job or land another one. According to Forbes‘ “MOOCs–Completion is not important,” 79 to 86 percent of MOOC students already have a degree. In light of these statistics and the fact that the vast majority of these students are not using a MOOC to earn a degree, it seems unfair to measure their effectiveness based on how many degrees are actually awarded.
  • The New Type of Student. Is it fair to measure the success of a non-traditional educational format using traditional methods? Probably not. When examining a MOOC student’s success, it is important to realize that they may have gotten exactly what they wanted out of the course, but we have no way of quantifying that. For instance, “Creating a Learning Environment with MOOCs” refers to a group of high school students who enrolled in a MOOC on pre-exam preparation. While these learners did not earn their certificates, they did not perceive themselves as having dropped out of the course either. They met their goals and completion of the course was irrelevant.

The Responsibility

When MOOC’s do fail to “get the job done,” is it an inherent flaw of the MOOC or is it a fault that lies squarely on the learner’s shoulders? Or is it a bit of both?

  • The Motivation. Students of a traditional college education are under financial pressure–either due to student loans or an investment by their parents–to work hard and earn their degree. This is not the case for someone who has invested very little or no money in a MOOC.
  • The Stressors. MOOC students tend to be older on average than those that attend brick and mortar institutions. These individuals often have multiple competing responsibilities and life roles that impede their ability to stay on focus and complete their coursework.
  • The Misconception. Individuals who are new to any form of online learning often have difficulty adjusting to it. “How to Stay Motivated with Online Learning” warns that the freedom involved with online courses may work well for some, but it can also lead to putting off work. And once students lose a grip on their studies, they are often tempted to simply give up. Especially if their financial investment is minimal.

As you can see, there are no clear-cut answers when it comes to assessing a MOOC’s ability to impart knowledge and meet a student’s needs. If you are curious to see what MOOCs are all about, the best advice is to try one for yourself. Even if it does lead to skewed numbers in someone’s future study.

Have you enrolled in a MOOC? What was your take on the whole experience? Did it live up to your expectations or fall short?