Completion rates in courses, and graduation rates in colleges, have long been important metrics for measuring college success. If students invest time and money into earning college credit and then fail to complete a course, this represents an implicit breach of a commitment made by the students, instructor, and institution alike. If 95 percent of students who enrolled in a residential college course dropped out or failed, that course would rightly be considered a disaster.
After digging deeper into the data, however, we decided that completion rates are at best an incomplete measure, a position that is increasingly shared by many others. We would argue further: at worst, completion rates are a measure that threatens the goals of educational access that motivated the creation of MOOCs.
Our data show that many who register for HarvardX courses are engaging substantially in courses without earning a certificate. In these course, “dropping out” is not a breach of expectations but the natural result of an open, free, and asynchronous registration process, where students get just as much as they wish out of a course and registering for a course does not imply a commitment to completing it.