The article on the evaluation of the first year of Harvard MOOCs in edX concludes that registrants in these courses are not «regular students» and their behaviour differ from the traditional K-12 or post-secondary institutions. As registration has no costs or commitment, certification rates are usually low.
Some people may enroll just to access a particular aspect of a course. Partcipants engage in different ways within and across the courses and course are built to meet diverse forms of participation. Certificate earning may not be the most important issue for many participants. Some may just want to watch some videos and read some texts. Some may focus on a few chapters and then go explore other courses. Some may want to test themselves and engage in assessment. The diversity of motivations is revealed in the data and certification rates is misleading the representation of this diversity.
MOOCs are not a monolithic collection of courses. The nature of curses may differ a lot and the kind of participants they atract may also differ. The Harvard Health courses atract more highly educated participants and atract many foreign registrants, this is different from the computer science courses. Different contexts for different sectors.
There’s still much investment required in assessment research. Pre-testing may be required to measure what participants have learnt at the end of a course.
Open online courses are neither useless nor the salvation of HE. In certain sectors they may be extremely important in other ones not so relevant. The ability to identify new opportunities will improve with continued research.