Massachusetts Institute of Technology students play football outside the Maclaurin Building in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology students play football outside the Maclaurin Building in Cambridge, Massachusetts. - 

College courses with a 95 percent dropout rate would trigger alarm bells at most universities, but researchers at Harvard University and MIT says that’s potentially fine, at least in the case of some massive open online courses, or MOOCs.

In a new report from Harvard and MIT faculty involved with the online learning programs there, researchers find that only about 5 percent of the more than 800,000 people signed up for the free courses through the online platform edX actually finished enough coursework to obtain a completion certificate. Of those who didn’t finish, some lost interest shortly after signing. Others just sampled bits and pieces of classes and activities. But the faculty members say that’s not necessarily discouraging.

“The instructors welcome these kinds of curious browsers,” says Andrew Ho, a Harvard education professor who co-authored the paper on online learning.

The findings won’t please online learning’s skeptics, though, as a core criticism of distance learning is that it doesn’t adequately engage students.

There’s also the question of how to monetize online courses.

“It brings a completely new approach to teaching,” says MIT professor Isaac Chuang, another co-author of the paper. “It’s a different economy.”

That creates challenges both for non-profits like edX, but also for-profit universities. Big public companies and private equity firms back many of the for-profit colleges. They see online courses as a way to bring in more students and more money.

Online learning is growing. As more people get comfortable with the technology, we’ll see more digital courses, from universities in the non-profit and for-profit world.

Follow Mark Garrison at @GarrisonMark