Who are the students taking this course, and how much did they participate? The degree and kind of participation in the course varied considerably among those who signed up for 8.MReV. Furthermore, like many MOOCs, this course remained open to new registrants, so that enrollment continued to rise through the semester. This asynchronicity is a key feature of open online courses. One feature of low barriers to registration, for example, is a large number of students who registered but never actually viewed any course material.

To illustrate the considerable variability in participants by their actions, we identify four subpopulations of interest within this course: those who (1) only registered, and never accessed the courseware, (2) only viewed, i.e. non-certified registrants who accessed at least one chapter but less than half of chapters, (3) only explored, i.e. non-certified registrants who accessed half or more of the chapters, and those who were (4) certified, by earning a final grade at or higher than the cutoff.

Certificate earners are the most conventional subpopulation, defined by crossing a certain threshold of achievement on quantitative assessments (well defined for 8.MReV). The “only explored” subpopulation seeks to represent students having interacted with a considerable amount of course material, while the “only viewed” subpopulation seeks to highlight participants having only sampled the course. Both the “only explored” and “only viewed” subpopulations contain participants with highly varying levels of activity (as highlighted in the following two sections on persistence and activity). The fourth sub-population of “only registered” contains users that registered, but never accessed the courseware. This is a substantial number in 8.MReV and many of the MITx courses on edX.

For 8.MReV, the numbers of students who only registered, only viewed, only explored, or were certified, are shown in Fig. 3. The categories are defined as disjoint sets by using the “only” terminology, but the figure highlights the nested nature of registration, viewing, exploring, and certification. Students who were certified certainly viewed the course, but not all viewers were certified. Similarly, “explored” and “certified” are both subsets of viewed.

Figure 3. Participants separated into four mutually exclusive and exhaustive categories (not to scale).

Figure 3