The free education available in massive open online courses (MOOCs) was supposed to revolutionize education. But it seems online students are pretty much the same as regular college kids. They don't bother to go to class, even in cyberspace.

A recent study from University of Pennsylvania researchers looked at 16 courses offered by Coursera (a non  for-profit educational company that offers classes from Stanford, Princeton, and other top universities) and found that almost half of students that register for MOOCs don't ever watch a single lecture in that class. In particular, the class “Rationing and Allocating Scarce Medical Resources” was the worst of the bunch, as only 27 percent of registered students saw a single lecture. Even for those that do watch a single lecture, a pittance finish the course. The same study found that just 4 percent of registered students actually completed their class.

Those numbers are "disappointing," writes The New York Times today, but they reveal that online students aren't all that different from regular college kids. College students already come up with plenty of reasons to play hooky from class, and when the courses don't take place in the real world that makes skipping even easier. Without the in-person guilt from a professor (and especially with little or no monetary investment made) what's the incentive to go? passing on class is too simple. Just hit the snooze button. The free classes create a low barrier to entry, but they also make it simple to drop out.

It's not just truancy that make MOOC students just like regular college students. Most are actually young former students. So says another study in Nature by Penn researchers, which found MOOC registered users to be overwhelmingly young, male, and well-educated, rather than older adults looking for a second-chance at a degree. A full 83 percent of MOOC students had already completed a two- or four-year advanced degree, that study noted. This demographic isn't at all what the MOOC advocates expected. For now, they are more like resumé-builders.

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