Design and decision-making for marine protected areas (MPAs) on coral reefs require prediction of MPA effects with population models. Modeling of MPAs has shown how the persistence of metapopulations in systems of MPAs depends on the size and spacing of MPAs, and levels of fishing outside the MPAs. However, the pattern of demographic connectivity produced by larval dispersal is a key uncertainty in those modeling studies. The information required to assess population persistence is a dispersal matrix containing the fraction of larvae traveling to each location from each location, not just the current number of larvae exchanged among locations. Recent metapopulation modeling research with hypothetical dispersal matrices has shown how the spatial scale of dispersal, degree of advection versus diffusion, total larval output, and temporal and spatial variability in dispersal influence population persistence. Recent empirical studies using population genetics, parentage analysis, and geochemical and artificial marks in calcified structures have improved the understanding of dispersal. However, many such studies report current self-recruitment (locally produced settlement/settlement from elsewhere), which is not as directly useful as local retention (locally produced settlement/total locally released), which is a component of the dispersal matrix. Modeling of biophysical circulation with larval particle tracking can provide the required elements of dispersal matrices and assess their sensitivity to flows and larval behavior, but it requires more assumptions than direct empirical methods. To make rapid progress in understanding the scales and patterns of connectivity, greater communication between empiricists and population modelers will be needed. Empiricists need to focus more on identifying the characteristics of the dispersal matrix, while population modelers need to track and assimilate evolving empirical results.