Expert Commentary

Who takes Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)? A HarvardX and MITx study

2015 report from Harvard University and MIT, building on previous studies that look at participation and completion rates for their Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

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When the first Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) were established, many educators hoped they might be a revolutionary solution to some of higher education’s problems, including rising tuition and crowded campuses. As the trend has evolved in recent years — and people all over the world signed up for free online college courses — scholars have studied how complex experiences with MOOCs have been. As some educators worry about online students’ low completion rates, some institutions have begun experimenting with “small private online courses,” or SPOCs, which are seen as a hybrid between a MOOC and traditional classroom learning.

A 2015 report from a research consortium at Harvard University and MIT provides new data on the MOOC project that the two universities jointly launched in 2012. One of the largest surveys of MOOCs to date, it builds on a series of reports released in 2014 that focused on the joint project’s first year of operation.

The new report, “HarvardX and MITx: Two Years of Open Online Courses,” includes data collected between July 2012 and September 2014. Researchers used newly available data and surveys to better understand who the participants are and how they take advantage of the free online courses offered by the two institutions. The findings are based on 68 courses across HarvardX and MITx, 1.7 million participants and 10 million hours of participation.

Key findings include:

  • Participation grew substantially over the two academic years that were studied. The number of people who participated in courses rose from 604,932 in 2012-13 to more than 1.1 million in 2013-14.
  • Of the 1 million unique participants, 30% were taking more than one class. Of those, 7% were taking four or more.
  • Women were more likely to take courses in humanities, history, religion, design and education.
  • Men were attracted to classes in computer science and the so-called STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. For example, on average, 83% of students in computer-science courses were male.
  • Students’ median age increased slightly over the two years. The median age of students in Year 1 of the project was 27. It was 29 in Year 2.
  • More than 70% of participants in courses during Year 2 held a bachelor’s degree or higher, up from 65% in Year 1. The researchers suggest that “there is an opportunity to increase the number of participants and certificate-earners from underrepresented and underserved groups.”
  • Many course takers sought completion certificates for their class work. Of the 33% of participants who responded to a survey about their intentions for their coursework, 57% said they planned to earn certification for a course.
  • Nearly 25% of those respondents who said they wanted certification actually earned it. However, researchers warned against using course-completion rates as an indicator of learning and called the MOOC certification rate a “poor measure of course efficacy.”
  • Of the 21% of participants who responded to survey questions about their experience as teachers or instructors, 39% said they were a current or former teacher.

The authors conclude that their “findings suggest opportunities to prioritize particular goals for particular populations, for example, teacher usage of modules, or certificate acquisition by underrepresented students.” They emphasize that the challenge for MOOCs is the diverse participant pool with widely varied aims. “With open access comes a disparate audience with disparate goals. Our existing research has now described this well. From this baseline, advancing research on learning can proceed by focusing research strategically, to better understand the most promising mechanisms through which open online courses can advance learning.”

Keywords: MOOC, education, equality, technology, Massive Open Online Courses, Coursera, edX, Udacity

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