What Two Years of MOOCs Can Tell Us

Diagram of many interconnected circles, each representing one MOOC.

This visualization of MOOCs from HarvardX (blue nodes) and MITx (red nodes) highlights how over 300,000 unique registrants participated in sequences of multiple courses.

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

Researchers at Harvard and MIT have just published a study of user behavior in 68 MOOCs offered by HarvardX and MITx on the edX platform from Fall 2012 through Summer 2014.

HarvardX and MITx: Two Years of Open Online Courses runs to 37 pages and analyzes massive amounts of data: 1.7 million participants, 10 million participant hours, and 1.1 billion participant logged events. But don’t be intimidated. The study opens with a convenient executive summary, and all terms (like participant and logged event) are clearly defined in a brief glossary.

Harvard’s Andrew Ho and MIT’s Isaac Chuang are the lead authors of the report, which identifies trends and patterns in demographics and outcomes, reveals the top five courses in a variety of categories (like female participation and participation by people without Bachelor’s degrees), and visualizes the emerging MOOC curriculum by participation in multiple courses in sequence.

The report reveals a dynamic and subtly changing situation, in which the numbers both of total participants and of unique participants are steadily rising, and the make-up of the population is becoming slightly older and more female.

Perhaps the most interesting finding from surveys of MOOC participants is that as many as 39% are teachers, and some 21% of them are taking courses in their areas of expertise, suggesting that there be a substantial multiplier effect in classrooms around the world.

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