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.

Rethinking Low Completion Rates in MOOCs (Chronicle of Higher Education)

It’s common knowledge that many MOOC students drop out partway through their course. But some of these learners might consider their “incomplete” to be a complete success. A new study of completion rates among HarvardX MOOCs suggests that student intentions be incorporated into evaluations of MOOC effectiveness.

Rethinking Low Completion Rates in MOOCs
by Steve Kolowich

Completion rates in free online courses are low—to critics, laughably so. But exactly how low are they? The answer might be a matter of interpretation.

Let’s say 79,500 people sign up for a handful of massive open online courses offered by Harvard University. About 44,500 of those people say they are there to complete the course and earn a certificate. About 23,000 say they are there either to browse the course materials or to complete a few assignments. The remaining 12,000 say they haven’t decided what their goals are.

At the end of the course, 10,500 people earn a certificate of completion. So what was the completion rate?

It depends on whether you think intent matters.

Those numbers are from a new study by Justin Reich, a research fellow at Harvard. Noticing how critics had seized on the low completion rates in MOOCs, Mr. Reich decided to complicate things by figuring out whether the people who were “failing” to complete the courses had actually been trying to complete them in the first place.

Read the full article here.

MITx and HarvardX partner on their first MOOC

Banner image for VJx: a painting of a ship.For the first time, MITx has partnered with HarvardX to deliver a MOOC on the edX platform. The course is VJx Visualizing Japan (1850s–1930s): Westernization, Protest, Modernity. It starts on September 3 and runs for five weeks.

The course is taught in modules based on the MIT “Visualizing Cultures” website, which is devoted to image-driven research on Japan and China since the 19th century. The introductory module considers methodologies historians use to “visualize” the past. Three subsequent modules explore the themes of Westernization (in Commodore Perry’s 1853-54 expedition to Japan), social protest (in Tokyo’s 1905 Hibiya Riot), and modernity (in the archives of the major Japanese cosmetics company, Shiseido).

There are four instructors: Professors John Dower and Shigeru Miyagawa (of MIT) founded the Visualizing Cultures website in 2002; Professor Andre Gordon (of Harvard) and Professor Gennifer Weisenfeld (of Duke) have authored learning units for the site.

Professor Miyagawa and Professor Dower have taught MIT courses based on the materials appearing on the Visualizing Cultures website. In fact, the course they taught in Spring 2012, 21F.027 Asia in the Modern World: Images & Representations, is published on OCW and can serve prospective students as a kind of sneak preview of VJx.

As we’ve recently highlighted, Professor Miyagawa is a long-time champion of OCW and open sharing of educational resources. He has served on OCW’s Faculty Advisory Committee since OCW’s inception in 2000 and was chair of the committee from 2010–2013.

Visualizing Japan is part of a planned series of courses to run on edX. The second course, which is to be created by the University of Tokyo, will be called Visualizing Postwar Tokyo.

8 Things You Should Know About MOOCs (Chronicle of Higher Education)

The Data and Interactives Team at The Chronicle of Higher Education have combed through the HarvardX and MITx data and created eight dynamic charts that explore the gender, geography, education level, and other aspects of edX MOOC learners. They also touch upon what we still don’t know. You can view the story here, if you’re interested.

Nearly 75% who take online classes are outside US (Boston Globe)

Recently, MITx and HarvardX released de-identified learning data collected by edX. This article in the Boston Globe digs into the demographics of MOOC learners:

Of the 842,000 students who registered for the free online classes offered by the edX initiative in the 2012-2013 school year, just 28 percent were from the United States. About 13 percent were from India, followed by the United Kingdom, Brazil, Canada, and Spain.

The most typical edX student was a male with a bachelor’s degree who is 26 or older. But less than 1 in 3 students fit that profile, researchers found, suggesting there is a broad array of different types of students.

For example, one-third reported a high-school education or less, while 6 percent reported they were 50 or older. Continue reading at the Boston Globe.

If you’d like to see the edX data for yourself (and perhaps find an interesting trend), you can download it here.

Harvard goes all in for online courses (Boston Globe)

Have you ever wondered how a MOOC becomes a MOOC? Take a peak behind the scenes at the production of HarvardX courses with this article from The Boston Globe:

Harvard goes all in for online courses
The stress is on production values, props, and, yes, scholarship
By Marcella Bombardieri
May 18, 2014

CAMBRIDGE — The discussion between two Harvard historians one recent morning was a little bit Ivory Tower, a little bit Hollywood.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and Andrew Gordon, both preparing to teach a new breed of free online classes, met in the iconic Widener Library — bequeathed to Harvard University by the family of a Titanic victim — to discuss a topic in social history: the influence of the sewing machine on Japan’s modernization. They were surrounded not by leather-bound volumes but by a multimillion-dollar production studio and no fewer than five bustling staff members adjusting cameras and microphones and ensuring the scholars made their points clearly.

The production values were taken at least as seriously as the scholarship. As the professors discussed the international impact of the ornate turn-of-the-century Singer sewing machine on display between them, the crew monitored three cameras and debated which lighting source would reflect off Gordon’s glasses or wash out Ulrich’s face.

When Gordon brushed his hand on his lapel, creating a tiny static blip, they filmed a second take. When Ulrich moved a book off the sewing machine’s oak table between takes, they put it back, then filmed her picking it up so the book would not magically disappear in the video.

Quietly, Harvard has built what amounts to an in-house production company to create massive open online courses, or MOOCs, high-end classes that some prestigious universities are offering for free to anyone in the world, generally without formal academic credit. Contrary to the popular image of online classes consisting largely of video from a camera planted at the back of the lecture hall, Harvard is increasingly using mini-documentaries, animation, and interactive software tools to offer a far richer product. Continue reading

If you’d like to take a HarvardX course, click here to see what’s currently offered on edX.

Anant Agarwal on MOOC Learners: Who They Are, What Motivates Them (HuffPost Education)

Imagine a MOOC learner: Who is she? How old is she? Where does she live? Anant Agarwal, the CEO of edX, recently wrote a blog post on HuffPost Education that highlighted the diversity of MOOC learners and their goals:

MOOC learners are diverse, coming from many cultures across the globe and all ages and backgrounds. For instance, edX learners, who now number two million, range in ages from eight to 95, come from every country in the world and have varying levels of education. We see learners from elementary schoolers to Ph.D.s. Despite this diversity, three main attributes unite them: A desire to learn, a desire to connect to a global community and a desire to experience and consume content online.

The goals of our learners are as diverse as they are. When they first enroll in a course, some may be interested in engaging with homework or other interactive labs, or in completing the coursework to earn a certificate (we call these “active learners”). Others may simply want to browse and view a few of the videos. Data collected from edX shows that approximately 56 percent of learners rated “gaining understanding of the subject matter for lifelong learning,” as an extremely important reason for taking an edX course, and another 57 percent cite “learning from the best professors in the world.” However, only 27 percent rated “earning a certificate of mastery to add to my professional credentials,” as an extremely important reason for enrolling in a course. Read the entire post here.

Browse the listings on edX and enroll in a MOOC yourself. And if your goal is to earn a certificate, we have courseware related to MITx MOOCs to help you study.