Harvard and MIT study: So far, MOOC courses are not growing as fast as expected

15 Apr

Moi wrote in MOOCs are trying to discover a business model which works: Jon Marcus reported in the Washington Post article, Online course start-ups offer virtually free college. http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/online-course-startups-offer-virtually-free-college/2012/01/09/gIQAEJ6VGQ_story.html?wpisrc=emailtoafriend
The New York Times reported about the online education trend in the article, Online Enterprises Gain Foothold as Path to a College Degree http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/25/education/25future.html?_r=1&emc=eta1
Whether MOOCS can develop a business model is discussed in the Economist article, The attack of the MOOCs: An army of new online courses is scaring the wits out of traditional universities. But can they find a viable business model? http://www.economist.com/news/business/21582001-army-new-online-courses-scaring-wits-out-traditional-universities-can-they

Steve Kolowich reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education article, MOOCs Are Largely Reaching Privileged Learners, Survey Finds:

Most people who take massive open online courses already hold a degree from a traditional institution, according to a new paper from the University of Pennsylvania.
The paper is based on a survey of 34,779 students worldwide who took 24 courses offered by Penn professors on the Coursera platform. The findings—among the first from outside researchers, rather than MOOC providers—reinforce the truism that most people who take MOOCs are already well educated.
The Penn researchers sent the survey to students who had registered for a MOOC and viewed at least one video lecture. More than 80 percent of the respondents had a two- or four-year degree, and 44 percent had some graduate education.
The pattern was true not only of MOOC students in the United States but also learners in other countries. In some foreign countries where MOOCs are popular, such as Brazil, China, India, Russia, and South Africa, “80 percent of MOOC students come from the wealthiest and most well educated 6 percent of the population,” according to the paper.
In other developing countries, about 80 percent of the MOOC students surveyed already held college degrees—a number staggeringly out of proportion with the share of degree holders in the general population.
“The individuals the MOOC revolution is supposed to help the most—those without access to higher education in developing countries—are underrepresented among the early adopters,” write the paper’s six authors…

Research by Harvard and MIT found MOOCs are not growing in the ways expected.

Anya Kamenetz of NPR reported in New Research Shows Free Online Courses Didn’t Grow As Expected:

Today, much of that hype has subsided (though best-selling authors and newspaper columnists are still making the case that “the end of college” is nigh). And new research on 1.7 million MOOC participants offers a more nuanced view of just what these courses are and could become.

One of the biggest MOOC platforms, edX, is run jointly as a nonprofit by Harvard and MIT. And researchers at both schools have been poring over the data from everyone who participated in 68 courses over more than two years. That’s 10 million participant-hours. Here’s what they found.

A Lot Of Teachers And A Lifeline

In one survey of a subset of users, 39 percent identified as current or former teachers, and one-in-five had taught the subject they were studying. This finding supports the general profile of MOOCsters as being already well-educated….

The study also found extreme over-representation among citizens of Greece and Spain — not only taking courses but also paying for certification. During the period under study, Greek universities were forced to suspend operations due to austerity measures, and budget cuts in Spain led to national student protests. As a result, did students look online for an education alternative? It’s a question for future research, the authors agree.

Linear, Not Exponential Growth

The first MOOCs had over 100,000 registrants each. Predictions were made (and millions of dollars invested) based on the idea that participation would be in the hundreds of millions by now. Actual interest is more modest.

So what happens now — given MOOCs have fallen far short of those early, lofty expectations?

….Some colleges are looking to expand on-campus applications of MOOCs. Reich points out that 83 percent of MIT undergrads are taking a class that uses MITx resources in some way.
Paid certificates for these online courses are another potential answer, though Reich says they’re likely to be most useful in a minority of fast-changing, highly technical fields.

Andrew Ho, a lead author of the paper at Harvard, thinks the value of certificates will increase… ”

The simplest answer to “What happens now?” is this: Despite lingering doubts about the power and profitability of MOOCs, companies and universities are still spending significant resources to create and support them for millions of people, in nearly every country, for free. It’s an investment, for now, on faith…. http://www.npr.org/blogs/ed/2015/04/11/397295495/the-future-of-free-online-courses-new-research-from-mit-and-harvard


HarvardX and MITx: Two Years of Open Online Courses Fall 2012-Summer 2014

Andrew Dean Ho
Harvard University; Harvard University – HarvardX

Isaac Chuang
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – Office of Digital Learning

Justin Reich

Harvard University – HarvardX; Harvard University – Berkman Center for Internet & Society

Cody Austun Coleman

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

Jacob Whitehill

Harvard University

Curtis G Northcutt

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

Joseph Jay Williams

Harvard University

John D Hansen

Harvard University

Glenn Lopez

Harvard University

Rebecca Petersen

Harvard University – HarvardX

March 30, 2015


What happens when well-known universities offer online courses, assessments, and certificates of completion for free? Early descriptions of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have emphasized large enrollments, low certification rates, and highly educated registrants. We use data from two years and 68 open online courses offered by Harvard University (via HarvardX) and MIT (via MITx) to broaden the scope of answers to this question. We describe trends over this two-year span, depict participant intent using comprehensive survey instruments, and chart course participation pathways using network analysis. We find that overall participation in our MOOCs remains substantial and that the average growth has been steady. We explore how diverse audiences — including explorers, teachers-as-learners, and residential students — provide opportunities to advance the principles on which HarvardX and MITx were founded: access, research, and residential education.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 37
Keywords: MOOC, massive open online course, HarvardX, MITx, edX, online learning, distance education, higher education, residential learning

Here is the press release from Harvard and MIT:

Massive Study from Harvard and MIT on MOOCs Provides New Insights on an Evolving Space
April 1, 2015

Since “Year of the MOOC” became a catchphrase in 2012, massive open online courses have had their fans and detractors. Some have claimed that online learning is a “disruptive revolution” and a harbinger of the end of residential colleges, while others have called MOOCs “mere marketing” at best or an abject failure at worst, singling out low completion rates.

Expanded data and research about MOOC participants and evidence-based assessments of online learning trends might, however, begin to move the conversation beyond anecdotes and heated opinions.
Today, a joint Harvard and MIT research team published one of the largest investigations of MOOCs (massive open online courses) to date. Building on their prior work—a January 2014 report describing the first year of open online courses launched on edX, a non-profit learning platform founded by the two institutions—the latest effort incorporates another year of data, bringing the total to nearly 70 courses in subjects from programming to poetry.

“We explored 68 certificate-granting courses, 1.7 million participants, 10 million participant-hours, and 1.1 billion participant-logged events,” said the study’s co-lead author Andrew Ho, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and chair of the HarvardX research committee. The research team also used surveys to ¬gain additional information about participants’ backgrounds and their intentions.

Ho and MIT’s Isaac Chuang, professor of physics, professor of electrical engineering and computer science, and senior associate dean of digital learning, led a group effort that delved into the demographics of MOOC learners, analyzed participant intent, and looked at patterns that “serial MOOCers,” or those taking more than one course, tend to pursue.

“What jumped out for me was the survey that revealed that in some cases as many as 39% of our learners are teachers,” said Chuang. “This finding forces us to broaden our conceptions of who MOOCs serve and how they might make a difference in improving learning.”

Key Findings

The researchers conducted a trend analysis that showed a rising share of female, US-based, and older participants, as well as a survey analysis of intent, revealing that almost half of registrants were not interested in or unsure about certification. In this study, the researchers redefined their population of learners from those who simply registered for courses (and took no subsequent action) — a metric used in prior findings and often cited by MOOC providers — to those who participated (i.e., by logging into the course at least once.)

Participation in HarvardX and MITx open online courses has grown steadily, while participation in repeated courses has declined and then stabilized
From July 24, 2012, through on September 21, 2014, the end of the study period, an average of 1,300 new participants joined a HarvardX or MITx course each day, for a total of 1 million unique participants and 1.7 million total participants. With the increase in second and third versions of courses, the researchers found that participation in second versions declined by 43%, while there was stable participation between versions two and three. There were outliers, such as the HarvardX course CS50x, “Introduction to Computer Science,” which doubled in size, perhaps due to increased student flexibility: Students in this course could participate over a year-long period at their own pace and complete at any time.

A slight majority of MOOC takers are seeking certification, and many participants are teachers
Among the one-third of participants who responded to a survey about their intentions, 57% stated their desire to earn a certificate; nearly a quarter of those respondents went on to earn certificates. Further, among participants who were unsure or did not intend to earn a certificate, 8% ultimately did so. These learners appear to have been inspired to finish a MOOC even after initially stating that they had no intention of doing so.

Among 200,000 participants who responded to a survey about teaching, 39% self-identified as a past or present teacher. 21% of those teachers reported teaching in the course topic area. The strong participation by teachers suggests that even participants who are uninterested in certification may still make productive use of MOOCs.

Academic areas matter when it comes to participation, certification, and course networks
Participants were drawn to computer science courses in particular, with per-course participation numbers nearly four times higher than courses in the humanities, sciences, and social sciences. That said, certificate rates in computer science and other science- and technology-based offerings (7% and 6%, respectively) were about half of those in the humanities and social sciences.

The larger data sets also allowed the researchers to study those participating in more than one course, revealing that computer science courses serve as hubs for students, who naturally move to and from related courses. Intentional sequencing, as was done for the 10-part HarvardX Chinese history course “ChinaX,” led to some of the highest certification rates in the study. Other courses with high certification rates were “Introduction to Computer Science” from MITx and “Justice” and “Health in Numbers” from HarvardX.

Those opting for fee-based ID-verified certificates certify at higher rates
Across 12 courses, participants who paid for “ID-verified” certificates (with costs ranging from $50 to $250) earned certifications at a higher rate than other participants: 59%, on average, compared to 5%. Students opting for the ID-verified track appear to have stronger intentions to complete courses, and the monetary stake may add an extra form of motivation.

Questions and Implications

Based upon these findings, Chuang and Ho identified questions that might “reset and reorient expectations” around MOOCs.

First, while many MOOC creators and providers have increased access to learning opportunities, those who are accessing MOOCs are disproportionately those who already have college and graduate degrees. The researchers do not necessarily see this as a problem, as academic experience may be a requirement in advanced courses. However, to serve underrepresented and traditionally underserved groups, the data suggest that proactive strategies may be necessary.

“These free, open courses are phenomenal opportunities for millions of learners,” Ho emphasized, “but equity cannot be increased just by opening doors. We hope that our data help teachers and institutions to think about their intended audiences, and serve as a baseline for charting progress.”
Second, if improving online and on-campus learning is a priority, then “the flow of pedagogical innovations needs to be formalized,” said Chuang. For example, many of the MOOCs in the study used innovations from their campus counterparts, like physics assessments from MIT and close-reading practices from Harvard’s classics courses. Likewise, residential faculty are using MOOC content, such as videos and assessment scoring algorithms, in smaller, traditional lecture courses.
“The real potential is in the fostering of feedback loops between the two realms,” said Chuang. “In particular, the high number of teacher participants signals great potential for impact beyond Harvard and MIT, especially if deliberate steps could be taken to share best practices.”

Third, advancing research through MOOCs may require a more nuanced definition of audience. Much of the research to date has done little to differentiate among the diverse participants in these free, self-paced learning environments.

“While increasing completion has been a subject of interest, given that many participants have limited, uncertain, or zero interest in completing MOOCs, exerting research muscle to indiscriminately increase completion may not be productive,” explained Ho. “Researchers might want to focus more specifically on well-surveyed or paying subpopulations, where we have a better sense of their expectations and motivations.”

More broadly, Ho and Chuang hope to showcase the potential and diversity of MOOCs and MOOC data by developing “Top 5” lists based upon course attributes, such as scale (an MIT computer science course clocked in with 900,000 participant hours); demographics (the MOOC with the most female representation is a museum course from HarvardX called “Tangible Things,” while MITx’s computing courses attracted the largest global audience); and type and level of interaction (those in ChinaX most frequently posted in online forums, while those in an introduction to computer science course from MITx most frequently played videos.)

“These courses reflect the breadth of our university curricula, and we felt the need to highlight their diverse designs, philosophies, audiences, and learning outcomes in our analyses,” said Chuang. “Which course is right for you? It depends, and these lists might help learners decide what qualities in a given MOOC are most important to them.”
Additional authors on the report included

Justin Reich, Jacob Whitehill, Joseph Williams, Glenn Lopez, John Hansen, and Rebecca Petersen from Harvard; and Cody Coleman and Curtis Northcutt from MIT.

With any education opportunity the prospective student and their family must do their homework and weigh the pros and cons of the institution with with the student’s goals and objectives. In answer to the question of whether online college is a threat to traditional bricks and mortar universities, it depends. The market will answer that question because many students do not attend college to receive a liberal arts education, but to increase employment opportunities. If the market accepts badges and certificates, then colleges may be forced to look at the costs associated with a traditional college degree.


Verifying identity for online courses


Will ‘massive open online courses’ (MOOCS) begin to offer credit?


Is online higher ed a threat to bricks and mortar colleges?


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