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Study of MOOCs offers insights into online learner engagement and behavior

New report, based on four years of data from edX, represents one of the largest surveys of massive open online courses to date.
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New MOOC study explores 290 MIT and Harvard online courses, a quarter-million certifications, 4.5 million participants, and 28 million participant-hours.
New MOOC study explores 290 MIT and Harvard online courses, a quarter-million certifications, 4.5 million participants, and 28 million participant-hours.
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The following is a joint announcement from MIT and Harvard University.

In 2012, MIT and Harvard University launched open online courses on edX, a non-profit learning platform co-founded by the two institutions. Four years later, what have we learned about these online “classrooms” and the global community of learners who take them?

Today, a joint research team from MIT and Harvard announced the release of a comprehensive report on learner engagement and behavior in 290 massive open online courses (MOOCs).

Building on their prior work — 2014 and 2015 benchmark reports describing their first two years of open online courses — the team’s new study reviews four years of data and represents one of the largest surveys of MOOCs to date.

"Strong collaboration has enabled MIT and Harvard researchers to jointly examine nearly 30 million hours of online learner behavior and the growth of the MOOC space," says study co-author Isaac Chuang, MIT senior associate dean of digital learning and professor of physics and of electrical engineering and computer science. "Our latest report features data from four full years of MITx and HarvardX courses, exploring in-depth information on demographics and behavior of course participants.”

The report is the latest product stemming from a cross-institutional research effort led by Chuang and study co-author Andrew Ho, chair of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning (VPAL) Research Committee and professor of education at Harvard.

“We explored 290 Harvard and MIT online courses, a quarter-million certifications, 4.5 million participants, and 28 million participant-hours,” Ho says.

“This reporting series continues to provide the benchmark for understanding the MOOC ecosystem created by Harvard and MIT,” says Dustin Tingley, professor of government at Harvard and faculty director of Harvard's Vice Provost for Advances in Learning Research Team.

Key findings

HarvardX and MITx: Four Years of Open Online Coursesprovides new insights on learner engagement in MITx and HarvardX courses launched between the summer of 2012 (when both organizations began producing online courses) and the fall of 2016. Key findings include:

  • Cumulative MOOC participation has grown steadily over four years of HarvardX and MITx course production. During these four years, 2.4 million unique users participated in one or more MITx or HarvardX open online courses, and 245,000 learner certificates were issued upon successfully completing a course. On average, 1,554 new, unique participants enrolled per day over four years. A typical MOOC certificate earner spends 29 hours interacting with online courseware.
  • Participants in a MOOC “classroom” are heterogeneous in background and intention. A typical course certifies 500 learners — with 7,900 learners accessing some course content after registering, and around 1,500 choosing to explore half or more of a course’s content. Demographic statistics of note include a median learner age of 29 years old, a two-to-one male-to-female ratio (67 percent male, 33 percent female), and significant participation from learners in other countries (71 percent international, 29 percent from the U.S.).
  • Computer science courses are the “hubs” of the MOOC curricular network. Tracking participants who enroll in multiple courses over time can reveal networks among courses and curricular areas. The new report found HarvardX and MITx computer science courses are the are the largest — compared to science, history, health, and other subjects — and route more participants to other disciplinary areas than they receive.
  • Educators are active MOOC participants. Surveys of learners in HarvardX or MITx courses also helped capture the broadest sense of teacher and instructor identity among MOOC participants. The new study found strong levels of participation from this cohort, with 32 percent of respondents self-identifying as “being” or “having been” a teacher. Of this group, 19 percent said they instructed on the same topic as the online course in which they participated, and 16 percent achieved course certification.

Collaboration with a purpose

“Each year, we release a report so that everyone can see the data for themselves,” Ho says. “We hope it helps institutions, faculty, students, and the public learn more about these unprecedented global classrooms.”

Data appendices and other analyses from the new report are also available.

Press Mentions

Inside Higher Ed

Inside Higher Ed reporter Carl Straumsheim writes that researchers from MIT and Harvard have released the latest findings from an ongoing study analyzing learner engagement and behavior in 290 MOOCs. Among other findings, researchers found that “about one-third (32 percent) of the people who participate in edX MOOCs work or used to work as teachers.”

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