education's digital future

Surveying the MOOC landscape

If massive open online course offerings from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology could be described as a city, then computer science would be its vibrant downtown core, surrounded by less densely populated but no less characteristic neighborhoods of STEM, humanities and social sciences courses.

That city continues to grow, researchers at the two institutions are finding, but the challenges of taking MOOCs beyond the experimental stage will require more work than improving a single metric, be it the completion rate, proportion of female learners or bachelor's degree holders, they say.

Harvard and M.I.T. on Wednesday released what researchers there called “one of the largest investigations of massive open online courses (MOOCs) to date” -- an analysis of 68 MOOCs, 1.7 million learners, 10 million hours of activity and 1.1 billion logged events. The report covers MOOCs offered by the two institutions between July 24, 2012, and Sept. 21, 2014, through edX, a MOOC provider they co-founded.
The courses have faced an intense backlash in the years since The New York Times crowned 2012 the Year of the MOOC. What was once a promise to transform higher education has since developed largely in three directions: for faculty, MOOCs provide a laboratory to experiment with digital learning; for researchers, a source of learner data; and for users, an outlet for continuing-education credentials.

Critics of MOOCs have attacked the courses’ single-digit completion rates and the fact that most learners who enroll already hold at least a bachelor’s degree. But as the Harvard and M.I.T. report shows, learner demographics and intent vary by the courses they take. Institutions that are interested in future MOOC research should be mindful of those differences, the researchers write.

“There’s no grand unifying theory of MOOCs,” said Justin Reich, the Richard L. Menschel HarvardX Research Fellow, who served as a member of the team behind the report. “Even though there are a lot of these courses, there’s an awful lot to be gained by courses and clusters on their own terms.”

The report groups the MOOCs offered by Harvard and M.I.T. into four “curricular content areas” -- one each for computer science, STEM, humanities and social science courses -- to visualize those differences (see above).

Computer science courses, for example, “continue to put the 'massive' in MOOCs,” the report reads. Although only totaling 9 of the 68 MOOCs offered, computer science courses have enrolled 611,564 learners -- more than half of the total enrollment. That tops the 448,837 learners who enrolled in STEM courses, of which there were 24.

Category Tags: