What the data is telling us about MOOCs

Even if participants are not earning certificates from Massive Open Online Courses, they are still gaining value, Harvard-MIT study finds.

Lately, as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have matured into their second and third years of existence, there's been growing concern about the massive drop-out rates that accompany them. However, new research on MOOCs out of MIT and Harvard University finds these new higher education vehicles are delivering results -- and still stand poised to eventually disrupt the way higher education is delivered and financed.

Attrition rates and other data from MIT and Harvard's 17 MOOCs (MITx and HarvardX) with 700,000 participants were studied by MIT's Isaac Chuang and Harvard's Andrew Ho. Chuang and Ho's findings dispelled some of the myths that have been developing around MOOCs, while uncovering other interesting findings about participation rates and demographics.

Consider this aspect of MOOCs as well -- data on course performance and attrition is readily available, in almost real time, allowing for continuous adjustment and improvement.

1. Participants are getting something out of the courses -- even if they are not attaining certificates. While large numbers of participants are not achieving certificates of completion, they are getting substance from the courses, the reviewers said. "Course completion rates, often seen as a bellwether for MOOCs, can be misleading and may at times be counterproductive indicators of the impact and potential of open online courses.The researchers found evidence of large numbers of registrants who may not have completed a course, but who still accessed substantial amounts of course content. Across the 17 MITx and HarvardX courses covered in the reports, 43,196 registrants earned certificates of completion. Additionally, another 35,937 registrants explored half or more of the units in a course without achieving certification.

“We found students in the courses who engaged with every single piece of the courseware, students who only read text or viewed videos, students who only took assessments or completed problem sets, and students representing nearly every possible combination of these behaviors,” Chuang explains. “Experimentation is part of the learning process.” An additional 469,702 registrants viewed less than half of the units in a course and another 292,852 registrants never engaged with the online content.

2. Most MOOC attrition occurs within the first two weeks of course registration. I remember back in my university days, classes were always packed the first week, then thinned out considerably after that. MOOCs follow a similar attendance pattern. On average, Chaung and Ho found, 50 percent of people left within a week or two of enrolling. "After that window, attrition rates decreased substantially," they added. "The average probability of a student ceasing to engage in the second week of the course declined to 16 percent. While the persistence rates in MOOCs look very different from those of conventional courses in higher education, they look very similar to how people interact with other Web-based media, such as video or social network sites."

3. A substantial portion of MOOC enrollees are non-college graduates, and some are from severely underdeveloped regions of the world. One of the greatest value propositions of MOOCs is they open the world's best education resources to people who ordinarily wouldn't have access. While the most typical course registrant in these initial courses was a male with a bachelor’s degree, age 26 or older, that's only about one-third of program participants. Another 33 percent reported a high-school education or less, and three percent had IP or mailing addresses from countries on the United Nations’ list of Least Developed Countries.“MOOCs are reaching many nontraditional and underserved communities of students, very different from typical students on campuses at traditional universities," said Chaung.

(Thumbnail photo: HubSpot.)

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com