An Update on MOOCs

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I last wrote about MOOCs well over a year ago … November 2012, to be exact. For those unfamiliar with the term, MOOC refers to Massive Open Online Courses. These are courses that are available to anyone who has an internet connection. Most MOOCs are offered free of charge, some for a nominal fee. More and more MOOCs can now be completed for certification or even some form of credit.

The concept of MOOC really began over a decade ago when MIT began its OpenCourseWare program. The idea then and now is to provide knowledge and information to the widest possible audience. Many institutions have joined this effort and the number of courses has grown exponentially. MIT, Harvard and the University of California Berkeley originally formed a collaborative called edX, which offers free online courses. Other institutions have joined this collaborative (e.g., University of Texas, Georgetown, McGill). Harvard offers its MOOCs through HarvardX, MIT through MITX.

MOOCs continue to be a topic of both interest and criticism. The interest comes from those who want to explore the best ways to use online education to reach the most people … and to do so effectively. Criticism typically points to the low completion rates and questions the efficacy if “students” only participate partially.

In late January, researchers at Harvard and MIT released a study in an important step towards moving the discussion of MOOCs from opinion to data based. Their premise is important. They contend that course certification and completion rates “are misleading and counterproductive indicators of the impact and potential of open online courses.” Here are some of their findings and their analyses.

Based on data drawn from the study of 17 MOOCs offered by MIT and Harvard in 2012 and 2013, here are some key findings:

  • 841,687 people registered for the 17 MOOCs from Harvard and MIT.
  • 5 percent of all registrants earned a certificate of completion.
  • 35 percent never viewed any of the course materials.
  • 54 percent of those who “explored” at least half of the course content earned a certificate of completion.
  • 66 percent of all registrants already held a bachelor’s degree or higher.
  • 74 percent of those who earned a certificate of completion held a bachelor’s degree or higher.
  • 29 percent of all registrants were female.
  • 3 percent of all registrants were from underdeveloped countries.

What the researchers contend is that MOOCs should not be assessed in the same way that we assess conventional courses either on ground or online. Further, they agree that MOOCs are not a replacement for a traditional college experience on ground or online. But, they argue that MOOCs are both important and valuable based on these data.

MOOCs are intended for an audience different than those interested in earning a degree. They provide an inexpensive, accessible and flexible way to learn something about some topic of interest. They provide a way for tens of thousands of people to gain valuable knowledge and information without spending large sums of money and without leaving their homes. For some, they may even serve as a precursor for enrolling in a degree program.

According to one of the researchers from Harvard, the best image for a MOOC is a “blank canvas.”  “It’s reaching a completely different set of students, with different intentions, perhaps, and different ways of seeing instructors and the content of the course.”

How MOOCs will be connected or even integrated into credit bearing and degree granting programs is yet to be determined. But access to knowledge and information is always a good thing. After all, isn’t that the fundamental definition of education?

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)


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