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Study explores the MOOC landscape

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Study explores the MOOC landscape

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Since MOOCs burst onto the scene to a whole lot of hoopla a few years ago, they haven’t really managed to revolutionize the higher education market as many hoped they would.

Of course, as with many technologies, that is probably the fault of over enthusiastic supporters as much as it is the MOOCs themselves.

Nevertheless, it’s interesting to read a recent analysis of MOOCs by a MIT led team of researchers.  The authors were looking specifically at the demographics of MOOC learners, and what it was that separated heavy users from the less committed.  They uncovered a number of interesting findings.

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

In addition to teachers being an active demographic, the research revealed a number of other important trends.

  1. Growth has been steady – Over the 2 year study period, from July 2012 to September 2014, an average of 1,300 new students enrolled on MITx or HarvardX courses each day.  Interestingly, whilst there was a drop off between taking your first and second courses, there was hardly any between your second and third.
  2. The desire for certification – The data revealed just over half of respondents were hoping for some kind of certification.
  3. Teachers seem to love MOOCs – Interestingly, of the 200,000 or so people who responded to the study, some 39% of them were past or present teachers.
  4. Computer science is most popular – There were around four times as many students on computer science courses as there were on science or humanity courses.  Despite having more students however, the certification rate was around half that of their less popular peers.  Interestingly, students would often start on computer science, before then branching out into other subjects.
  5. Paid certification increased completion rates – Perhaps not surprisingly, if students paid for an ID-verified certificate, they were much more likely to complete the course.

Given the findings, the authors suggest a number of areas that MOOCs can build upon to continue improving.

How MOOCs can improve

The first issue remains that of student demographics.  Whilst there is clear potential for giving the disadvantaged and disenfranchised access to higher education, MOOCs remain the preserve of those with degrees already.

“These free, open courses are phenomenal opportunities for millions of learners,” they say, “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.”

The authors also suggest that there needs to be much better cross-fertilization of ideas between online and campus based learning.

“The real potential is in the fostering of feedback loops between the two realms,” they say. “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.”

The paper also makes a plea that this research be a start point of a much larger exploration of the MOOC student body so that providers can provide a more nuanced and personalized delivery to various unique audiences.

“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,” they say. “Researchers might want to focus more specifically on well-surveyed or paying subpopulations, where we have a better sense of their expectations and motivations.”

I certainly like to think that MOOCs are here to stay, and over time they will gain a better understanding of their audience and how they can offer value to the world.  Research such as this will undoubtedly be a step towards that.

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