MIT and Harvard release working papers on open online courses

Reveal how students learn and how technologies can facilitate effective teaching both on-campus and online
January 23, 2014

The cover image for the series of working papers released by MIT and Harvard University today. The papers analyzed 17 online courses offered on the edX platform. (Credit: Andrew Ho and Isaac Chuang)

MIT and Harvard University have released a series of working papers (open access) based on 17 online courses offered on the edX platform.

Run in 2012 and 2013, the courses analyzed drew upon diverse topics — from ancient Greek poetry to electromagnetism — and an array of disciplines, from public health to engineering to law.

The working paper series features detailed reports about individual courses; these reports reveal differences and commonalities among massive open online courses (MOOCs). In the coming weeks, data sets and interactive visualization tools will also be made available.

Led by Isaac Chuang, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, and Andrew Ho, an associate professor in Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, the collaborative research effort was in service of a mutual goal — “to research how students learn and how technologies can facilitate effective teaching both on-campus and online” — part of a mission statement established when MIT and Harvard joined to form edX, the not-for-profit online learning platform, in May 2012.

The papers analyze an average of 20 gigabytes of data per course and draw on interviews with faculty and course teams as well as student metrics.

Key takeaways

  • 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.
  • Most MOOC attrition happened after students first registered for a course. On average, 50 percent of people left within a week or two of enrolling. After that window, attrition rates decreased substantially. The average probability of a student ceasing to engage in the second week of the course declined to 16 percent.
  • Given the “massive” scale of some MOOCs, small percentages are often still large numbers of students — and signify a potentially large impact. Demographic information about registrants can be misleading without context. The most typical course registrant in these initial courses was a male with a bachelor’s degree, age 26 or older. However, that profile describes fewer than one in three registrants (222,847, or 31 percent).

Looking ahead, Chuang and Ho emphasize that the rise of MOOCs has sparked and encouraged experimentation in teaching and in pedagogical research, benefiting both teachers and students. New tools, they contend, give faculty more flexibility and offer novel opportunities to run experiments and gather data. Likewise, online learning platforms put students in the driver’s seat, allowing an individual to engage in a manner that best suits his or her needs.