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Harvard study takes comprehensive look at MOOC participation

8 July 2015

Harvard study takes comprehensive look at MOOC participation

From a university’s perspective, MOOCs offer an innovative solution to a growing problem of rising tuition and crowded campuses. They function as a very real solution in terms of accessibility and practicality where people of all ages, backgrounds and locations can access vital learning at their own pace.

The development of MOOCs, and their rates of participation, has been the subject of a recent study by a team from Harvard University and MIT which provides new data on the range of MOOC programmes that the two universities launched jointly in 2012, according to One of the largest studies of its kind, to date, on MOOCs, it provides important statistics on participation and take up of certification.

Based on 68 courses, 1.7 million participants and 10 million hours of participation, key findings included:

  • Participation grew substantially over the two academic years that were studied. The number of people who participated in courses rose from 604,932 in 2012-13 to more than 1.1 million in 2013-14
  • More than 70% of participants in courses during Year 2 held a bachelor’s degree or higher, up from 65% in Year 1. The researchers suggest that “there is an opportunity to increase the number of participants and certificate-earners from underrepresented and underserved groups.”
  • Many course takers sought completion certificates for their class work. Of the 33% of participants who responded to a survey about their intentions for their coursework, 57% said they planned to earn certification for a course.
  • People get what they want from MOOCs, they participate, they learn but accreditation is not always the goal: “Certification may be consequential and desired for some but unnecessary and irrelevant for others.”

The researchers conclude by calling on more research to build on their work to analyse how to enhance learning, regardless of dropout rates. They conclude: “From this baseline, advancing research on learning can proceed by focusing research strategically, to better understand the most promising mechanisms through which open online courses can advance learning.”

Another recent study, again by MIT researchers, sought to examine if dropout rates in MOOCs could be predicted in advance. By comparing variables such as amount of time spent per correct homework item and amount of time spent on learning resources such as video lectures, the researchers believe that “stopouts”, as they characterise MOOC dropouts could be predicted by analysing these variables. The drafting of accurate estimates would also provide a key insight into engagement with MOOCs as expected dropouts do not become merely a discarded statistic, but a welcome contribution to the analysis on bringing learning forward. 

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