Jack M. Wilson,
Distinguished Professor of Higher Education, Emerging Technologies, and
Innovation and President Emeritus of the University of Massachusetts
MIT has recently released a report on the experience they have had with MOOCs
in the edX program in 2012 and 2013.
Report: "MIT and Harvard release working papers on open online
"Research findings challenge common misconceptions, offer surprising insights
about how students engage with MOOCs"
Isaac Chuang, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT,
and Andrew Ho, associate professor in Harvard’s Graduate School of Education
It includes data from 17 Courses at Harvard and MIT in 2012-2013 "with
841,687 registrations from 597,692 unique users. Each course yielded
roughly 20 GB of data.
I plotted the data that they provided to show the flow through the
The report paints a "glass half full" picture of MOOCs and I cannot argue with
these interpretations, however I wish they could have been more forthcoming with
some of the limitations that have been clearly revealed. I have written at
length on these in other articles. The MYTHS
of MOOCs is a good summary of some concerns, but my
website contains more detailed
presentations. One of the major problems with MOOCs and their proponents
is that MOOCs have been seriously over-hyped in a way that is incredibly
misleading. The report demonstrates clearly that MOOCs can be a valuable
way of delivering information to those who seriously desire that information and
have the self discipline to acquire it. The report makes no effort to
determine what competencies have been acquired by those who get "Certificates of
Completion." What does completion actually mean?
This will require very carefully done pre- and post-testing of students to
determine the learning in the course. The recent National Academy of
Science report would give some guidance as to how that might be done. (Adapting
to a Changing World--Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics
Education ). Although this details the role of education
research in restructuring physics education, the approach would be of great
benefit to understanding more about learning in MOOCs. Perhaps additional
data will be forthcoming from that already collected?
edX-MIT and Harvard Course Experience 2012-2013
||Engaged but viewed less than half
|Viewed more than half
||Viewed more than half but did not complete
Certificate of completion
Takeaway 1: 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.
Takeaway 2: 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.
Takeaway 3: Given the “massive” scale of some MOOCs, small percentages
are often still large numbers of students — and signify a potentially
This report clearly shows that MOOCs are not yet ready to take a significant
role in undergraduate education and cannot be used to replace traditional
courses in a misguided effort to save money. The hype around MOOCs has not
only damaged the prospects for more established (and more carefully evaluated)
approaches to online education, it has put the future of MOOC development under
We have seen a dramatic turn about in the perceptions of MOOCs in a very short
time. Sebastian Thrun, the Founder of Udacity said "In 50 years there
will be only 10 institutions in the world delivering higher education and
Udacity has a shot of being one of them." That was only a year ago.
Now he is saying: "We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines,
and at the same time, I was realizing, we don’t educate people as others wished,
or as I wished. We have a lousy product,” -Sebastian Thrun, Fast Company
Magazine –Jan 2014.
In my opinion, it is time to eradicate the hype and unrealistic expectations
(and fears) about MOOCs and begin to carefully* evaluate them to find out
exactly how they might improve the quality and access to education.
Eventually we might even find a way to use them to reduce cost, but right now
MOOCs are a wonderful way for interested persons to explore interesting topics
-a more academic version of Google!
* (love to carefully split an infinitive)