Who uses MOOCs and how?

Given that millions of people register for MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), it is perhaps not surprising that much has been written to date about these still-evolving education platforms.

But what do we know about who is enrolled in MOOCs? Or how these platforms are (or aren’t) supporting learning? In today’s article we take a look at some fresh studies from the field to sketch out early observations about the usage and impacts of MOOCs.

Who uses MOOCs?

A number of previous studies have shown that most MOOC users are already well educated. In Coursera MOOCs, for example, an average of 85% of participants have one or more degrees. For London and Edinburgh-based MOOCs offered in 2013, the figure was around 70%.

However, new data from Harvardx and MITx on their first 17 edX MOOCs shows that although the most typical course registrant holds a bachelor’s degree, significant numbers of MOOC participants have acquired much less education. Some 234,463 people, or 33% of registrants, report having a high school education or lower. Furthermore, they comprise the largest proportion of students in the engineering and material science courses – both of which have college-level prerequisites.

This first data release from Harvardx and MITx also provides other insights into MOOC usage. Contrary to the trend on US campuses – where 57% of post-secondary students are female and 43% are male – the vast majority of MOOC students in the edX sample were male, representing 71% of total participants as compared to 29% for females.

This gender imbalance is even more pronounced in engineering and computer science MOOCs where female participation dips below 20%.

With regard to other demographic findings, the median age of MOOC participants in the edX sample was 26 years old. But, this varies by area of study. According to a summary of the data in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

“Students in humanities courses are four times as likely as those in engineering courses to be 40 years old or older.”

And although one-third of MOOC participants are from North America, MOOCs have a global reach – with regional distinctions:

“For example, Africans enroll at twice the rate in social science courses than other courses. South Asians are most likely to take engineering and computer science courses.”

How do they use MOOCs?

Once students are enrolled in a MOOC, what do we know about how they use the platform? Again, the findings from the Harvardx and MITx data reveal the following:

  • Over all and by course type, participants from Europe view the most amount of course content, while those from China and Japan view the least;
  • Regardless of region, the social sciences have the highest chapter view rates, and the humanities the lowest;
  • On average, registrants with a doctorate tend to view the most course content. However, students with less than a high school diploma are also among the highly engaged, ranking second in computer science, and first in the humanities courses where they completed more course material than any other education level;
  • Finally, “serial students” (the tens of thousands of registrants who sign up for multiple MOOCs) are the most engaged, looking at more course material. After six courses, however, engagement seems to drop.

Somewhat disconcertingly perhaps, almost half of the MOOC registrants never engage with any content. Furthermore,

“Only 3% of participants look at every chapter, and fewer than one in 10 view even half of the material. In fact, of those who viewed any course material, half looked at 11% of the course chapters or less.”

What can we learn from MOOC dropouts?

Other researchers are turning their attention to studying “MOOC dropouts” with the aim of designing and delivering interventions to potentially increase their achievement levels by direct and indirect means. As noted in a recent article in University World News:

“[MOOCs] do attract large enrolment numbers, but these are essentially meaningless. Only half ever begin the course and of those only around 30% are still active in Week 5 (for the London and Edinburgh 2013 MOOCs). That brings the scale down to around 7,000 fully active participants.”

As for what is behind such dropout rates, a survey administered in a recent Stanford MOOC revealed that 71% of dropouts reported course difficulty or procrastination as the main reason for leaving, according to Sherif Halawa, a PhD candidate at Stanford University’s Learning Analytics Lab.

Students’ motivation – or lack thereof – can also be a factor when it comes to MOOC dropout. A recent dropout diagnosis experiment found that students who report high motivation answered forum questions, socialised with other learners, and participated in study groups. They also had a higher rate of repeating assessment questions until correct – no matter how much free time they had. Rates of MOOC completion also seem to increase with age.

How can these findings help MOOC designers affect behaviours and learning outcomes in MOOCs? Mr Halaa suggests the following:

“Embedded interventions (that are presented when the learner visits the course site) might be more appropriate for learners with frequent activity. Inactive learners, whether due to procrastination or lack of free time, represent a case where delivered interventions (that are emailed to the learners) are more appropriate and where automatic prediction and diagnosis models become essential.”

Do MOOCs fuel collaboration?

Other recent research has also explored the topic of engagement, examining the extent to which MOOCs support a collaborative learning environment.

A study of an eight-week Open University MOOC on open translation tools and practices found that assumptions about the skills learners would bring to the MOOC – such as ability to take part in highly participatory and collaborative activities – were not necessarily matched by reality. While the study does cite examples where students “drive the learning” and form online groups, activities such as “interacting,” “watching,” and “joining in” cannot be assumed to simply happen. As noted by the study authors:

“Participants who are not sufficiently motivated and do not know how to collaborate online – as reflected, for example, in knowing how to trigger feedback and support from peers – might feel let down by the learning experience.”

The authors go on to suggest that MOOC designers could potentially mitigate this by providing learners with an explanation of what participation entails, including:

  • clear communication of the skills required to participate in the MOOC;
  • advice on how and where the participatory skills required for success in the MOOC can be acquired;
  • skillful facilitation that models suitable behaviours that participants can reproduce (networking, summarising, eliciting feedback, threading, etc.).

The international impact of MOOCs

Retention issues aside, what about the barriers that prevent some people from accessing MOOCs altogether? Limited personal broadband access, language barriers, and a need for previous knowledge to grasp concepts continue to keep MOOCs out of reach of most people in developing countries, as noted in a recent post titled “DeMOOCratising higher education“:

“In a survey of 391 MOOC students from developing countries (mostly Latin America and Southeast Asia); more than half of them held an undergraduate or Bachelor degree (52%). Holders of graduate degrees – Masters, PhDs or postdoctoral degrees – were heavily overrepresented, compared to the average rates of graduate degree holders in those regions. And only less than 1% of students claimed to have had no formal education at all.”

This would seem to indicate that MOOCs remain less available to those who most need access to a quality higher education – the undereducated and impoverished.

Furthermore, because colleges and legitimate accrediting bodies don’t accept MOOCs for credit, people in developing countries who can access MOOCs can’t earn a recognised academic credential.

Others have suggested that MOOCs are biased toward Western norms, values, and knowledge systems, given that they are primarily developed by American or British scholars and institutions.

While findings such as these have led some experts to question what impact MOOCs have had on international education opportunities, others maintain that “the developing world has much to gain from this new educational era.” MOOCs can, for example, be a source of inspiration, providing people worldwide with access to ideas, experts, and knowledge they might not otherwise encounter.

According to Ben Wildavsky, director of higher education studies at the State University of New York’s Rockefeller Institute of Government and a policy professor at University at Albany-SUNY, MOOCs can also help international learners advance their careers, particularly if the courses are short-term and lead to practical certificates.

New models

Against a larger backdrop of advancements in online learning, some interesting and innovative approaches to MOOC delivery are also beginning to emerge.

A nonprofit university in Rwanda and the US State Department’s MOOC camp are, for example, implementing blended models where local instructors use MOOCs in conjunction with in-person teaching. The University System of Maryland has also experimented with pairing its face-to-face courseware with material from Carnegie Mellon University, Coursera and Pearson courses, though not without its challenges.

Diana Laurillard, the chair of the Association for Learning Technology (ALT) and professor of learning with digital technologies at the Institute of Education in London, has also written about the potential of MOOCs to train the 1.6 million teachers needed to provide universal primary education. However, she also suggests that a more critical understanding of MOOCs is needed to address some of the education sector’s other large-scale problems, including student loan debt in the US and UK, and the increasing global demand for higher education, particularly from emerging economies.



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