Report on edX's first MOOC sheds light on online learners

Offering college-level educational content from prominent universities free of charge, massive open online courses are a potential game-changer in increasing access to higher learning. But despite widespread speculation about how MOOCs may or may not change our approach to higher education, relatively little has been known about the students who have embraced MOOCs so far. However, a new study on edX's first course offering has shed new light on the demographics behind MOOCs and how students are approaching them.

The recent article in academic journal Research & Practice in Assessment examined data from edX's inaugural MOOC, an engineering course called "Circuits and Electronics" offered through MIT beginning in March 2012. While the huge enrollment figures garnered by many MOOCs have been widely reported on, along with the very low proportion of enrolled students who actually complete their courses, MOOC providers have thus far refrained from releasing detailed information about MOOC students. The demographic data behind "Circuits and Electronics" offers new insights about the audience MOOCs are reaching so far.

While nearly 155,000 students enrolled in "Circuits and Electronics," only 7,000 ultimately earned a completion certificate. While MOOCs' low completion rates have been a source of concern for many observers, MIT physics professor and article author David Pritchard believes that figure is unsurprising, considering that two-thirds of students who registered never completed the first assignment. However, among students who made it through the second assignment, 40 percent earned a certificate. "That's not so different from an on-campus course," Pritchard said. "Students often sign up for several electives, then drop one."

Researchers also found new information about the backgrounds of MOOC students. A survey of those who completed the course found that most already had some kind of advanced degree: 37 percent had a bachelor's degree, while 28 percent had a master's or professional degree. Just 27 percent held only a high school degree, suggesting that at least so far, MOOCs are serving as a supplement to an existing college degree, rather than a replacement.

As for MOOC students' countries of origin, researchers found that the highest number of students hailed from the U.S. (26,333 registrants), followed by India (13,044), the United Kingdom (8,430), Colombia (5,900), and Spain (3,684). Only 622 registrants were from China, a smaller group than observers expected. Sixty-seven percent of students claimed English was their first language, followed by Spanish at 16 percent. Researchers found that non-English speakers formed Facebook groups in their native languages to offer each other support.

Researchers also discovered that collaboration could increase students' chances of success in a MOOC: students who reported working with another student offline on assignments scored an average of three points higher than students who said they'd worked alone. Participation on discussion forums also seemed to correlate with success in the course. While only 3 percent of total students participated in the course's discussion threads, students who ultimately completed the course were much more active. Twenty-eight percent of those students asked at least one question in the threads, while 41 percent answered a question and 36 percent posted a comment.

While the data is based on only one course, it helps give higher education observers a slightly better sense of who's taking MOOCs and how they're tackling the content. Not only does the information reveal interesting insights about MOOC students, it can help researchers better understand how students tackle higher learning in general. "We can study things like how much of a textbook they read, and what they said to their peers, which we can't study on campus," Pritchard said. "We can see everything the students do. And that's unprecedented in studying on-campus education."

"Data from EdX's First Course Offer Preliminary Insights into Online Learning," web.mit.edu, June 11, 2013, Jennifer Chu
"Studying Learning in the Worldwide Classroom: Research into EdX's First MOOC," rpajournal.com, Summer 2013, Lori Breslow et al.
"One Year, 27 Schools, 1 Million Enrollments," tech.mit.edu, June 7, 2013, Kath Xu