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Summary:

A new study of data from massive open online courses offered by Harvard and MIT professors paints a different — and welcome — picture of the state of online education. Completition rates might be low, the authors argue, but that’s a misleading stat.

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Harvard and MIT have released the draft of a working paper that makes a strong case for the potential benefits of massively open online courses, or MOOCs, despite low completion rates. The paper is rich on data about their respective HarvardX and MITx courses (although they plan to release significantly more data and analysis soon) and focuses on what I think has always been a faulty focal point of many MOOC criticisms. In a free, online environment, completion rates are vastly overrated.

This chart from the paper about sums up the message. Every person who registered for a class between Fall 2012 and Summer 2013 is represented by a dot. Those who got certified are above the horizontal line, but as the authors note, it’s the bottom-right quadrant that’s the most interesting. They’re the ones — like myself in some cases — who explored at least half the course content but either didn’t pass certification muster or never tried. But they likely learned something.

moocsIn the long run, that’s potentially the real value of MOOCs. Even if we count as a loss the 91 percent of HarvardX and MITx students who viewed less than half the course content or never did anything more than enroll in a course, 79,133 people likely learned some valuable information without paying thousands of dollars or even having to leave their homes. Of those, 43,196 actually obtained their certifications.

Although it’s not a perfect analogy, I like to think about MOOCs as kind of the education equivalents of cloud computing servers. Cloud servers in many ways are not as good as physical servers, but in some ways they’re much better. Cloud servers cost a lot less to get started on, they’re easier to use and to access, and they enable the kind of experimentation that helped fuel the startup boom over the past few years. Because it doesn’t take millions in venture capital just to buy enough gear to get a web company off the ground.

It’s a mystery why we can’t think about online courses in the same way. For a true education, they’re presently no match for an actual college, for many reasons. But for people who want to learn a new area or skill on their own time, or want to experiment with a topic to see if they like it — perhaps even as a precursor to enrolling in college — MOOCs are great. They’re the cheap, flexible, easily accessible education option that never existed.

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What’s more, scientific and engineering courses — areas that many argue are key to the future global workforce — at HarvardX and MITx (this is not to mention the numbers at Coursera, Khan Academy and Udacity) reached more than 100,000 individuals without bachelor’s degrees. Enrollees with high school educations or less accounted for up to 40 percent of registrants — and, yes, certificate earners — in some of those courses. Harvard has released an early set of data tools on education levels, among other metrics, here.

Yes, talk of MOOCs and online education replacing traditional education is probably premature. Using them as an excuse to cut university funding at this point almost certainly is. But talk of them disrupting and democratizing education by at least reaching millions of people who might not have the time, money or geographic proximity to follow traditional routes is not premature.

With a little time, who knows. We might actually find that MOOCs can make a meaningful difference even if we don’t yet know what that will look like.

  1. So MOOCs are the new form of PBS and Discovery Channel? There is a lot be said for gaining knowledge, even more for skills. I am still trying to figure out where MOOCs run. It would be interesting to see how many submitted exercises and tried to apply the knowledge. That said, it’s like what Marvin Minksy said about TV. Imagine how powerful it could be if it was good.

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    1. Derrick Harris Tuesday, January 21, 2014

      I think that’s an unfair comparison. My firsthand experience with the two MOOCs that I actually invested time in (before running out of it) is that watching lessons, rewinding, doing the exercises, etc., was actually pretty useful and I can honestly say I learned something, even if I didn’t complete the courses. And once they’re programmed, operating them should require fairly little overhead. But you’re right that it’s hard to measure the actual application of any gleaned knowledge.

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  2. Lynn McAllister Tuesday, January 21, 2014

    Hello Mr. Harris,
    I completed my undergraduate and graduate, now completing my doctoral degree online. I would personally like to see MOOCs take hold and be a source of credit courses in the future. Do you foresee this potential ever taking hold? I am new to the MOOCs discussion and trying to learn all I can.
    thank you,

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  3. I recently took a Coursera course in a subject I knew in order to see how it functioned. In some ways, the real benefit was the spontaneous discussions that appeared after the lecture materials had been posted. Contributing to the discussion often clarified points that were a bit ambiguous in the lecture video. The ability to support other students was a valuable lesson, and it was clear that other students were benefiting from the various interactions they were getting. It was like a large study group or discussion section of a course.

    A real benefit of such asynchronous communication is that discussions can interacted with after some thought, rather than crammed into designated classroom periods. This gives students time to think about an answer, and respond if it does help in solving a problem.

    Early days to be sure, but the germ of education via online systems where you are not alone but can interact with other students looks like a great way to learn.

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  4. In the discussion of MOOCs (which are largely free), unfortunately the online courses from prestigious universities like Harvard and Stanford – which are not free but neither are they big enough to warrant taking out 2nd and 3rd mortgages – are suffering. I attended one at Harvard recently which was restricted by number of students; still cost me some money; had a high caliber of instruction; was demanding; and well worth it.

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  5. I believe that MOOCs allow the single course students like myself to re-enter the university. I believe that when you only use completion as your determinant – you are eliminating much of your sample.

    I have a technical background with a social science degree and the required Technical Master’s degree. My thirst for learning is varied. I am not interested in tak8ing every course in a degree that simply would not help me in my career.

    Why should I pay $4,000 for a course that is only a hobby and not oleading towards a degree?

    Why should I pay $50,000 for a degree when I know as much or more than half the teachers – and am only interested in taking one or two courses.

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  6. I agree 100%. I have all the degrees I need but I am learning an incredible amount of information in one of the Duke university courses. It will make me a better lecturer.

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