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MOOC certifications not a measure of learning, say edX researchers

A study released by joint researchers at Harvard and MIT into MOOCs on the edX platform has concluded that completion rates are a poor measure of the course’s efficacy. Findings from one of the largest surveys of MOOC students’ intentions and backgrounds, shows that while certification may be desirable for some participants, it’s irrelevant for others.

Scene from the "How edX works" video

The data reveal that the typical MOOC student profile- 20-something, male, computer scientists based in the US– is shifting

The study looks at 1.7 million participants, 10 million participation hours and 1.1 billion participant-logged events on edX- a non-profit MOOC platform founded by the two institutions in 2012.

Findings reveal that almost 60% of participants intend to earn a certificate at the end of the course but only 24% ultimately did.

In the report, the researchers argue that simply measuring if a student has learned anything from the course by whether or not they earn a certificate overlooks the “online browsers, online explorers and teachers-as-leaners”.

“Overall certification rates are not useful as target metrics for MOOCs,” the report states, but adds that “any backlash against the metric should not extend to the commendable goal of certification.”

The data reveals that the typical MOOC student profile- 20-something, male, computer scientists based in the US– is shifting as motivations for enrolment change– something that researchers argue should spur universities to rethink who their target audiences are.

“Overall certification rates are not useful as target metrics for MOOCs”

The shifts have been slight but they indicate a direction toward older, more educated, US-based females.

“What jumped out for me was the survey that revealed that in some cases as many as 39% of our learners are teachers,” said Isaac Chuang, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science and senior associate dean of digital learning at MIT.

“This finding forces us to broaden our conceptions of who MOOCs serve and how they might make a difference in improving learning.”

It goes on to encourage institutions to look at the certification rates of participants who state their intention to earn certificates or participants who reverse their intentions from non-certification to certification as ways of measuring efficacy for those groups.

Other revelations from the data show that computer science courses attracted almost four times the number of enrolments as their STEM, humanities or health & social science counterparts.

MITx’s computing courses attracted the largest global audience while a museum course on HarvardX had the most female participants.

Participation in HarvardX and MITx courses on edX- one of the largest MOOC platforms– has grown steadily through the first two years with an average of 1,300 unique participants entered daily.

On average however, courses are getting smaller, as enrolments lag for courses in their second round and launch courses attract smaller numbers of initial participants.

“If our trends generalise, then course instructors and administrators who hope to reach the relatively high numbers of participants from our Year 1 data should not expect to do so without a strategy for recruitment and visibility,” the report advises.

“The high number of teacher participants signals great potential for impact beyond Harvard and MIT, especially if deliberate steps could be taken to share best practices”

Researchers also recommend using MOOCs to increase blended learning on campuses like using MOOC content in traditional lecture courses.

“The real potential is in the fostering of feedback loops between the two realms,” Chuang said. “In particular, the high number of teacher participants signals great potential for impact beyond Harvard and MIT, especially if deliberate steps could be taken to share best practices.”

edX was founded and supported by Harvard and MIT but the platform now offers more than 400 courses from partners including UC Berkeley, Peking University and Seoul National University.

The largest MOOC platform to date is US-based for-profit Coursera, which launched at the same time as edX and has attracted 4.3 million participants and offers 600 courses from universities around the world.

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6 Responses to MOOC certifications not a measure of learning, say edX researchers

  1. Having enrolled in two MOOC courses since 2014, I believe that these courses are great. However, I can understand why people do not complete it. There is far too much material packed in a six week or eight week course. While the courses state that one needs to spend six to eight hours per week, most times it takes more than twice that amount of time. While I was tempted to drop out on account of the volume of work, I did persevere because I benefitted from the courses.

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