The MOOC Survivors

September 12, 2012

As the MOOC buzz continues to reverberate across higher education, the question of which subjects and populations these massive open online courses are best-suited to remains a mystery. The data released so far by the companies that run MOOC platforms have offered little insight beyond what countries students are logging in from and some information on who took a particular computer science course.

But new data from edX, the nonprofit MOOC platform financed by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, offers a limited peek into the basic demographics of a key population: students who not only registered for a particular MOOC, but who performed well.

Observers have gawked at the sheer volume of registrations for MOOCs. So far the free online courses, especially those designed to match the difficulty of a top university course, have seen students drop out at rates that are nearly as dramatic as the initial enrollments.

This was particularly true of edX’s first course, a virtual lab-based electrical engineering course called Circuits & Electronics: 155,000 students registered for the course when it opened in February, but only 23,000 earned a single point on the first problem set, and 9,300 passed the midterm. When the course ended, 8,200 students took the final. Just over 7,000 earned a passing grade and the option of receiving an informal certificate from edX.

When considering what sort of threat MOOCs might pose to certain territories on the higher education landscape, the demography of students who register for MOOCs may not be as relevant as that of the much smaller subgroup of students who perform well enough to earn a credential.

That is the subgroup researchers at edX were trying to reach when they surveyed roughly 6,000 of the Circuits & Electronics students who were still around at the end of the course. Although the survey was not necessarily limited to those who passed the final exam, the timing of the survey made it likely to be noticed only by students who had performed well, according to Anant Agarwal, the president of edX and one of the co-instructors of Circuits & Electronics.

The findings are limited and have not been formally compiled or analyzed — Agarwal relayed them to Inside Higher Ed after logging into the platform’s back end from his Cambridge, Massachusetts office. But perhaps the most interesting piece of data is that 80 percent of respondents said they had taken a “comparable” course at a traditional university prior to working their way through Circuits & Electronics.   

Of that 80 percent, nearly two-thirds said the MOOC version was better than the “comparable” course they claimed to already have taken. Only 1 percent said it was worse.

Agarwal called the near-unanimity with which students seemed to prefer his MOOC to a “comparable” traditional course “stunning.” But he also acknowledged the ambiguity of the question. “Comparable” could be read a number of ways — some students might have taken a similar course in electronic engineering, but others might have simply been referring to university courses in general.

One way to read the finding is to say that although the Circuits & Electronics course was open to anyone, anybody who had not already paid for traditional education would be ill-equipped to succeed in the course.

To some extent, Agarwal expected that would be the case for Circuits & Electronics, which listed certain physics and math courses as prerequisites. The survey findings affirmed that the successful students were well-educated: about 78 percent of the respondents said they had previously taken a course on vectors or differential equations. Only 4 percent said they had never taken calculus.

But the edX president cautioned against leaping to dramatic assumptions. “I would probably not draw the conclusion that in order to be successful at this, you would need to have completed a university-level degree elsewhere,” said Agarwal.

Indeed, about 30 percent of the students surveyed said they did not have a bachelor’s degree. (Six percent said they had a doctorate, 28 percent a master’s degree, and 37 percent a bachelor’s degree.)

The age distribution of students who stuck it out with Circuits & Electronics favored what higher ed would call “nontraditional” students: Half of them were 26 years old or older. About 45 percent were traditional college-aged students, and 5 percent were in high school. The oldest probable-completer was 74; the youngest, 14.

To some extent extrapolating larger truths about MOOC students from such narrow samples is similar to a blind man trying to describe the dimensions and habits of an elephant after touching one square foot of its hide. The profile of the successful student in an adapted MIT course in electrical engineering is likely different from the profile of a successful student in an introductory computer science course, or a course in sociology or world music. Like any online course, the ability of a MOOC to match the outcomes of the traditional version will probably vary by course and professor. 

For the latest technology news and opinion from Inside Higher Ed, follow @IHEtech on Twitter.



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