HarvardX and MITx: Two Years of Open Online Courses Fall 2012-Summer 2014

HarvardX and MITx: Two Years of Open Online Courses Fall 2012-Summer 2014

HarvardX and MITx: Two Years of Open Online Courses Fall 2012-Summer 2014 via SSRN

Andrew Dean Ho

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Harvard University; Harvard University – HarvardX

Isaac Chuang

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Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – Office of Digital Learning

Justin Reich

Harvard University – HarvardX; Harvard University – Berkman Center for Internet & Society

Cody Austun Coleman

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

Jacob Whitehill

Harvard University

Curtis G Northcutt

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

Joseph Jay Williams

Harvard University

John D Hansen

Harvard University

Glenn Lopez

Harvard University

Rebecca Petersen

Harvard University – HarvardX

March 30, 2015


What happens when well-known universities offer online courses, assessments, and certificates of completion for free? Early descriptions of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have emphasized large enrollments, low certification rates, and highly educated registrants. We use data from two years and 68 open online courses offered by Harvard University (via HarvardX) and MIT (via MITx) to broaden the scope of answers to this question. We describe trends over this two-year span, depict participant intent using comprehensive survey instruments, and chart course participation pathways using network analysis. We find that overall participation in our MOOCs remains substantial and that the average growth has been steady. We explore how diverse audiences — including explorers, teachers-as-learners, and residential students — provide opportunities to advance the principles on which HarvardX and MITx were founded: access, research, and residential education.

HarvardX and MITx: Two Years of Open Online Courses Fall 2012-Summer 2014 – Executive Summary

On January 21, 2014, a joint research team from Harvard University and MIT released a series of reports describing the first year of open online courses launched on edX, a non-profit learning platform founded by the two institutions in 2012. These reports (e.g., Ho et al., 2014; Reich et al., 2014; Seaton et al., 2014) documented the backgrounds and behaviors of course registrants and highlighted pedagogical and technological innovations that serve as resources for online, residential, and blended teaching. In this “Year 2” report, we revisit these earlier findings with the benefit of an additional year of data, resulting in one of the largest surveys of massive open online courses (MOOCs) to date: 68 courses, 1.7 million participants, 10 million participanthours, and 1.1 billion logged events. In this introduction, we review findings, highlight opportunities, and then introduce a six-part structure for the full report.

Key Findings

Finding 1: Growth is steady in overall and multiple-course participation in HarvardX and MITx

Participation in HarvardX and MITx courses has grown at a steady rate through the first two years. From the first registrations on July 24, 2012, through the close of our analytic window on September 21, 2014—a total of 790 days—an average of 1,300 unique participants entered a HarvardX or MITx course every day, for a total of 1.03 million unique participants. We distinguish between unique participants and course entries, where a unique participant may enter into multiple courses. The 1.03 million unique participants account for 1.71 million course entries. On average, a unique participant has entered into 1.7 HarvardX and MITx courses. Across all courses, cumulative enrollment has grown at a steady rate of 2,200 participants a day.

Finding 2: Participation initially declines in repeated courses, then stabilizes

Across 11 courses with repeated versions, participation declined by an average of 43% from the first to the second version. For the five courses that had a third version, participation was essentially unchanged from the second to the third version. However, there is no universal law of declining enrollment. One computer science course, CS50x, doubled in size from the first to the second version, in part because the course administration window doubled in length and supported asynchronous participation and certification.

Finding 3: Surveys suggest that a slight majority intends to certify. Many are teachers.

We extend past results from Reich et al. (2014) and Seaton et al. (2015) about the intentions and teaching backgrounds of participants. Among the one-third of participants who responded to a comprehensive survey about intention, 57% stated their intent to earn a certificate, and 24% of these respondents earned certificates. Among the remaining 43% who were unsure or did not intend to earn a certificate, 8% ultimately did. Stated intentions, however, are varied and an imperfect predictor of ultimate outcomes. Among the one-fifth of participants who responded to survey questions about their professional experience as teachers or instructors, 39% identified as a past or present teacher, and 21% of these teachers reported teaching in the topic area of the course in which they were participating. These survey results reflect the diversity of possible, desired uses of open online courses beyond certification.


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  1. The University, until a few decades, was a privilege of few. The revolution of the distribution of information provided by the internet has brought a list of possibilities previously unimaginable to our daily lives.

    Starting an online course can be an excellent alternative to develop studies. A new concept that promises to be talked about in the near future. The fact is that if before the problem was restricted access to knowledge, the challenge today is another: to make participants to be able to complete the MOOC in which they signed up.

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