Harvard Measures Its MOOCs

Justin Reich

From its inception in May 2012, a guiding goal of Harvard’s participation in the edX online-course venture has been to “advance teaching and learning through research” (as the HarvardX website puts it). The initial product has now been released: the HarvardX research group and MIT’s Office of Digital Learning have published papers surveying the registrants in Harvard and MIT courses offered through the edX platform and the ways in which those users interacted with the contents they accessed. Separately, Harvard Business School has announced its own online program, and both edX and the for-profit online enterprise, Coursera, announced significant management appointments (see below).

An overview report on the first six Harvard and 11 MIT courses, offered during the 2012-2013 academic year, addressed the most elemental questions: Who registered? What did they do? Where are they from? It thus engages with a basic issue about the current online courses. The report tallied 841,687 course registrations, of whom:

292,852 never proceeded past registration;

469,702 viewed less than half of the course content;

35,937 explored half or more of the content, but did not earn certificates of completion; and

43,196 did earn certificates of completion.

The “shopping period,” if that is a good analogy, is brief: “The average percentage of registrants who cease activity in these open online courses is highest in the first week at around 50 percent.” The paper’s authors, including Andrew Ho, co-chair of the HarvardX research committee, maintain that “Course certification rates are misleading and counterproductive indicators of the impact and potential of open online courses”—in part because “large numbers of non-certified registrants access substantial amounts of course content.” That is, learning occurs in units or chunks, rather than in course-length study.

Among other findings, the proportion of registrants who report having a college degree ranged from 54 percent to 85 percent. That is perhaps not surprising for Harvard- and MIT-level courses, but it indicates that a different approach, or different courses, may be necessary to serve introductory learners or people pursuing foundational skills. In fact, on average, 72 percent of the HarvardX registrants had a bachelor’s degree or higher. Just 2.7 percent of registrants had Internet or mailing addresses from identified “least-developed” countries—suggesting issues about the level of course content and registrants’ preparation, access to the Internet, and English-language skill. These matters need to be addressed if massive open online courses (MOOCs) are to extend higher-education access to countries where the availability of such experiences is very limited—an expressed aim of edX and other enterprises.

The report made these overall findings, among others:

  • “HarvardX and MITx registrants are not ‘students’ in a conventional sense, and they and their behavior differ from traditional students in K-12 and post-secondary institutions,” not least because registration “requires no cost or commitment” and “skilled learners [may be] dropping in to learn one specific aspect of a course.”
  • “There will be no grand unifying theory of MOOCs,” given that “courses from professional schools like the Harvard School of Public Health” are certain to attract “registrants [who are] are more highly educated and…higher percentages of registrants from outside the U.S.” than, say, an introduction to computer science.
  • “Online courses can offer rich, real- time data to understand and improve student learning, but current data [describe] activity more often than learning gains or desired future outcomes. We need to invest more in high-quality, scalable assessments, as well as research designs, including pretesting and experiments, to understand what and how registrants are learning.” (The same is also very much true for assessing on-campus, classroom courses.)
  • “Open online courses are neither useless nor the salvation of higher education. Large-scale, ‘low-touch’ learning platforms will have sectors and niches where they are very useful and others where they are less so.…Thoughtful instructors and administrators…will take advantage of resources that can be saved by using these technologies and redeploy those resources to places where ‘high touch’ matters.”


Integrating these overall conclusions with a specific course, “The Ancient Greek Hero,” Menschel HarvardX research fellow Justin Reich put the research into broader and deeper context during a symposium at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He began by noting two limitations of the first-year analyses: the initial HarvardX courses were very heterogeneous (from a public-health statistics offering and a limited-enrollment class on copyright law to the popular “Justice” and Greek heroes surveys), and a small sample from which to draw general conclusions.

He observed further that research to date derived principally from analyzing basic data on course mechanics captured from the edX operating platform—what he called “fishing in the exhaust.” Much more sophisticated research lies in the future. Some will take the form of anthropological field observations: what students do during their time online in the course, whom they talk to, what other software they are using, whether they take notes: the sorts of data not available in the “click stream” from the platform (capturing keystrokes as students register and work through a course). The ultimate goal, he said, would be “design research” that draws upon learning science, examines the pedagogy and learning objective of each course, and experiments to see what teaching methods are most effective.

His in-depth case study examined the online adaptation of the long-running course offered since 1978 by Jones professor of classical Greek literature Gregory Nagy. Its exercises emphasize “slow” reading assignments, guiding students to experience the texts from an ancient perspective, rather than reading modern meanings into them. The multiple-choice assessments emphasize such close readings. But of course registrants are free, Reich said, to use the course for their own purposes, as “explorers” who sample the content, or as “certificate seekers.” Registrants tended to be highly educated and older than typical undergraduates; if an instructor wanted to serve a different audience, he said, an online course design could be modified to appeal to other users.

The course data generally can be arrayed to show different levels of engagement and of performance, and different intensities of “meaningful learning experience,” ranging from those explorers who dip in to the diligent users aiming for course completion and certification. From the user perspective, Reich said, that is a liberating feature of online courses: a learner can pursue a specific learning objective, and achieve it, without having to invest in a complete, formal course experience. He characterized this as a “voluntary, informal” learning environment, with students registering when they pleased and pursuing as much or little of the course as they liked, at their own pace.

The online format and technology clearly will enable much deeper research into learning and the effectiveness of diverse pedagogies, along the lines Reich outlined. That there will be ample opportunities for such work is evident, too. At the beginning of the symposium, vice provost for advances in learning Peter K. Bol, who oversees HarvardX (and who as Carswell professor of East Asian languages and civilizations co-teaches the HarvardX China course), indicated that the University plans to mount 20 online offerings per semester (including initial and repeated courses and shorter modules) for the foreseeable future.

HBX, the business school’s online venture, unveiled March 21, represents a significant departure from the HarvardX MOOC model. Its courses—a suite of foundational business-skills offerings for undergraduates, non-business graduate and professional students, and people early in their careers; and specialized executive courses—are fee-based, and aimed at limited enrollments. Moreover, the school has built a proprietary technology platform to replicate key features of its case-based classroom pedagogy.

In late March, Coursera announced that Yale president emeritus Richard C. Levin would become chief executive, focusing on university partnerships, strategy, and international expansion, particularly in China, where he has been very active. edX subsequently reported that Wendy Cebula, former chief operating officer of Vistaprint, an online provider of printing and other services to business customers, would join as president, helping the organization with operations as it continues to scale up its staff and institutional membership.

Access the HarvardX research at http://harvardx.harvard.edu/harvardx-working-papers. A video recording of Reich’s presentation is available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y8Bic69fS_Qe.

For a full report on HBX, see http://harvardmagazine.com/2014/03/harvard-business-school-launches-online-hbx.

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