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Diverse aims and objectives of MOOC learners

EducationWorld June 14 | EducationWorld

MUCH OF THE discussion around massive open online courses (Moocs) which has aroused great interest around the world, focuses almost exclusively on one point: completion rates, or the number of students who complete a particular course and are duly certified. While this measure borrowed from the traditional university model is an important indicator of the effectiveness of Moocs, it represents only a small segment of a very diverse group of Mooc learners eager for access to education. We™ve learned a lot from the first year of courses offered on edX, and recently released working papers from Harvard and MIT shed considerable light on the diversity of our students and how they are using our online courses.
Before examining the goals of our learners, it™s useful to identify them. Mooc learners are diverse, logging in from many countries and cultures around the world and are of all ages and backgrounds. For instance, new-age edX learners who now number 2 million, are between eight-95 years, are sited in every country of the world, and have widely differing formal education ” from elementary schoolers to Ph Ds. Despite this vast diversity, three main characteristics unite them ” a burning desire to learn, connect with a global community, and experience and consume content online.
The goals of our learners are as diverse as themselves. When they first enroll in a programme, many are interested in learning from home or interactive labs, some in completing coursework to earn a certificate. These are œactive learners. Some merely wish to browse and view a few videos. Data collected from edX shows that 56 percent of learners said œgaining understanding of the subject matter for lifelong learning is a very important reason for signing up for an edX course. Another 57 percent cite œlearning from the best professors in the world as their prime motivation. Significantly, only 27 percent rated œearning a certificate of mastery to add to my professional credentials as an important reason for logging in for a course.
When we measure the completion rates of our active students, an average of 50 percent and, in some courses, 70-80 percent, persist until certification. Similarly, completion rates even of learners who™ve paid for an official certificate, are around 60 percent. These percentages are equivalent to completion rates in traditional universities.
Writing an overview of the Harvard and MIT working papers, Justin Reich (a Richard L. Menschel HarvardX research fellow), and Andrew Ho, associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and co-chair of the HarvardX Research Committee, state: œWhile certificates are easy to count, certification is a poor proxy for the amount of learning that happens in a given course. Many registrants engage in courseware without choosing to complete the assessments for credit. We™re seeing a lot of discussion about what Mooc students are not doing (e.g completion and certification) and not enough about what students are gaining (e.g knowledge, interaction with a global community and free education from the world™s best universities).
Moocs provide learners with what they want ” easy access to courses and content which interests them. There is no admissions process, so registering for a Mooc programme is as easy as clicking on a webpage. Citing their recent findings in an op-ed for The Atlantic, Reich and Ho add: œMany who register for HarvardX courses are engaging substantially in courses without earning a certificate. In these courses, ˜dropping out™ is not a breach of expectations, but the natural result of an open, free and asynchronous registration process, where students get just as much as they wish out of a course and registering for a course does not imply a commitment to completing it.
Consequently, some academics have suggested using the term œstopping out in preference to œdropping out to better capture the expectations of learners who are content to browse Mooc programmes. Data points from Harvard and MIT™s The First Year of Open Online Courses show that from fall (autumn) 2012 to summer 2013, 43,196 registrants in 17 edX courses earned certificates of successful completion, while another 35,937 explored half or more of course content without pressing on for certification. As GigaOM highlights in a recent essay, œ79,133 people likely learned some valuable information without paying thousands of dollars or having to leave their homes.
Our experience in this first year of edX has taught us that many of our learners don™t fit the traditional mould. Therefore we need to change the lens through which we view them. Moocs are offering individuals open access to high quality education content and information that may otherwise be out of their reach. Our learners are diverse and curious about the world around them. Many aren™t interested in earning certificates for all courses they sign up for, but an impressive number is gaining so much more: access to world-class education and an engaged global community. All without going through elaborate and expensive university admission processes.
(Dr. Anant Agarwal is the MIT, Boston-based CEO of edX)

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