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MOOC Learners: Who They Are, What Motivates Them

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Lately, I've noticed that much of the discussion around massive open online courses (MOOCs) has focused almost exclusively on one point: Completion rates, or those students who achieve a certificate in a particular course. While this data point, borrowed from the traditional university model, is certainly an important measure, it only represents one 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 the recently released working papers from Harvard and MIT shed new light on the diversity of our students and how they are using our courses.

Before looking at the goals of our learners, let's take a look at who they are. MOOC learners are diverse, coming from many cultures across the globe and all ages and backgrounds. For instance, edX learners, who now number two million, range in ages from eight to 95, come from every country in the world and have varying levels of education. We see learners from elementary schoolers to Ph.D.s. Despite this diversity, three main attributes unite them: A desire to learn, a desire to connect to a global community and a desire to experience and consume content online.

The goals of our learners are as diverse as they are. When they first enroll in a course, some may be interested in engaging with homework or other interactive labs, or in completing the coursework to earn a certificate (we call these "active learners"). Others may simply want to browse and view a few of the videos. Data collected from edX shows that approximately 56 percent of learners rated "gaining understanding of the subject matter for lifelong learning," as an extremely important reason for taking an edX course, and another 57 percent cite "learning from the best professors in the world." However, only 27 percent rated "earning a certificate of mastery to add to my professional credentials," as an extremely important reason for enrolling in a course.

When we measure completion rates among our active students, certificate rates average about 50 percent and, in some courses, can rise to 70 percent and even 80 percent. Similarly, completion rates of learners who've paid for a verified certificate are about 60 percent. These numbers are well within the range of completion rates we see in traditional universities.

In the overview of the Harvard and MIT working papers, Justin Reich, the Richard L. Menschel HarvardX Research Fellow, and Andrew Ho, an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and co-chair of the HarvardX Research Committee, write, "While 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 these MOOC students are not doing (e.g. completion rates, certificates) 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: Access to courses and content that interest them. There is no admissions process, so registering for a MOOC is as easy as clicking on a webpage. Citing their recent findings in an op-ed for The Atlantic, Reich and Ho write:

...Many 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.

Others have suggested using the term "stopping out" to better capture the expectations of learners who are merely browsing a MOOC. Data points from Harvard and MIT's The First Year of Open Online Courses show that from fall 2012 to summer 2013, 43,196 registrants in the 17 edX courses analyzed earned certificates of successful completion, while another 35,937 explored half or more than half of course content without certification. As GigaOM highlights in a recent article, "79,133 people likely learned some valuable information without paying thousands of dollars or even having to leave their homes."

Our experience in this first year has taught us that many of our learners don't fit a traditional mold. So we need to change the lens through which we view them. In a research paper written by Jennifer DeBoer, Andrew D. Ho, Glenda S. Stump and Lori Breslow and published in Educational Researcher, the authors make a compelling argument for rethinking the very terms we use to talk about learners in MOOCs versus traditional educational environments.

The massive databases of MOOCs hold immense analytic potential but are ripe for misuse and misinterpretation. It is not only the magnitude of data, but also the diversity of user intentions and backgrounds...that distinguish the MOOC context from conventional classrooms.

MOOCs are offering individuals open access to high quality educational content and information that may otherwise have been out of their reach. Our learners are diverse and curious about the world around them. Although many do not have interest in earning certificates for the courses they enroll in, an impressive number are gaining so much more: access to world-class education and an engaged global community. All without going through an admissions process.