For a number of years, many universities have offered massive open online courses (MOOCs) in addition to traditional in-person classes. MOOCs are designed for much larger numbers of students than normal online classes and encourage students to enroll from outside the university. However, little research exists on how MOOCs compare with ordinary classes in terms of student experience and performance. One major issue is that large numbers of students who start these courses do not complete them. To better understand the reasons behind the high attrition rates, the Science Education Department (SED) of the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian is engaged in two large-scale studies of two MOOCs offered by Harvard University.
X-ray & Optical Images of Westerlund 2 A cluster of young stars — about one to two million years old — located about 20,000 light years from Earth.
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/Sejong Univ./Hur et al; ; Optical: NASA/STScI
Making Sense of MOOCs
MOOCs differ from traditional in-person and ordinary online classes in two major areas: the large number of students they allow to enroll and the high attrition rate among enrolled members. Universities often promote the classes for the first reason, because they maximize enrollment and provide access to college courses to many people who would not otherwise have the opportunity to participate in them. However, the high dropout rate indicates they may not serve students as adequately as ordinary courses.
Despite the widespread adoption of MOOCs, education researchers have carried out relatively few formal studies on their successes and failures. SED researchers have been looking at the retention rates and reasons for student dropouts for two MOOCs offered at Harvard University: "CS50x: Introduction to Computer Science" and "SPU30x: Super-Earths And Life." These studies were supported by grants from the National Science Foundation.