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The MOOC phenomenon

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Massive open online courses (MOOCS) have exploded in popularity this decade, and it shouldn’t really come as a surprise. They’re mostly free to take by anyone with an Internet connection, a computer or any other electronic device, and, of course, an interest in learning something new.

In 2017, two of the biggest MOOC platforms in terms of users and course offerings, Coursera and eDX, released results of their respective surveys that shed some light on the MOOC phenomenon, the learners and their experiences.

Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the institutions behind eDX, published results of their report on learner engagement and behavior in 290 MOOCs since the platform became available in 2012. “Strong collaboration has enabled MIT and Harvard researchers to jointly examine nearly 30 million hours of online learner behavior and the growth of the MOOC space,” said Isaac Chung, co-author of the report and a professor at MIT.

Mr. Chung and his coauthor, Andrew Ho, a professor of education at Harvard University, inquired into 4.5 million participants in 290 MOOCs, as well as a quarter-million certifications and 28 million participant-hours, spanning the summer of 2012 and the fall of 2016. One of the key findings of their investigation was that cumulative MOOC participation had grown steadily over that four-year period, with 2.4 million unique users participating in one or more MITx or HarvardX open online courses, and 245,000 learner certificates issued upon successful completion of the courses.

On average, 1,554 new, unique participants enrolled per day. Participants in a MOOC classroom were heterogeneous, both in background and intention. A typical course certified 500 learners; 7,900 learners accessed some course content after registering, and around 1,500 explored half or more of a course’s content. A MOOC certificate earner typically spent 29 hours interacting with online courseware.

eDX’s learners were largely male (67% were males and 33% were females), and their median age was 29 years. A great majority of them came from other countries (71%). The remaining 29% were from the United States.

“Each year, we release a report so that everyone can see the data for themselves,” Mr. Ho said. “We hope it helps institutions, faculty, students, and the public learn more about these unprecedented global classrooms.”

Coursera first conducted the Learner Outcomes Survey in 2015, the results of which appeared in Harvard Business Review. That survey found that people around the world were getting benefits from online learning, in such areas as starting new careers and gaining credit toward a degree. Rick Levin, former CEO of Coursera, said in a post on the platform’s Web site that they made the Learner Outcomes Survey a permanent part of the platform experience, which means that every learner who completes a course now receives a survey a few months later.

The latest survey revealed that 84% of career-focused learners who completed courses reported career benefits, and 93% of education seekers reported educational benefits. Mr. Levin said these numbers were consistent with the survey results in 2015.

Those participating in Coursera’s courses also reported personal benefits. “To better understand the less-tangible but still valuable benefits of completing an online course, we’ve added new questions about personal growth to our survey. Our recent analysis found that 72% of learners who completed a course reported gaining confidence, and nearly 50% reported benefits from connecting with peers around the world,” Mr. Levin said.

Welcomingly, learners who were less advantaged — hailing from developing economies, without a bachelor’s degree, of lower socioeconomic status — were more likely to report benefits.

“These outcomes speak to the progress we’ve made as a company in the past two years, and to the amazing work that our partner institutions, instructors, and course teams have done to make their courses available on our platform,” said Mr. Levin, who is a now a senior advisor to Coursera.