While Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have been an important trend in higher education for many years now, they have gained a new level of attention during the Covid-19 pandemic. Open online courses have become an essential resource for a wide audience of new learners during the early stages of the pandemic – including students whose academic programs have moved online, teachers seeking online resources and people suddenly facing confinement or unemployment and looking to learn new skills.
Mary Ellen Wiltrout, director of online and blended learning initiatives and lecturer in digital learning in the Department of Biology, and Virginia “Katie” Blackwell, currently a doctoral candidate in biology at MIT, published an article this summer as part of the European MOOC Stakeholder Summit (EMOOCs 2021) conference proceedings evaluate data for online course 7.00x (Introduction to biology). Their research objective was to better understand whether the shift to online learning that occurred during the pandemic led to increased learner engagement in the course.
Blackwell participated in this research as part of the Bernard S. and Sophie G. Gould MIT Summer Research Program (MSRP) in Biology, during the MSRPx-Biology 2020 Single Distance Student Cohort. She collaborated on the project while working on her undergraduate degree in biochemistry and molecular biology from the University of Texas at Dallas, and collaborated on research while in Texas. She has since applied and been accepted into the MIT Biology PhD program.
“MSRP Biology has been a transformative experience for me. I learned a lot about the nature of research and the MIT community in a very short time and loved every second of the program. Without MSRP, I never would have even considered applying to MIT for my PhD. After MSRP and working with Mary Ellen, MIT Biology became my program of choice and I felt like I had a chance to get into it,” says Blackwell.
Many experienced MOOC platforms increase in website traffic in 2020with 30 new MOOC-based degrees and more than 60 million new learners.
“We find that the tremendous lifelong learning opportunities that MOOCs provide are even more important and sought after when traditional education is disrupted. During the pandemic, people have had to be at home more often and some faced unemployment requiring a career transition,” says Wiltrout.
Wiltrout and Blackwell wanted to deepen their understanding of learner profiles rather than focus exclusively on enrollments. They looked at all available data, including: enrollment demographics (i.e. countries and “.edu” participants); proportion of learners engaged in videos, issues and forums; number of individual engagement events with videos, issues, and forums; verification and enforcement; and the ‘track’ level of the course – including audited (free) and verified (paid and receiving access to additional course content, including access to a full competency exam). They analyzed data in these areas from five 7.00x cycles in this study, including three pre-pandemic cycles from April, July and November 2019 and two pandemic cycles from March and July 2020.
The March 2020 race had the same number of verified track participants as the three pre-pandemic races combined. The July 2020 race registered almost as many track-checked participants as the March 2020 race. Wiltrout says the introductory biology content may have attracted a lot of attention in the first few days and months. of the Covid-19 pandemic, as people may have had a new (or renewed) interest in learning more about (or revisiting) viruses, RNA, the inner workings of cells, and more.
Wiltrout and Blackwell found that registration numbers for the course’s March 2020 race increased at nearly triple the rate of the three pre-pandemic races. During the first few days of March 2020, the registration metrics appeared similar to the registration metrics for the April 2019 run – both in rate and number – but the registration rate rose sharply toward the bottom. March 15, 2020. The July 2020 run began with more than twice as many learners already enrolled on the first day of the course, but continued with half the enrollment of the March 2020 course. In terms of demographics of learners, during the pandemic there was a higher proportion of learners with .edu addresses, indicating that MOOCs were often used by students enrolled at other schools.
Viewing of lesson videos increased at the start of the pandemic. During the March 2020 run, verified and certified participants viewed significantly more unique videos in March 2020 than during the course’s pre-pandemic runs; even learners on the audit trail – not aiming for certification – still watched all the videos offered. During the July 2020 race, however, verified and certified participants viewed far fewer unique videos than in any previous race. The proportion of participants who watched at least one video decreased in the July 2020 run to 53%, compared to an average of 64% in previous rounds. Blackwell and Wiltrout say this decrease – along with the overall decline in attendance in July 2020 – could be attributed to changing circumstances for learners who allowed less time to watch videos and participate in the course, as well as a some fatigue from extra screen time.
The study found that 4.4% of March 2020 attendees and 4.5% of July 2020 attendees engaged via forum posting – which was 1.4 to 3.3 times higher than pre-pandemic proportions of forum posting. The increase in forum engagement may indicate a desire for community engagement at a time when many were isolated and sheltering in place.
“Through the daily work of my research team and also through learner engagement in 7.00x, we can see that there is great potential for meaningful connections in remote experiences,” says Wiltrout. “An increase in online course attendance may not always remain at the same high level, long term, but overall we continue to see an increase in the number of MOOCs and other online programs offered by all universities and institutions, as well as an increase in the number of online learners.