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At HarvardX, Harvard University’s online and blended learning effort, we continuously research how we can improve online courses and better serve the needs of students. When we get 770,000 students enrolled in our courses, however, “defining needs” gets challenging. If we take a look at the word cloud created from student responses to the question “why are you taking a class” we see great variation in prominence of the words “programming,” “opportunity,” and “research.” How can HarvardX make sure that it meets the different learning needs of our students?

Previous research has shown that the motivations of students taking MOOCs are usually quite varied. MOOCs attract traditional as well as non-traditional learners according to Klapp 2013. The reasons for enrolling in a MOOC class vary from obtaining “the knowledge and skills gained as a result from taking the course” to “personal challenge,” “employment/job advancement opportunities,” to even “the entertainment value of the course” and “social understanding and friends gained as a result of taking the course” (Breslow, Pritchard et al. 2013).

We needed to answer the the question, “How we can adapt to the varied goals of our students?” This led to a project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation called “MOOC Personalization for Various Learning Goals.” The project aims to identify how students’ goals are expressed through their activities on the edX learning platform, and how they evolve over time. Ultimately, we hope our findings will enable the personalization of our students’ learning experiences.

In our project, we will use data from student interaction with HarvardX courses to identify meaningful groups of learners and how they evolve over time. We will test whether there are substantive differences in learning outcomes (i.e., course completion, course grades) and platform usage (i.e., time spent engaging with course videos, assignments, exams, and tests) between the various student groups (as determined using self-reported information at registration). Next, we will consider how learners’ interactions with the platform evolve over time in order to track changes in their learning goals.

Most of the work of the project will be happening in the current academic year. We look forward to seeing what the data can tell us about how we can improve and personalize learning experiences for students in online courses.

Sergiy Nesterko is HarvardX Research Fellow and can be reached on Twitter (@snesterko) or at his personal website (nesterko.com). Svetlana Dotsenko (@svetlanadots) is founder of Project Lever (projectlever.com), an e-advising platform helping students find mentors. Feel free to reach out to us with questions or ideas!

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