EdX Courses Take Less Time Than On-Campus Ones, Report Says

Students using Harvard and MIT’s edX courses take significantly less time to complete the online programs than students enrolled in the equivalent on-campus classes do, a wide-ranging report on the virtual education platform found.{shortcode-6705ebbe358fdc530eb084dbaf1ab5903fce2f33}

The report, published last month, aims to evaluate edX and its Massive Online Open Courses four years after the platform’s debut. Launched with fanfare in 2012, edX aims to make course material from Harvard and MIT available thousands of students online.

While edX course access is free, participants have the option to pay a fee for a certificate of mastery after completing a course.

According to the report, described as “one of the largest surveys of MOOCs to date,” 2.4 million “unique users” around the world have participated in an edX class. Of those users, 159,000 have earned at least one certificate.

Andrew D. Ho, a co-author of the report and a professor at the Graduate School of Education, said the research was intended to make the progress and shortcomings of the edX platform “transparent.”


The report details disparities between on-campus courses, or “residential courses,” and online ones—namely that students spend considerably more time on standard classroom-based courses. Most online certificate earners spend less than 50 hours completing a course, and one percent of certificate earners get certificates with “less than 23 minutes online,” according to the report. Researchers estimated that the average semester-long residential course takes approximately 168 hours, or 12 hours per week.

“There still is a way in which this report reminds you how heterogenous [edX] still is,” Ho said. “The punchline is there’s no physical classroom like this in the world.”

Isaac Chuang, a co-author of the report and a professor of physics and electrical engineering at MIT, said that students taking online courses may learn more efficiently. Some of the methods used in online teaching—such as the “flipped classroom,” where students view online lectures and work on problems in class—will likely be adopted for residential courses at Harvard and MIT, Chuang said.

“We are taking these materials that were generated for MOOCs to supplement and change the balance of teaching on campus,” Chuang said.

Ho, however, said that the efficiency of online courses may also show that there is something missing from an online class that happens in a residential one.

EdX certificate earners come disproportionately from more educated and developed countries, according to the report. Chuang and Ho found that of the 245,000 edX certificates that have been issued since the platform’s launch in 2012, most have been awarded to users from countries with high values on the Human Development Index, a “a country-level composite of life expectancy, education, and income indicators.”

While the report describes the correlation between development levels and edX certification, some outliers remain: Rwanda, for example, a country that ranks among the lowest on the development index, has a remarkably high certification rate. The report cites a 2014 partnership between Facebook and edX in Rwanda as a possible reason for the certification rate in the country.

According to the report, 71 percent of edX users are from countries outside of the United States. The median user age is 29, and 73 percent of users hold Bachelor’s degrees.

The researchers also found evidence of a gender gap in enrollment for computer science and STEM—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—edX courses, which are on average comprised of 17 and 16 percent women, respectively. By comparison, humanities courses are on average 47 percent female, and social sciences courses are roughly 35 percent female.

—Staff writer Julia E. DeBenedictis can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @julia_debene.


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