Making Sense of Moocs: A Reconceptualization of HarvardX Courses and Their Students

118 Pages Posted: 10 Jul 2014

Date Written: March 12, 2014


This thesis explores the degree to which discussions about massive open online courses (MOOCs) would benefit from the reconceptualization of fundamental metrics and concepts. MOOCs are contextualized within a rich history of distance learning technologies dating to the mid-19th century, and this context motivates examinations of retention and asynchronicity as issues critical to our understanding of MOOCs. Using novel datasets derived from edX server logs, SQL tables, and Qualtrics survey responses from students in the first six HarvardX courses, I develop a quantitative framework for analyzing these issues. Student retention, I argue, determines the societal value we ascribe to these courses and ought to be reconceptualized with reference to more modular metrics that account for the ways students can have meaningful educational experiences in a MOOC without "completing" it by earning a certificate. Asynchronicity, I argue, shapes the way we understand what it means to be a student, and thus the idea of a "student" ought to be reconceptualized with broader categorizations that account for the diverse paths students take through these courses. In short, MOOCs represent a fundamental departure from current and past educational models, and as a result, we need to change the way we think about what "courses" and "students" are.

Keywords: MOOC, massive open online course, edX, HarvardX, online education, distance learning, higher education, retention, asynchronicity

Suggested Citation

Mullaney, Tommy, Making Sense of Moocs: A Reconceptualization of HarvardX Courses and Their Students (March 12, 2014). Available at SSRN: or

Tommy Mullaney (Contact Author)

Harvard University - HarvardX ( email )

125 Mt Auburn St.
Cambridge, MA 02476
United States

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