This past week, HarvardX and MITx released their Insights platform to allow anyone on the Web to visually engage with data from their courses. The first release includes seven visualizations of enrollment, certification, geography, and demography that allow users to see patterns of enrollment in massive open online courses for themselves.
The effort has been led by Sergiy Nesterko, with Daniel Seaton taking the lead on the MITx side, and it’s a very impressive technical accomplishment. The platform takes the weekly data dumps that X-consortium partner universities get from edX, processes the raw data in a variety of ways, and automates regular updates to the visualizations, which each have interactive components that allow viewers to examine particular courses and compare courses to the whole enterprise. The design teams have been extremely fastidious about carefully presenting data in ways that support valid inferences: thinking carefully about the use of language, color, shading and scale. Each visualization comes with an accompanying technical document, with descriptions of methods and limitations and links to source code and some of the datasets used. The result is near real-time data on how the populations at HarvardX are evolving.
In the course reports that we produced, we as researchers selected and framed certain pieces of data to share, highlight, and interpret. We hope that our guidance is fair and helpful, but of course our selections leave out much more than they include. The visualizations, of course, also represent selections of data, but with a much lighter touch, or at least with an intent to minimize framing and maximize the opportunity for interested persons without any technical skill to be able to start exploring the patterns of enrollment and demography in these courses.
As many have pointed out, the openness in MOOCs is contested terrain. There are many dimensions in which an online course can be “open": open registration, open source platform, openly licensed content, student production on the “open” Web, and so forth. The openness of data is another important dimension, and HarvardX Insights represents a great first step towards this openness of data. For those more technically-minded, in the weeks ahead we will release a de-identified dataset to complement these interactives. Our hope is that one of our functions as researchers is that we not only add our own insights to the conversation and research literature about large-scale online learning, but we create the conditions to allow many others to join that conversation.
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