Although the actual term entered the world dictionaries only in 2008, first prototypes of MOOCs, massive online open courses, date back to as early as 2001, when Massachusetts Institute of Technology went digital with its education  resources. Other education institutions quickly jumped on the online learning bandwagon. All this led to the establishment of the digital education model, which became even more popular with the top universities’ increasing attention to making education accessible for all. Nowadays, most countries have developed their own online learning platforms.

At the heart of the Courseburg study (available in Russian) was the question of participation in online learning. How many people are willing to embark on an online learning course, or are already pursuing their education online? With the help of SimilarWeb, market and competitive environment research service, Courseburg specialists compared the workings of the five leading online education giants: international platforms ‘Coursera’ and ‘EdX’ and Russian-led ‘Open Education’, ‘Universarium’ and ‘Lektorium’. Collected between 2014 - 2017, the data was used for examining traffic statistics, page views, bounce rates, and users’ activity on each platform in question.

“Embarking on this first-of-its-kind study, we wanted to analyze MOOCs providers’ weaknesses and give them some recommendations which will help them become even more useful and popular among their users”, shares Courseburg founder Alexander Alkhov. “Our research has shown that not a lot of students are actually aware of these platforms’ existence; when asked, the majority of respondents could only name the world-famous ‘Coursera’; some spoke about the national ‘Open Education’ platform, and a small part of students involved in programming recalled having encountered with ‘Stepik’, which wasn’t included in our study due to the differing format.”

Alexander Alkhov
Alexander Alkhov

How many users visit the platforms?

Platforms visits between September 2014 and August 2017
Platforms visits between September 2014 and August 2017

According to official figures, all platforms visits between September 2014 and August 2017 amounted to 60,7 millions of users. Courseburg specialists established that visit peaks coincided with the start of academic semesters, with more than half of all traffic taking place on ‘Coursera’.

“The evidence suggests that users are more willing to partake in an online learning course when it’s promoted by world-class universities. This can account for Coursera’s leading position as this platform actively cooperates with 149 universities from all over the world,” Courseburg study indicates.

Russian ‘Open Education’ platform is nearly three times behind the world leader. However, considering the fact that it was the latest to launch, being created in 2015, its second place attests to a very promising growth dynamics.

For how long do users stay on the platforms?

Another factor examined in the study was the time users spend on a platform, which indicates not only how interested they are in its content, but also how easy it is to navigate and interact with. Here ‘Coursera’ again comes on top: on average, users stay on the platform a little over ten minutes.

Average visit duration
Average visit duration

Russian platforms still lag behind, but not significantly so. Both ‘Universarium’ and ‘Open Education’ show reasonably good visit duration results, 8 minutes 10 second and 7 minutes 32 seconds respectively.

Why do users leave the platforms?

The study gives insight into why users leave the platforms by examining their bounce rate, which encapsulates the number of users who left the website from the login page or didn’t proceed further than the first page.

Monthly unique visitors numbers
Monthly unique visitors numbers

Courseburg analysts established that ‘Lektorium’ and ‘EdX’ have the biggest bounce rates: nearly half of all users, 49,23% and 46,68% respectively, leave the websites from the front page. ‘Coursera’ has the lowest bounce rate, with 60 % of users staying on the website, whilst ‘Open Education’ and ‘Universarium’ demonstrate the best results out of all Russian platforms. Among the main reasons of users hitting that ‘x’ button are incomprehensiveness of content, complexity of a platform’s design, poor organization of course catalogs, and small choice of courses on offer.

“Categorization is an effective and convenient way of organizing course catalogs which benefits both search engines and users. But the majority of platforms only go so far as to state the problem, but not deal with it. Categorization helps users navigate the website and makes the process of them finding a suitable option faster and more efficient. Online learning platforms with unstructured course catalogs risk losing most of their potential users in the first seconds of them viewing the website,” the authors of the study point out.

Examining the number of platforms’ unique visitors, Courseburg analysts discovered an inverse correlation: the lower is a platform’s bounce rate, the more visits it has, as demonstrated by ‘Coursera’ and ‘EdX’: while the former is visited by more than 160,000 people on a monthly basis, the latter gets only 40,000 visits. ‘Open Education’ and ‘Universarium’ again take second and third places.

What are the platforms’ strengths and weaknesses?

Comparative analysis showed that each platform has its own strengths which, properly managed, can help them attract new users. Platforms’ assets include comprehensive and original learning programs, weekly newsletters with exclusive expert articles, convenient website design, to name a few. According to Courseburg specialists, no Russian platform really stands out in terms of website usability; internationally, though, ‘Coursera’ and ‘EdX’ score the highest.

EdX online learning platform
EdX online learning platform

How do the platforms attract students?

One of the factors indicating users’ commitment is the high percentage of direct site referrals. No platform particularly stands out in this direction, however Courseburg analysts name ‘Universarium’ and ‘Open Education’ as the most promising.

“Universarium has the highest percentage of direct site referrals; that has positive implications for the platform’s brand recognition. ‘Open Education’ falls significantly behind, with its 26 % of direct referrals. At the same time, it has the lowest bounce rate (31,68%). This suggests that all the platforms should improve their visibility among the target audiences, including students and their parents. This will lead to a guaranteed increase in the volume of incoming traffic.”

The platforms may want to work on expanding their audiences and gaining brand recognition through offline activities and developing their partner networks.

Leading in email referrals (14,37%) is the ‘Open Education’ platform; other platforms didn’t manage to achieve significant results in this type of traffic, which signals the necessity of segmenting the audience and running regular newsletters with specialized content.

‘Lektorium’ has the biggest percentage of organic results, which means that it is more likely to appear in search engines. However, given its high bounce rate and low site visits duration, this platform should work on the usability of its design and effectiveness of the audit checks, the study concludes.

As for the traffic created by social media, this indicator has the highest bounce rates among all platforms, including the ever-leading ‘Coursera’, although the latter still comes on top, with the lowest bounce rate of 55,85%. Nevertheless, this still means that more than half of the users referred to the platform from social media leave in the first moments of viewing the website. ‘Lektorium’ outperforms all other Russian platforms: although users don’t spend a lot of time on this website, they don’t leave as quickly.

Courseburg education platform. Credit:
Courseburg education platform. Credit:

“This data demonstrates MOOCs service providers’ failure to interact with their audiences on social media. Platforms should reconsider their traffic strategies. Maybe their audience need a different approach or they need to switch to another social media. For instance, most platforms enable their users to log in using their Facebook accounts. EdX, however, also asks users to indicate their email and location, which isn’t always convenient,” the authors observe.

Conclusions and recommendations

Russian online learning platforms give their users access to a wide range of different courses and learning formats; they also partner with leading universities nationwide. But MOOCs still are not as popular here as they are in the US and India, with only 4,05% of users partaking.

Moreover, Russian platforms lag behind not only in the number of visits, but in their aptitude in using existing sources of traffic such as social media and email newsletters.

“There’s a great supply of MOOCs here in Russia. What the platforms need to do is to work on increasing the demand by motivating employers and universities to attach more significance to MOOCs certificates. For instance, ‘EdX’ and ‘Coursera’ offer series of courses united by a common theme. Although users have to pay to enrol, they can get a certificate which will add more weight to their CVs,” the Courseburg study recommends.

According to Alexander Alkhov, Russian platforms fail to prioritize working with universities. Oftentimes newsletters created jointly with a university don’t even make it to that university’s students’ and staff mailboxes. However, developing these communication networks is a must for all platforms that want to boost their performance.

Aside from that, the authors of the study indicate that the platforms should work on expanding the courses they offer according to popular demands. For instance, there should be more courses focusing on IT.

Moreover, courses catalogs should be much better structured basing on their themes or areas of knowledge, and students should be recommended courses thematically similar to those they are already enrolled in.

Lastly, platforms should also improve their websites’ design so that they are more accessible to users of all ages. This would contribute to the popularity of online learning in Russia.

Full version of the Courseburg study can be found here (please note that it is currently available only in Russian).

Courseburg is a service that helps users choose from a range of professional education courses basing on their location, price and reviews. In 2017, more than 3,000 people used the service to master a new profession or boost their knowledge in different subjects. Now the platform features more than 250 courses, and Courseburg specialists are involved in more than 10 research projects analysing online learning and labor market trends.