What learners do during MOOCs–and why it matters

A new report examines learner activities during MOOCs, and the importance of integrating certain tools.

mooc-accessibilityCourse design may take a back seat to personal and environmental factors, and notetaking is just as critical during MOOCs as in face-to-face courses. These are just a few of the findings of new qualitative research that examines the experiences and practices of students who participate in MOOCs.

Published by Dr. George Veletsianos along with Dr. Amy Collier and Emily Schneider in the British Journal of Educational Technology in May this year, the study aims to provide an understanding of how people experience MOOCs and why they engage in particular activities in the ways that they do.

The paper argues that up to this point, most research that details student behavior during MOOCs has been limited by researchers’ reliance on log file analyses and clickstream data to make inferences about learner behaviors. The paper aims to represent a major step forward in Dr. Veletsianos’ continued work towards learning more about the experiences of students within MOOCs.

Through interviews with 13 MOOC participants (ages 25-67), the paper was able to identify and make suggestions regarding three major areas of interest: interactions in social networks outside of the MOOC platform, notetaking and consuming content.

Connections Happen, Even if the MOOC Isn’t Effective

The first of the three major findings regarded interactions in social networks outside of the MOOC platform. This area of study places importance on the connections made while a student is participating in a course, such as digital connections with other participants in a MOOC, face-to-face interactions with friends and family, and face-to-face interactions with new connections made through a MOOC.

Friends and family often played large roles in the background of a learner’s experience, particularly in interacting with individuals who recommended the MOOC to them, or who are knowledgeable about the subject of the MOOC.

Forming relationships with other students taking the same course seemed to be commonly identified as a positive factor in taking a MOOC. Often, after connecting via e-mail or social media, the connected learners are able to help each other with studying and coursework, and it was often reported that online study groups would sometimes spill over into face-to-face meetings when applicable. Many participants even reported making lasting connections thanks to shared interests and goals regardless of how effective the MOOC actually was.

Moving forward, the paper suggests MOOCs encourage connections among its participants in order to help learners have the best possible experience and ensure that learners do not feel isolated.

Just Like with Face-to-Face, Notetaking is Critical

Many users also reported the helpfulness of mutually sharing notes with fellow learners, which delves into the second major area of importance in the report. Nearly all of the interviewed learners reported taking notes while watching lecture videos, though some users also reported keeping notes of insightful comments from the discussion forum. Though the tools used to take notes and the subsequent reliance on those notes varied substantially by student, it still shows its importance considering none of the popular MOOC platforms have integrated notetaking into the course interface yet.

Video was identified as a good fit for notetaking, as students can pause or rewatch a video lesson as many times as is necessary for writing down everything they want to look over later. When it came to taking notes on paper vs. digitally, it ultimately came down to personal preference and whatever worked best for the individual learner.

Course Design May Play a Smaller Role

The third major finding revolves around how content is consumed. All of the interviewees identified personal and environmental factors that made big differences as far as how they consumed MOOC content, which had little to do with the designs of the courses themselves.

Mainly, based on personal and professional obligations, many learners watched videos at different times of the day, and often learners with families had to simply seize good times to study when they presented themselves. Course design, such as how simplified or dense video presentations were, and the availability of quality video transcripts also made a big difference to students in terms of how much time they needed to spend on a given lesson. Overall, the report suggests MOOC designers and researchers give thought to these differences in background in order to best accommodate every type of learner.


For the entire report and a complete breakdown of its method and findings, read “Digging Deeper into Learners’ Experiences in MOOCs: Participation in social networks outside of MOOCs, Notetaking, and contexts surrounding content consumption.

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