“There are certainly MOOC junkies, who take them for no other reason than they’re free and they like hanging out,” grins Dr Ben Brabon of Edgehill university, whose massive open online course in vampire fiction is one of only two accredited MOOCs currently on offer in the UK.

Brabon isn’t denigrating people who enroll on every brand new shiny MOOC going: he’s simply pointing out the motivation that prompts certain individuals to sign up. When a course is open entry – MOOCs have no enrollment criteria and no fees to pay – then participants are going to behave very differently to students in a traditional higher education setting.

MOOCs are the newest big thing in the much vaunted quest to enable higher education for all. A great deal of venture capital money is being invested in the emerging online platforms that enable the delivery of increasingly sophisticated and interactive course content to participants who can number in the hundreds to the tens of thousands.

For these investors, the holy grail is to find a business model for MOOCs that will make them profitable – so far courses have depended on universities being prepared to bankroll their star lecturers’ curriculum design and online teaching time.

Mining the data captured about how, why and when millions of participants opt to sign up, interact with their material, submit their assignments, message each other and drop out of the course, as well as what factors motivate them to complete, may be one way of getting a return on the investment – all information is valuable, and every keystroke tells a tale.

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