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Understanding MOOC Behavior: New Study Provides Most Comprehensive Look at MOOC Student Engagement

Study finds MOOC student engagement varies widely from traditional offline courses Are you a viewer, solver or an all-rounder?

A team of researchers from Cornell Tech, Cornell University and Stanford University have released a study that provides the most comprehensive look to date at how students engage with Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). With their global reach and often staggering enrollments, MOOCs have the potential to become a major new mechanism for learning, but very little is actually understood about how participants engage in these courses and how their success should be judged. The new study from Cornell and Stanford concludes that MOOCs serve very different goals than traditional courses, and students should be assessed accordingly, beyond just course completion and their grade.

“In a MOOC, each student’s complete interaction with the course takes place online, giving us a record of their activity at an unprecedented scale,” said Cornell Tech Dean Huttenlocher. “There has been significant discussion of the pros and cons of MOOCs but to date we haven’t taken a deep dive into the data to understand how students behave in the MOOC environment. We found that the reasons participants engage with MOOCs is diverse – why they sign up and what they get out of it can be very different from traditional courses.”

The paper is based on quantitative investigations of more than 300,000 students’ behavior in several large Stanford University courses offered on Coursera, one of the major MOOC platforms. It identifies five distinct types of engagement with MOOCs: 

Viewers, who primarily watch lectures but don’t hand in many assignments
Solvers, who hand in assignments for a grade but view few if any lectures
All-rounders, who watch most lectures and hand in most assignments, behaving more like a student in a traditional course
Collectors, who primarily download lectures and may or may not be watching them immediately or in the future
Bystanders, who register for a course but whose total activity is below a very low threshold

Behavior across this spectrum varies significantly from what you might find in a traditional course; this argues that the issue of students “dropping out” of MOOCs is a distinction being made at too superficial a level. Specifically, by focusing primarily on the “all-rounders” who engage with both the lecture content and the graded assignments, we overlook a large portion of those who are actively engaged in MOOCs. While in all the classes studied for this paper most students receive a grade of zero, many of them spend significant time engaging with the material in a way that should not be equated with a failure to invest effort or achieve reward from the course. 

The paper also addresses the impact of “badges” in incentivizing engagement in the courses, finding that making the “badges” available produced increases in forum engagement.

The report concludes that rather than thinking of MOOCs as simply online versions of traditional offline university courses, online classes come with their own set of diverse student behaviors. Understanding these behaviors is critical to evaluating the efficacy of MOOCs and designing future online courses.

Teaching & Learning