Written by Bob Little on 1 May 2013 in Features

Bob Little explains how MOOCs can be improved to increase learner experience and engagement

Over the last five years or so, the massive open online course (MOOC) has grown in both usage and popularity. Many organisations - usually institutions in the higher education sector - now offer them. Their two key features are that they're designed to have a very large number of students and they have open access.

The term 'MOOC', said to have been coined by David Cormier of the University of Prince Edward Island and first applied in 2008 to describe a course offered by the University of Manitoba, refers to a way of learning in - and, some might argue, perfectly suited to - a socially networked world. MOOCs are a further manifestation of the vast amount of information that's freely accessible today. Yet merely having access to this information is no guarantee that it can be easily assimilated or 'learned'.

There are those connected with the development of these online courses who are expressing concerns that, in their early versions, MOOCs are repeating the same instructional design mistakes that were being made in the early days of e-learning, some 20 years ago.

A champion of this view is Poonam Jaypuriya, senior general manager - program management (innovation and products) at Harbinger Knowledge Products. She explains: "Many MOOCs include video - often as an introduction to the course or a section within the course. This video might set out the learning objectives of the course or outline the course contents.

"The learner watches the video - but there's no element of interactivity. The video purely gives information to the learner. There's a need to develop MOOCs that are highly interactive (iMOOCs) in order to engage learners and keep them interested in the course - and motivated to continue and complete it.

"No wonder MOOCs' learner drop-out rates are extremely high. Typically, we're seeing only seven or eight per cent of learners completing courses."

A number of institutions - including Stanford University - now boast MOOCs that attract over 100,000 people, although, typically, Stanford has stated that some 85 per cent of these people fail to 'complete' the course. One mathematics course, taught as a MOOC in 2012, attracted some 65,000 students. By the end of the third week, there were 20,000 students left and, at the end of the course, there were 10,000 students. Some 1,200 of these took the optional final examination in order to earn a certificate.

Low completion rate

"One of the main reasons for this low completion rate could well be that the initial course material is boring because there's no opportunity for the learners to interact with it. This reliance on passive content delivery is no different to the very early e-learning materials - often now referred to as 'e-learning 1.0'," says Jaypuriya.

Indeed, speaking at the Online and Open-access Learning in Higher Education: Moocs, New Pedagogies and Business Models event in London, in February, Diana Laurillard, professor of learning with digital technologies at the London Knowledge Lab - a collaboration between Birkbeck College and the Institute of Education - pointed out that much of the pedagogy behind MOOCs is presentational. She told delegates: "We've been telling ourselves for years we need to get away from that pedagogy and now here it is slamming back at us again."

Jaypuriya believes that those developing e-learning materials at the end of the last century learned the hard way that passive content delivery - merely 'putting lecture notes and other text online' - is neither an effective nor an engaging way of learning.

"Linear video is not the most inspiring or motivating way of delivering learning," she says, "especially when you're providing learning materials to thousands of learners. Effective learning materials involve the learners. This can be done in various ways - including, increasingly, via social media - but it's also possible these days to engage the learner via video. This medium, in particular, can help in developing iMOOCs."

Those wanting to build iMOOCs - or at least include greater learner interactivity in these courses - could gather inspiration for their instructional design strategy from interactions such as games, simulations, brainteasers, interactive diagrams and virtual worlds. There is certainly more to 'interactivity' in modern online learning - and more learner interactivity options available - than multiple-choice questions and 'drag-and-drop' responses.

Information overload

These days, information is everywhere and - mostly - freely accessible. While there are many advantages and benefits to living in today's digital world, one of the greatest drawbacks is the potential for information overload. This puts even more pressure on the developers of learning materials to make the materials they develop as engaging, motivating, memorable and, thus, effective as possible. Here, again, adding interactivity to 'linear learning materials' can be a great help to the instructional designer and course developer.

Once upon a time, when you wanted to know about something, you could ask someone; you could read a book; you could work it out for yourself, or you could find a school or college that ran a relevant course. That strategy had some drawbacks. It depended on who you knew and what they knew. It also depended on how easy it was for you to get to the school/ college that ran the course you wanted.

Life-long networked learning

MOOCs are open, distributed, participatory and contribute to life-long networked learning, which can help overcome some of the traditional drawbacks to learning. They are ways to connect, collaborate and engage in the learning process, bringing together people who are interested in a particular topic to discuss, explore and learn in a structured way. All work done is accessible to, and shared by, others. So, while students keep their work, everyone else can benefit from it too. In addition, one of the key benefits of a MOOC is that its participants have the contacts they've built up by engaging in study with each other.

MOOCs can help students explore interests, prepare for entrance exams and gain exposure to college-level coursework. They can also play a part in faculty development, educating the public and providing learning opportunities for those lacking access to college courses.

All the work that results from the course exists in pockets sited around the web, rather than in one place - even in the cloud. Moreover, there's no 'right' way, or structured path, to follow the course, so new ideas can develop and different points of view can co-exist. This encourages learners to be independent in thought and study as they build their own networks. They choose what they'll do; how they participate - and only they can decide if, ultimately, they've been successful.

MOOC platforms

Of the 'big three' US-developed MOOC platforms, Udacity and Coursera are run for profit while the third, edX, is run as a not-for-profit organisation by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University.

Because of the large numbers of learners in each MOOC, and the likelihood of a high student-to-teacher ratio, MOOCs require instructional design that facilitates large-scale feedback and interaction. There are two basic approaches:

  • crowd-sourced interaction and feedback using the MOOC network for peer-review and group collaboration
  • automated feedback through objective, online assessments, such as quizzes.

MOOCs, such as those offered by Coursera or Udacity, rely more on the latter while those based on connectivist pedagogy rely on the former approach. Connectivist principles include:

  • aggregation A connectivist MOOC provides a starting point for a massive amount of content to be produced in different places online, which is later aggregated as a newsletter or a web page regularly accessible to participants. This is in contrast to traditional courses, in which the content is prepared ahead of time
  • remixing Associating materials created within the course with each other and with materials elsewhere
  • re-purposing Aggregated and remixed materials to suit each participant's goals
  • feeding forward Sharing re-purposed ideas and content with other participants and the rest of the world.

Early days

Although MOOCs are very much in their early days, some evidence is beginning to emerge that learners who are new to them can be disturbed by the high level of autonomy required as they pursue their studies. Other MOOC participants have commented that structure, direction and purpose in terms of learning can get lost in the apparent randomness of discussions. This 'educational messiness', although it's exciting while the learner is experiencing it, can be a challenge to following a line of discussion or creating meaning from that discussion.

Echoing some of these sentiments, Josie Taylor, professor of learning technology and director of the Institute of Educational Technology at the Open University, also speaking at Online and Open-access Learning in Higher Education: Moocs, New Pedagogies and Business Models, said that feedback from some MOOCs suggested that participants are left behind if they don't understand the course content. She urged MOOC providers to do more to help struggling students.

In particular, in their current form, MOOCs can be challenging for the learner because:

  • the process can appear chaotic as each learner creates his own content
  • taking part in a MOOC demands a degree of digital literacy
  • it demands a serious commitment in terms of time and effort
  • the learning process is organic and so will take its own path, in terms of trajectory and velocity
  • it requires strict self-regulation - especially in terms of defining learning goals and, thus, ultimate success.

Avenues of learning

"All of this suggests that MOOCs demonstrate a high degree of interactivity as learners explore the avenues of learning they want, making the connections they need - even if those connections lack the structure of a more traditional learning format," says Jaypuriya. "Indeed, the evolution of MOOCs has seen some innovation in instructional materials. An emerging trend within MOOCs is the use of non-traditional textbooks such as graphic novels to improve students' knowledge retention.

"Yet, because of a MOOC's voluntary, opt-in nature, there's no penalty for learners dropping out of the course or lagging behind in their studies. So MOOC developers seem to be missing valuable opportunities to include elements of interactivity in the courses - often early in the learners' studies - which could enhance the learning experience, increase learner engagement and, perhaps, help to dramatically reduce drop-out rates.

"We need to move to 'MOOCs 2.0' or iMOOCs as soon as possible."

MOOCs are usually 'discovered' via online networks. For example, there's a website offering '300 MOOCs from the Great Universities' (of course, this depends on your definition of a 'great university')1. Those wanting free access to higher education courses from the UK can take advantage of Futurelearn, a company launched last December by the Open University and comprising a consortium of UK universities2.




About the author

Bob Little writes about, and commentates on, corporate learning-especially e-learning and technology related subjects. He is the author of 'Perspectives on Learning Technologies' ( He can be contacted at

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