Talk Talk’ing About MOOC Learner Engagement

Learner engagement was at the heart of my doctorate research with my questions being:

  1. Why do people engage, and remain engaged in free open online courses?
  2. What elements of the design of the free open online courses increase or maintain learner engagement?

I spent my time reviewing papers and research on how the course is designed, what elements to include (and importantly not include) and even reviewing the length of the course as well as the design within.

Then two completely isolated events occurred within the same week that has added a new dimension to my thinking…

I was reviewing the paper ‘HarvardX and MITx: Two Years of Open Online Courses’ with the insight of a similar longitudinal reflection that I have been taking myself when I moved to Senior Producer. (I have been involved in MOOCs at the OU for the last three years, but I became the lock-stock-go-to-gal Miss MOOC for the OU).

The OU had been presenting MOOCs on FutureLearn for the years and Harvard had conducted a 2 year study that would provide for interesting comparison.

It was the top paragraph on page four that caught and kept my attention:

Finding 2: Participation initially declines in repeated courses, then stabilizes

Across 11 courses with repeated versions, participation  declined by an average of 43% from the first to the second version. For the five courses that had a third version, participation was essentially unchanged from the second to the third version. 

Given that we at The Open University have presented 25 courses in two years on the FutureLearn platform for a total of 48 presentations, it would be a larger data set than that analysed within the Harvard paper. In addition only five of the eleven courses that the authors analysed had presented on three occasions, with the remaining six only presenting twice. Given that more than five of our courses have presented more than three times (some on their fourth and fifth presentations), I felt that it was an interesting finding to measure our results against.

The data analysis was in its early stages, as I first had to merge all the individual course dashboards together to present the data in one dashboard that I could then update periodically. From that I progressed to reviewing data in individual presentations as well as collectively per MOOC.

In The Open University they also piloted a range of presentation patterns on a number of courses; twice a year, three presentations back to back, continuous cycle of four presentations a year, campaign presentations linked to events and times of the year. So the data set will start to give insight into how these patterns impact learner engagement.

The second event that lead to my learner engagement eureka moment was the cyber hack on Talk Talk with a BBC Article from leading experts as to what consumers should do to protect themselves. This attack and the implications of it for consumers caught my attention through this news article as the OU has a course on an Introduction to Cyber Security and given that it presents in a pattern of four times a year with one month breaks, learner enrollment may increase in the current presentation and the next as a ripple effect.

It was these two events in relation to my existing MOOC/open online course reading that got me thinking:

What if learner engagement goes beyond learning design?

I have spent the last year reviewing literature on learner engagement being centred around the learning design, features of the course/platform, social learning, presence of a Lead Educator and/or Facilitators – but what is there is more to it?

What if learner engagement can be fuelled or hampered by the number of times a course presents in a year? 

Logic would tell you that an increase in the number of presentations would increase the number of learners – but what if it is the difference between being given the option of an all-you-can-eat buffet with reservations being available on a fairly constant almost walk-in basis versus the opportunity to dine exclusively at a Michelin star restaurant possibly once or twice a year.

The theory that I’m developing supports the latter – that the presentation of a course twice a year would increase learner engagement whilst the almost continual presentation of courses would decrease learner engagement.

The thinking behind the theory is that if learners are given the opportunity to continually register for the same course that they are less likely to complete the presentation that they are on. That a percentage of learners will keep moving through presentations of the same course and never given the incentive of a cut off date as extrinsic motivation to complete. That it would actually flip their time management on its head by removing the need for learners to actually manage their time.

Now there are many learners for which life gets in their way, and they are unable to complete their current presentation and therefore register for the next. It is not these learners that I am considering in this situation, instead the learners that will use the availability for repeat presentations as a delaying method for completion, quite possibly entirely subconsciously. Unfortunately this would result in learners not developing completer-finisher skills required not only in formal learning but in every day life.

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