Learner Motivation in MOOCs

I originally published this post here as one of the eLearning Industry authors.

The merits of online learning, especially in the context of MOOCs have long been discussed and we are all aware that massive open online courses offer a great level of flexibility in terms of time and space. Obviously not everyone in a MOOC course is dedicated or engaged in the same way, which can be acceptable. But what can further motivate people in online environments?

MOOC Learners’ Motivation

The merits of online learning, especially in the context of MOOCs have long been discussed and we are all aware that Massive Open Online Courses offer a great level of flexibility in terms of time and space. MOOC Learners do not have to travel long distances to be able to access high-quality content from top universities in the world. Learning takes place “just in time” and “when needed”. On top of these, I think being able to connect with people from all around the world is one of the greatest characteristics that MOOCs offer learners.

While Individual learning is still meaningful for those who prefer self-paced learning, I think the social aspect of MOOCs is a great learning value especially when different learner needs and styles in a single course are considered. Some people may need more social interactions than others, so those people need to be provided with the opportunity to interact with one another to get better learning results and satisfaction from the course. Social learning theories like social constructivism also emphasize this aspect in teaching and learning suggesting that knowledge construction occurs through meaningful negotiations and collaboration between people (McLoughlin & Lee, 2007).

I remember a quote by Gregor Kiczales, a Computer Science professor in the British Columbia University: “A (massive open online) course isn’t a book, a course is a living, breathing, social phenomenon.” This perfectly sums up  the idea of interactivity in online courses. But sometimes the reality is that not everyone has the time and the motivation to participate in social interactions like forum discussions or collaborative tasks. True.

A recent Stanford study investigated different engagement levels of the participants from three different MOOCs and found that there were typically four different types of MOOC learners engaging with a course: Completing, Auditing, Disengaging and Sampling learners.

  • Completing
    MOOC Learners who completed the majority of the assessments offered in the class.
  • Auditing
    MOOC Learners who only watch video lectures.
  • Disengaging
    MOOC Learners who did assessments at the beginning but disengaged in the first three weeks of the course.
  • Sampling
    MOOC Learners who watched video lectures for only one or two assessment periods.

The implication of this is that participants come to a course from different backgrounds and with different kinds of motivations, so it might actually be fine to have not only completing learners but also other types of learners that can be characterized as just “auditors” or “non-completing” ones whose needs should also be addressed through adaptive course features to make the learning experience more flexible for them. The researchers even question the importance of assignments when different motivations of the participants are involved.

On the other hand, what I also find meaningful in this study is that the completing learners show the highest level of participation in the forum discussions. This seems to be an important finding because social behavior in a course apparently seems to be highly correlated with commitment to completing a course since a sense of community through social interactions creates a kind of positive feedback loop for the learners, as suggested in the study. The more participative they are, the more motivated they get to succeed in a course.

Obviously not everyone in a course is dedicated or engaged in the same way, which can be acceptable. But what can further motivate people in online environments? Is internal motivation to learn the only key for continual effort and engagement? What kind of direction will the learning systems take in the future to keep learners motivated? These get me thinking in general, and it was actually the starting point of this post. Then, here is what follows my questions.

One of the results of social networking sites and some apps which have become almost the focal point of our lives in many aspects is that people have an increasing tendency towards an excessive amount of public sharing and interactivity in those environments. Things like sharing, liking, commenting, the number of followers in order to have an online reputation are today’s hypes and have become the new social norms in the online world. Obviously some of these online tools/apps are so intuitive and tap into people’s desire to “show off” to the rest of the world. Have you not wondered whether people commented or liked your Instagram photo or how many retweets have you received after you post a tweet? I am curious how this kind of social tendency “to be recognized” by others can be used in online learning without losing sight of pedagogy. What I am saying here is actually not new. Some platforms like Australian MOOC platform Open2Study already utilize some techniques such as badges to motivate learners. But I’d would like to provide a list of apps here that might perhaps further inspire learning environments.

The list below is generally made up of sports-related tools that I think has some essential elements designed to boost user motivation. Here is a quick review.

  1. Nike Plus
    Nike is really good at enhancing user motivation. Besides keeping track of the runs and progress, it allows users share, compare and compete with other people using the app. This social component absolutely keeps people motivated to get better. What’s even more fun is that users hear stadium crowd cheering whenever their Nike update gets a like on Facebook. That would definitely motivate me to run better.
  2. Endomondo
    Similar to Nike Plus, but less sophisticated, it is used to track the runs and share the workouts with other people on Facebook.
  3. Expresso Bikes
    Though not an app but an actual bike in a gym, it uses the same method to motivate people by allowing them to bike against other people and by showing how they are doing on the leader board. It also lets people earn badges once they reach certain milestones, which might be another source of motivation for some.
  4. April Zero
    Not a sports app this time, but perhaps the most interesting one on the list. This project was developed by Anand Sharma, a software developer and designer. It may sound crazy but he tracks almost all kinds of data about himself and shares them with the world online. The data include the runs and the walks he does, the routes he takes while rock climbing, his heart rates, vitamin D and glucose levels in his body, the miles he travels, the locations he has been to, Instagram photos, tweets and GitHub commits. He puts all these in one place and publishes them online. Here is why he does it all.

Knowing that my activity is being tracked and published to the world has been a really great motivator to do interesting things or try harder. Especially for things like whether to go running, or how fast/far I go. If no one else was watching I might cut corners, but now I feel like I’m being held accountable, like I’d be letting down my visitors and friends otherwise.”  To read more click here.

What do all these mean for online learning?

Are there things that MOOC providers/instructors can integrate into their platforms? How can they further motivate MOOC learners? This is not to say social components like the ones above are the only way to motivate learners. Many other issues such as overall course design, the quality of the content provided, intentions of the learners, whether the MOOCs will lead to better employment opportunities or even connectivity issues will always have an impact on the engagement levels of the participants in an online course. However, creating opportunities like encouragement techniques and reputation systems that would allow people to share, connect and even compete with one another also matter, in my opinion. For this to happen, more and more learner data should be gathered to build more adaptive, responsive and smarter learning systems where pedagogy and social learning go hand in hand.


McLoughling C., Lee Mark J.W (2007). Social software and participatory learning: Pedagogical choices with technology affordances in the Web era. Ascilite Singapore, 664-675


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