Two years after the NYT’s ‘Year of the MOOC’: how much do we actually know about them?

Despite the hype around MOOCs to date, there are many similarities between MOOC research and the breadth of previous investigations into (online) learning.

Timeline of the development of MOOCs and open education, from: Yuan, Li, and Stephen Powell. MOOCs and Open Education: Implications for Higher Education White Paper. University of Bolton: CETIS, 2013.

Ed: Does research on MOOCs differ in any way from existing research on online learning?

Rebecca: Despite the hype around MOOCs to date, there are many similarities between MOOC research and the breadth of previous investigations into (online) learning. Many of the trends we’ve observed (the prevalence of forum lurking; community formation; etc.) have been studied previously and are supported by earlier findings. That said, the combination of scale, global-reach, duration, and “semi-synchronicity” of MOOCs have made them different enough to inspire this work. In particular, the optional nature of participation among a global-body of lifelong learners for a short burst of time (e.g. a few weeks) is a relatively new learning environment that, despite theoretical ties to existing educational research, poses a new set of challenges and opportunities.

Ed: The MOOC forum networks you modelled seemed to be less efficient at spreading information than randomly generated networks. Do you think this inefficiency is due to structural constraints of the system (or just because inefficiency is not selected against); or is there something deeper happening here, maybe saying something about the nature of learning, and networked interaction?

Rebecca: First off, it’s important to not confuse the structural “inefficiency” of communication with some inherent learning “inefficiency”. The inefficiency in the sub-forums is a matter of information diffusion—i.e., because there are communities that form in the discussion spaces, these communities tend to “trap” knowledge and information instead of promoting the spread of these ideas to a vast array of learners. This information diffusion inefficiency is not necessarily a bad thing, however. It’s a natural human tendency to form communities, and there is much education research that says learning in small groups can be much more beneficial / effective than large-scale learning. The important point that our work hopes to make is that the existence and nature of these communities seems to be influenced by the types of topics that are being discussed (and vice versa)—and that educators may be able to cultivate more isolated or inclusive network dynamics in these course settings by carefully selecting and presenting these different discussion topics to learners.

Ed: Drawing on surveys and learning outcomes you could categorise four ‘learner types’, who tend to behave differently in the network. Could the network be made more efficient by streaming groups by learning objective, or by type of interaction (eg learning / feedback / social)?

Rebecca: Given our network vulnerability analysis, it appears that discussions that focus on problems or issues that are based in real life examples—e.g., those that relate to case studies of real companies and analyses posted by learners of these companies—tend to promote more inclusive engagement and efficient information diffusion. Given that certain types of learners participate in these discussions, one could argue that forming groups around learning preferences and objectives could promote more efficient communications. Still, it’s important to be aware of the potential drawbacks to this, namely, that promoting like-minded/similar people to interact with those they are similar to could further prevent “learning through diverse exposures” that these massive-scale settings can be well-suited to promote.

Ed: In the classroom, the teacher can encourage participation and discussion if it flags: are there mechanisms to trigger or seed interaction if the levels of network activity fall below a certain threshold? How much real-time monitoring tends to occur in these systems?

Rebecca: Yes, it appears that educators may be able to influence or achieve certain types of network patterns. While each MOOC is different (some course staff members tend to be much more engaged than others, learners may have different motivations, etc.), on the whole, there isn’t much real-time monitoring in MOOCs, and MOOC platforms are still in early days where there is little to no automated monitoring or feedback (beyond static analytics dashboards for instructors).

Ed: Does learner participation in these forums improve outcomes? Do the most central users in the interaction network perform better? And do they tend to interact with other very central people?

Rebecca: While we can’t infer causation, we found that when compared to the entire course, a significantly higher percentage of high achievers were also forum participants. The more likely explanation for this is that those who are committed to completing the course and performing well also tend to use the forums—but the plurality of forum participants (44% in one of the courses we analysed) are actually those that “fail” by traditional marks (receive below 50% in the course). Indeed, many central users tend to be those that are simply auditing the course or who are interested in communicating with others without any intention of completing course assignments. These central users tend to communicate with other central users, but also, with those whose participation is much sparser/“on the fringes”.

Ed: Slightly facetiously: you can identify ‘central’ individuals in the network who spark and sustain interaction. Can you also find people who basically cause interaction to die? Who will cause the network to fall apart? And could you start to predict the strength of a network based on the profiles and proportions of the individuals who make it up?

Rebecca: It is certainly possible to further explore how different people seem. One way this can be achieved is by exploring the temporal dynamics at play—e.g., by visualising the communication network at any point in time and creating network “snapshots” at every hour or day, or perhaps, with every new participant, to observe how the trends and structures evolve. While this method still doesn’t allow us to identify the exact influence of any given individual’s participation (since there are so many other confounding factors, for example, how far into the course it is, peoples’ schedules/lives outside of the MOOC, etc.), it may provide some insight into their roles. We could of course define some quantitative measure(s) to measure “network strength” based on learner profiles, but caution against overarching or broad claims in doing so due to confounding forces would be essential.

Ed: The majority of my own interactions are mediated by a keyboard: which is actually a pretty inefficient way of communicating, and certainly a terrible way of arguing through a complex point. Is there any sense from MOOCs that text-based communication might be a barrier to some forms of interaction, or learning?

Rebecca: This is an excellent observation. Given the global student body, varying levels of comfort in English (and written language more broadly), differing preferences for communication, etc., there is much reason to believe that a lack of participation could result from a lack of comfort with the keyboard (or written communication more generally). Indeed, in the MOOCs we’ve studied, many learners have attempted to meet up on Google Hangouts or other non-text based media to form and sustain study groups, suggesting that many learners seek to use alternative technologies to interact with others and achieve their learning objectives.

Ed: Based on this data and analysis, are there any obvious design points that might improve interaction efficiency and learning outcomes in these platforms?

Rebecca: As I have mentioned already, open-ended questions that focus on real-life case studies tend to promote the least vulnerable and most “efficient” discussions, which may be of interest to practitioners looking to cultivate these sorts of environments. More broadly, the lack of sustained participation in the forums suggests that there are a number of “forces of disengagement” at play, one of them being that the sheer amount of content being generated in the discussion spaces (one course had over 2,700 threads and 15,600 posts) could be contributing to a sense of “content overload” and helplessness for learners. Designing platforms that help mitigate this problem will be fundamental to the vitality and effectiveness of these learning spaces in the future.

Ed: I suppose there is an inherent tension between making the online environment very smooth and seductive, and the process of learning; which is often difficult and frustrating: the very opposite experience aimed for (eg) by games designers. How do MOOCs deal with this tension? (And how much gamification is common to these systems, if any?)

Rebecca: To date, gamification seems to have been sparse in most MOOCs, although there are some interesting experiments in the works. Indeed, one study (Anderson et al., 2014) used a randomised control trial to add badges (that indicate student engagement levels) next to the names of learners in MOOC discussion spaces in order to determine if and how this affects further engagement. Coursera has also started to publicly display badges next to the names of learners that have signed up for the paid Signature Track of a specific course (presumably, to signal which learners are “more serious” about completing the course than others). As these platforms become more social (and perhaps career advancement-oriented), it’s quite possible that gamification will become more popular. This gamification may not ease the process of learning or make it more comfortable, but rather, offer additional opportunities to mitigate the challenges massive-scale anonymity and lack of information about peers to facilitate more social learning.

Ed: How much of this work is applicable to other online environments that involve thousands of people exploring and interacting together: for example deliberation, crowd production and interactive gaming, which certainly involve quantifiable interactions and a degree of negotiation and learning?

Rebecca: Since MOOCs are so loosely structured and could largely be considered “informal” learning spaces, we believe the engagement dynamics we’ve found could apply to a number of other large-scale informal learning/interactive spaces online. Similar crowd-like structures can be found in a variety of policy and practice settings.

Ed: This project has adopted a mixed methods approach: what have you gained by this, and how common is it in the field?

Rebecca: Combining computational network analysis and machine learning with qualitative content analysis and in-depth interviews has been one of the greatest strengths of this work, and a great learning opportunity for the research team. Often in empirical research, it is important to validate findings across a variety of methods to ensure that they’re robust. Given the complexity of human subjects, we knew computational methods could only go so far in revealing underlying trends; and given the scale of the dataset, we knew there were patterns that qualitative analysis alone would not enable us to detect. A mixed-methods approach enabled us to simultaneously and robustly address these dimensions. MOOC research to date has been quite interdisciplinary, bringing together computer scientists, educationists, psychologists, statisticians, and a number of other areas of expertise into a single domain. The interdisciplinarity of research in this field is arguably one of the most exciting indicators of what the future might hold.

Ed: As well as the network analysis, you also carried out interviews with MOOC participants. What did you learn from them that wasn’t obvious from the digital trace data?

Rebecca: The interviews were essential to this investigation. In addition to confirming the trends revealed by our computational explorations (which revealed the what of the underlying dynamics at play), the interviews, revealed much of the why. In particular, we learned people’s motivations for participating in (or disengaging from) the discussion forums, which provided an important backdrop for subsequent quantitative (and qualitative) investigations. We have also learned a lot more about people’s experiences of learning, the strategies they employ to their support their learning and issues around power and inequality in MOOCs.

Ed: You handcoded more than 6000 forum posts in one of the MOOCs you investigated. What findings did this yield? How would you characterise the learning and interaction you observed through this content analysis?

Rebecca: The qualitative content analysis of over 6,500 posts revealed several key insights. For one, we confirmed (as the network analysis suggested), that most discussion is insignificant “noise”—people looking to introduce themselves or have short-lived discussions about topics that are beyond the scope of the course. In a few instances, however, we discovered the different patterns (and sometimes, cycles) of knowledge construction that can occur within a specific discussion thread. In some cases, we found that discussion threads grew to be so long (with over hundreds of posts), that topics were repeated or earlier posts disregarded because new participants didn’t read and/or consider them before adding their own replies.

Ed: How are you planning to extend this work?

Rebecca: As mentioned already, feelings of helplessness resulting from sheer “content overload” in the discussion forums appear to be a key force of disengagement. To that end, as we now have a preliminary understanding of communication dynamics and learner tendencies within these sorts of learning environments, we now hope to leverage this background knowledge to develop new methods for promoting engagement and the fulfilment of individual learning objectives in these settings—in particular, by trying to mitigate the “content overload” issues in some way. Stay tuned for updates 🙂


Anderson, A., Huttenlocher, D., Kleinberg, J. & Leskovec, J., Engaging with Massive Open Online Courses.  In: WWW ’14 Proceedings of the 23rd International World Wide Web Conference, Seoul, Korea. New York: ACM (2014).

Read the full paper: Gillani, N., Yasseri, T., Eynon, R., and Hjorth, I. (2014) Structural limitations of learning in a crowd – communication vulnerability and information diffusion in MOOCs. Scientific Reports 4.

Rebecca Eynon was talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.

Rebecca Eynon holds a joint academic post between the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) and the Department of Education at the University of Oxford. Her research focuses on education, learning and inequalities, and she has carried out projects in a range of settings (higher education, schools and the home) and life stages (childhood, adolescence and late adulthood).