MOOCs and Motivation: Part 2

This post is a continuation of the previous one, but digs deeper into the question of why participants fail to complete MOOCs  It is speculative and personal. It’s possibly based too much on my own experience, so take it for what it’s worth.

The most frequently expressed reason for dropping out of #OpenLearning17 was lack of time. While I accept that at one level, I also wonder if there are deeper reasons. Let’s start with some thoughts specifically on MOOCs; then we can explore deeper issues of motivation, comparing the experience of students with the experience of instructors and professionals.

I’m assuming that participants joined #OpenLearning17 because they have an interest in and want to learn the subject. There was little or no extrinsic reward for doing so. This has been the case for all the MOOCs I’ve participated in.

MOOCs often include a great deal of work in a given week. Some weeks #OpenLearning17 certainly did. The idea is that those who have a particular interest in the subject can dig more deeply than those who don’t. I found that when I had worked through a certain amount of the work, I felt like I knew enough to participate. I didn’t have to do all of the work to reach that point. During some weeks, I wasn’t able to do enough work to reach that point. This made me less able or less willing to participate publicly.  As one participant indicated in a survey response,

“Yes, as the semester went on my schedule got much busier and I couldn’t fit the OpenLearning activities in. Some weeks required a lot more than others and then I felt like I couldn’t really do the week justice.“

MOOCs tend to be based on a cohort model—they are not self-paced. If one finds one can’t keep up with the ostensive pace of the course—if, for several weeks in a row, one finds they don’t do enough of the work to reach that level of understanding of the subject mentioned above, I think there’s a tendency for participants to feel like it’s not worth coming back, even if the course is not vertically building.   If this process spirals out of control, the MOOC participant may drop out.

Could it be that the (arbitrary) pace of the online course doesn’t match the time availability of most of the students? What then? (And what does this say about the learning experiences of the students in the courses we teach?)

Is the problem of failure to complete a MOOC due to the lack of accountability?  Students more often than not stay with a course because of the grade and credits that will be earned.  Is that a bug or a feature? One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that relatively few students plan well for the end of the semester. Final papers and exams are often worse than I would expect from students, given the quality of their earlier work. This seems due in part to the fact that students are stressed beyond the level that makes them productive, and some students seem to give up, just to be done with it.

When I engage in a scholarly project, I work at it until it’s done to my satisfaction. Often the only deadline is my own. When I have an externally-imposed deadline, I tend to adjust the pace of my work to meet that deadline. I can do this because I have a lot of experience and a strong sense of how much time a given task or set of tasks will take.  [ For a related discussion, see John Warner recent piece.]

When I’m teaching, the schedule is external—I have to turn grades in by a certain date, and I make that deadline. Sometimes that results in a difficult couple of days and I may end up wishing I had a bit more time. In the case of determining final grades, again experience has taught me about how long something will take, though ultimately the need to meet the deadline may make me less sensitive to how good a job I’ve done. It’s probably true that final exams and final grades are, to a certain extent, like sausage making.

How is a student’s experience taking a class different from an instructor or professional completing their work? Many students don’t know how much effort it takes to complete their assignments and/or what a good result is or how much time it takes. In other words, students lack self-efficacy and the ability to self-regulate their learning.  I see this particularly with first year students, but also with some upper level students.

When I do something professionally I typically want to meet a standard of what I consider good work. When I was an undergraduate, while I wanted to do good work, I wasn’t always sure what that would be. When push came to shove, I turned in what I had, for better or for worse. While I had a grade at stake, the lack of experience and understanding of my learning process meant that I didn’t always achieve my goals.

When I do something professionally I have a good understanding of process I’m about to engage in. As a student, I had an imperfect understanding of that process and, at times,that   led me to undershoot.  Why didn’t the uncertainty lead me to overshoot? Because there’s nothing higher than a A? Because I wasn’t as motivated as a student as I am as a professional?  I’m not sure. As a student, I had a lot of what I thought were important things competing for my time. As a professional I do also, but I also have a better sense of what’s important, and how long things will take.

What about when I take a course or a MOOC? My participation in #OpenLearning17 asked me to do some things that I wasn’t all that familiar or comfortable with.  These including annotating documents with, Creating Storify(s), and participating in real time twitter discussions when I hadn’t done enough of the assignments to be able to contribute much. I felt self-conscious about embarrassing myself publicly.  As Sarah Rose Cavanaugh said in a recent Chronicle piece, “To participate is to risk a lowering of one’s status.”  In short, during #OpenLearning17, at times I behaved like a student.

Is there a tendency as a student to give up agency to the instructor, falling back on our learned behavior of school? I just know that when I take a course, I don’t feel as responsible as when I teach one, or as when I do some other professional task. I wonder if I’m the only faculty member who feels that way.  More importantly, how can we encourage our students to get beyond this artificial barrier to learning?


Image courtesy of tamahaji “The Motivation” via

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