MOOCs and Motivation: Part 1

One of the criticisms of MOOCS has been that while they enroll a large number of participants, only a few finish. We had this experience with #OpenLearning17, but I wonder if it’s a bug or a feature. In this post, I present the data, while in the next I will speculate about what it means.

Let’s start with the data. Our constructivist MOOC went on for 14 weeks during the early part of 2017, roughly the same time as my semester. Since one of the goals of the Faculty Collaborative project was to create a sustaining resource, I extended my look several weeks past the end of the course. Two forms of engagement with the course that left a record were twitter and blog posts. The following two charts show total tweets and posts (by week) from the beginning of the course thru six weeks after.

The pattern of blog posts and tweets is similar. The numbers start large and then diminish over time. The blog posts are strictly diminishing through the end of the course. There’s more variation in the tweets, probably based on the topics of the week, but the trend is also diminishing. While the most tweets were in the first week, there were local peaks in Week 5 (Digital Literacy) and Week 8 (Open Pedagogy). Note also the surge of tweets during the ODU Summer Institute week (The week labeled +3), after the course was formally over. Twitter is a common backchannel for communication during conferences and similar events. Note also that the conversation continues with at least 12 tweets per week since the course end and an average of 5 blog posts per week since then.

The pattern of declining activity from the first week of the course is consistent with the claim that only a small fraction of participants finish, and by extension, that MOOCs are a failure. But is that the only takeaway?

When I mentioned this to David Wiley, he proposed alternatively that maybe people got what they wanted from the MOOC and then left. Not everyone is interested in every topic. Perhaps they tuned in for those topics and not others. Some of the tweet data is consistent with that hypothesis with surges and declines around specific topics.

We also surveyed participants about why they didn’t complete the course. According to the survey results, there were two reasons for people dropping out: The most important was lack of time or time conflicts, given one’s other commitments. There were also respondents who indicated a lack of interest in a some topics.

With respect to the first reason, here is a sample of responses:

  • I loved the week or so that I was actively participating in OpenLearning17. The topics and associated readings were thought-provoking, the chats, etc. stimulating. Facilitation and collegial sharing was great. I had been looking forward to the experience and it did not disappoint. Unfortunately I did not have the time to continue.


  • The intensity of my workload meant I couldn’t keep up with the reading, and I certainly couldn’t keep up with the writing.


  • Yes, it was mainly a time issue as my participation decreased…although I did catch all of the web hangouts with Randy and Bret, and did some tweeting during those sessions. But my blogging certainly dropped off, which I regret.


  • I apologize for disappearing from the class.  Student draft-conferencing season hit, and I’ve been swamped.


  • For me it was totally a time thing. I had to parse out my hours and minutes diligently and just kept having to hope there’d be time for OpenLearning17- but it kept vanishing.


  • As the semester went on, my schedule got much busier and I couldn’t fit the OpenLearning activities in. I could probably do something like this more effectively over the summer. Or with more flexibility (do multiple lessons in one week, none another week, if that worked better for my schedule).


  • I was excited about the course and kept up with the reading for a number of weeks past when I stopped blogging/tweeting about it, but I noticed myself tapering off and I was disappointed that I couldn’t make it work. … I really WANTED to remain engaged with the cMOOC as the term went forward; I even tried to time-limit my engagement so that I could do a thing within the context of the time constraints I was working under. I just literally ran out of time to do so. I needed every second.


There is some evidence that individuals continued to participate, even if they didn’t have the time to blog.

  • It all interested me– it was time– I tried to follow, but I didn’t have time to write and engage. Between travel, all my work projects and my dissertation, it was just too much. Content was actually more of interest toward the end for me– and I have lots of things in my head, just no time to get them out.


  • I actually intended to write a wrap up to that effect a couple weeks ago when the course ended, but you know how the end of spring semester can be.


Some participants expressed a lack of interest in particular topics:

  • Thanks again for organizing the OpenLearning17 course. I will continue going over the readings and on occasion blogging about them. I dropped out because of time, and the openlearning project, which I found highly stimulating but marginal to my current job responsibilities (which focus on faculty career planning), had to be cut. (emphasis added)


  • Honestly, it was a combination of factors for me. I really appreciated the academic exploration of open-related topics, but sometimes they simply were just too theoretical for me. I am a librarian at a community college so I spend a lot of time thinking about and working toward what will help our students today, and while I appreciate the need for academic exploration, practical takeaways and insights help keep it balanced for me. But it wasn’t that the later topics didn’t interest me; in fact I think some of the topics in the week I missed would have been more relevant to me and my role in open learning, and I will hopefully get a chance to explore those this summer. (emphasis added)


Several participants expressed an interest in continuing the conversation in the future:

  • I very much appreciated the opportunities presented by the course, and hope to remain part of the conversation going forward.


  • I really appreciated the format and many ways to engage in the course! I would definitely try again with something like this!


  • There’s still a host of things I want to review from how the thing went down, and a whole lot of learning I can take from the thing. But this spring turned out not to be the time for that at all.


  • If you all are willing, I am planning a bit further ahead now and I think that will insure that I have the time for OpenLearning18.


Next, what might this evidence mean?

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