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Happy Thursday! This week, we’re delving into research about MOOCs - specifically looking at learner engagement. First, we’ll present a new(ish) study. Then, we’ll revisit a previous LSW article. The questions we’re hoping to answer this week are:

  • Do learners have different types of engagement? If so, does it matter?
  • Are MOOCs following instructional design principles?

Let’s take a look!

Clusters, Courses, and Certificates 📜

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have become a popular topic over the past decade, with many researchers flocking to understand learner engagement, learning outcomes, and more. When considering MOOCs, it’s important to note several differences to “traditional courses,” since they do not take place in classrooms, have few financial constraints, include a wider audience, etc. (Deng et al., 2020). These differences are significant because as we think about ways in which research on MOOCs may be generalizable, we should keep in mind that learners are free to stay or go, did not invest monetarily, and are not necessarily bound to a specific timeframe for course completion.

In fact, many regard MOOCs as incredibly beneficial for companies to leverage to aid in employee education/training (Hamori, 2018; Radford et al., 2014). Past research has reviewed learner engagement in MOOCs, it has predominantly focused on behavioral and social engagement, such as posting in discussion boards. The current research evaluates learner engagement through behavioral, social, cognitive, and emotional components. The researchers further evaluated how a variety of learner factors and teaching contexts relate to engagement, as well as how engagement patterns relate to learning outcomes (Deng et al., 2020). See image for the conceptual framework.

Deng et al. (2020)

The authors classified the different engagement types in the following way:

  • Behavioral engagement: learners study the MOOC “on a regular basis, take notes while studying,” and review notes prior to assessments.
  • Cognitive engagement: learners’ “mental investment” in studying the MOOC to “comprehend complex ideas, master difficult skills, and strengthen learning and performance.”
  • Emotional engagement: whether learners are “inspired to expand” their knowledge through the MOOC and “enjoy studying the MOOC.”
  • Social engagement: moments of learning-based interaction between “learners and instructors or other learners.”

Based on the engagement types, the results identified 3 engagement patterns: “individually engaged,””least engaged,” and “wholly engaged” (Deng et al., 2020). Those classified as “wholly engaged” illustrated high, and relatively equal, levels of engagement across different engagement types. The “least engaged” cluster showed very low engagement across the board, with the least in social and behavioral engagement. “Individually engaged” learners showed fairly high levels of engagement in behavioral, emotional, and cognitive, but lacked social engagement (Deng et al., 2020).

Deng et al. (2020)

So, what other differences existed between these groups? Regarding motivation, “individually” and “least” engaged learners were mostly driven by personal interest, while “wholly engaged” learners were motivated by academic/career purposes and earning a certificate. When looking at certificates then, it makes sense that “wholly engaged” learners were more likely to earn a paid/free certificate than other learners; the other two groups generally “only participated in a subset” of the MOOC (Deng et al., 2020).

Understanding the different clusters of learner engagement, their behaviors, and learning motivations can help us to design more effective courses/training programs, as well as how to boost engagement and completion! The findings from this study illustrate “the importance of monitoring MOOC learners’ engagement patterns beyond a single dimension” (Deng et al., 2020). It should also be noted that, for some learners, all four types of engagement may not be necessary, so monitoring the different types of engagement, rather than “engagement-at-large” may be a better approach. Lastly, the results suggest that finding alternative methods for understanding learning outcomes may be necessary, as many learners do not intend on completing an entire course.

There are many individual differences to consider when evaluating learner engagement, motivations, and learning outcomes. We should explore these differences to better serve learners, as one solution might work best for “least engaged” learners, but not for “individually engaged” learners.

Key Findings: Although we’re often concerned about overall learner engagement, Deng et al. (2020) suggests that understanding engagement patterns across different types of engagement can help paint a clearer picture of our learners. Once we understand our learners' engagement patterns, motivations, and goals, we can then adjust accordingly to improve outcomes!

Read More ($): Deng, R., Benckendorff, P., & Gannaway, D. (2020). Linking learner factors, teaching context, and engagement patterns with MOOC learning outcomes. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 36.

⚡🔙.✌️.[Issue #2

]( Coursework: What Doesn’t Work

In a 2019 study of massive open online courses (MOOCs), researchers Egloffstein, Koegler, & Ifenthaler found that many of them didn’t follow best practices in instructional design (such as my favorite, the First Principles from Merrill -- read on for those). They report that the reviewed courses “showed substantial shortcomings with regard to an adequate individualized support of learners and the implementation of collaborative elements” (p. 95). In addition, MOOCs did not often adapt the problem-centered and case-based approaches that are so widely recognized as effective in business-related training. If you’re interested in MOOCs, this is a rich report -- definitely check out the full study. ‍

Key Takeaway: Successful online learning requires learner engagement and individualized attention; don’t just chuck content online and expect it to go well.

Read More (Open): Egloffstein, M., Koegler, K., & Ifenthaler, D. (2019). Instructional Quality of Business MOOCs: Indicators and Initial Findings. Online Learning, 23(4).

Pets of Learning Science Weekly

Our pup this week has an amazing look! Reader Elizabeth T. shared “9-year-old beagle/dachshund” baby, Annie! When considering Annie's LSW stardom today, I kept thinking of the following quote:

“You can have anything you want in life if you dress for it.” — Edith Head 👠

Send us your pet pics at

Wondering why we’re including animal photos in a learning science newsletter? It may seem weird, we admit. But we’re banking on the baby schema effect and the “power of Kawaii.” So, send us your cute pet pics -- you’re helping us all learn better!

The LSW Crew

Learning Science Weekly is written and edited by Katie Vanhardt, Ph.D.

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