Mooc students ‘passive’, study suggests

Research finds Harvard course cohort had high hopes, but avoided collaboration and failed to use new skills at work

Source: Alamy

Beats working: students’ initial high aims dissipated during their online study

Students taking massive open online courses (Moocs) end up learning in a “passive” way and fail to use their new knowledge in their jobs, a new study suggests.

It is the latest evidence to dampen claims that Moocs could displace, or at least seriously disrupt, traditional campus-based higher education.

The study surveyed almost 400 participants in Fundamentals of Clinical Trials, a Mooc developed for health professionals by Harvard Medical School, offered through the US-based edX platform.

Students started off with high hopes that they would gain new skills to do their jobs better and boost their careers, explained Colin Milligan, a research fellow at Glasgow Caledonian University and co-investigator on the project.

But when they were questioned during their course, the students simply wanted to complete the programme or get good marks, he said, rather than actually put their knowledge into action.

The design of the Mooc had encouraged students to step on to a “treadmill” of absorbing content and then taking a test, he said, rather than applying it in real life.

Some students also had ambitious goals to swap their expertise with course mates but ended up doing “as little [interaction] as possible”, added Allison Littlejohn, principal investigator on the project and director of the Caledonian Academy, a research centre at the university.

The research, which was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, aimed to gauge the educational impact of Moocs. “There is a lot of rhetoric about Moocs but few studies about how people actually learn,” Professor Littlejohn said.

Moocs for people in work could be improved by incorporating exercises where course mates had to speak to one another, she said, in order to make use of their existing experience.

As part of the Mooc, students could also be asked to use their new knowledge at work, and also to reflect on what they had learned, she said. “Don’t think of a Mooc as a course in a box. Think of it in terms of your work and your life,” Professor Littlejohn added.

Dr Milligan acknowledged that while it was true that all learners, not just those on Moocs, could be “a bit lazy or time pressured”, it was still important that those taking the free courses were incentivised not to “take the easy option” and avoid interacting with their course mates.

Professor Littlejohn said that the research team would be speaking to Mooc platforms such as the UK’s FutureLearn and the US-based Coursera about the results to help design more engaging programmes.

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