MOOCs: A Design Question to Consider

The conversation regarding MOOCs (massive open online courses) is presently at a fevered pitch in higher education. This relatively recent method of educational delivery -- where thousands of people across the world can access college-level courses for free anywhere there is an internet connection -- is being hailed by some as a revolution, and by others as a fad.

While all of the debate around MOOCs is certainly exciting, we as educators, researchers and educational leaders must be careful not to get too caught up in the art of debating. Instead, we must remain focused on asking the questions that will help us shape whatever we have here with MOOCs into something that will help the most learners possible.

One factor that will help determine the success of MOOCs and how they will affect learners are the questions we ask about the design of the MOOCs themselves. Having done some research on MOOCs, and after spending some time with them (as a participant and observer), I have a question that continues to stay in my mind:

How do we best design MOOCs to keep the learner motivated?

The foundation of a MOOC relies heavily on the self-motivational drive of the learner. There are a host of articles and reports stating that many of the learners who start a MOOC do not finish (with most citing that 90 percent or more of those who register for a MOOC do not finish). While researchers everywhere are still trying to best interpret these reports, the question remains: How can we make sure that a learner stays motivated in the MOOC digital environment when there's no one forcing him or her to keep going?

As we try to answer this question, I feel that it is important we recognize the online/digital world as its own entity with different considerations than the physical world. Simply transferring the classroom experience to an online space (by turning lectures into video lectures and adding micro-quizzes and a discussion forum) is assuming that learning in the digital world occurs nearly the same as it would in the physical world. In this case, we are not looking at how powerful and almost boundless the digital world is, and are instead limiting a digital environment's capability to connect with the learner.

As a result, many learners may register to enter the digital environment of a MOOC, but may not feel the same level of motivation to remain a participant that they feel in other digital environments (such as virtual worlds, video games and participatory media). As a result, even if learning is taking place, they may not feel motivated to continue with the MOOC.

Therefore, it is important that we examine how other digital environments such as virtual worlds, video games and participatory media motivate their participants to keep participating. It is further important to continue a dialogue and co-research with the learners of today to gain understanding of how they learn in these digital environments and what motivates them to keep participating in them.

This question of motivation is one of many areas we must explore about MOOC design. If we do not spend enough time asking the right questions regarding the design of MOOC learning environments, it won't matter if millions of people take these courses -- the MOOCs will eventually fail too many of them. We are at a critical stage where we need to take a step back from the art of the debate and realize that if we ask the right questions, we can assure that whatever comes from this emergence of MOOCs will be something that ultimately benefits the most learners possible.