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Education Opinion

Practical Guidance from MOOC Research: Learning Beyond the Platform

By Justin Reich — August 06, 2015 4 min read

What have we learned from the last two years of MOOC research that could help improve the design of courses?

This post continues my series of short posts on seven general themes from MOOC research that could inform the design of large-scale learning environments in the years ahead.


  1. MOOC students are diverse, but trend towards auto-didacts (July 2)
  2. MOOC students value flexibility, but benefit when they engage frequently (July 6)
  3. The best predictor of persistence and completion is intention, though every activity predicts every other activity (July 12)
  4. MOOC students (tell us they) leave because they get busy with other things, but we may be able to help them stay on track (July 16)
  5. Students learn more from doing than watching (July 21)
  6. Lots of student learning activities are happening beyond our observation: including note-taking, socializing, and using external references (Today!)
  7. Improving student learning outcomes will require measuring learning, experimenting with different approaches, and baking research into courses from the beginning

6. Lots of student learning activities are happening beyond our observation: including note-taking, socializing, and using external references

Much of the early research from MOOC platforms like edX and Coursera has been quantitative in nature. MOOC learning management systems keep records of every action taken on the platform by every student, and these have the potential to be a treasure trove of data about student learning. There is so much of this data, however, that it can be easy to confuse tracking logs as a comprehensive record of student experience, but they are not. Lots of student behavior and learning takes place beyond the platform: either in the physcial world or online but off the LMS. A better understanding of what students are doing beyond the platform can help educators do a better job of designing learning experiences within the platform.

One important new frontier for MOOC research is qualitative research that helps us understand what students are learning and doing outside of our platforms. Some early work in this domain has been done by George Veletsianos and colleagues looking at student interviews, along with Monica Bulger and colleagues looking at data from MOOC meetups. At HarvardX, we currently have a corpus of nearly 200 student interviews that might help us understand some of these important dimensions of learning.

From this early literature, three themes stand out as places where learners are doing things off-platform that could be better supported within courses.

First, lots of MOOC students take notes while they are watching lectures. They keep paper notebooks, or they watch videos on one device and type into another, or they develop some other scheme. How many? We don’t know. These kinds of qualitative studies are good at establishing the range of possible behaviors (does anyone do X?) but not their distribution (what percentage of people do X?). To some extent, this kind of active engagement stands at odds with stereotypes of MOOC learners as passive: even when the courses call for passive behavior, students are finding ways to engage. Course developers might consider ways of helping student take notes effectively, by offering templates or strategies that are particularly useful in a field or discipline. They could share exemplar notes, or help students share notes with each other, or encourage people ta or share their notes with others, or incorporate notes into the courseware.

Second, students are using references outside of the courseware, like finding additional books or readings. Course teams should create lists of additional references to help students find the best resources and to encourage more students to learn beyond the boundaries of the course.

Finally, many students are social learners. They talk with family and friends, and sometimes they take courses together. Course teams could encourage this behavior by offering special incentives for teams of students that sign up for a course (a raffle for extra office hours with the professor?). Todd Rogers’ research on Study Supports also provides a potentially powerful tool to support learners. Todd asks students to provide the cell phone number of a friend or family member to act as a student’s study supporter, and then sends the supporter weekly text messages telling the supporter about the course. This prompts the supporter to discuss the course with the student, and to encourage his or her participation. Early research suggests that this type of social nudge can improve student persistence and completion. Students also organize themselves into groups and Monica Bulger has some new research on this using data from meetup.com. What can professors do to encourage those groups and to help seed productive discussions there?

All of this research reminds us that MOOC student learning is more than what happens between fingers, keyboards, and mouse clicks, and the best instructional designs will find ways inside online learning platforms to support the diverse learning activities that happen beyond them.

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my publications, C.V., and online portfolio, visit EdTechResearcher.

The opinions expressed in EdTech Researcher are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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