Survey Reveals Students’ Motivations for Choosing MOOCs

By Kevin Connors — August 01, 2013 3 min read
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Students’ attraction to specific academic topics is the primary factor for why they enroll in massive, open online courses, commonly known as MOOCs, according a new survey.

Thirty-five percent of respondents indicated that interest in a course topic was their main motivator when signing up for a MOOC, while 24 percent cited personal professional development, and 16 percent said they enrolled primarily because the course was offered for free.

Yet when asked to cite all the factors influencing their decisions to take MOOCs, 76 percent cited course topic, 75 percent said because it was free, and 61 percent cited the pursuit of professional development, as motivation. (See the chart below for the full list of factors)

Despite the various reasons for enrolling, the survey, designed to gauge students’ motivations for taking MOOCs, found that only 56 percent of enrolled students actually completed their course. The quality of the learning experience was cited as one of the primary reasons. It should be noted that the completion rate found in this study is significantly higher than some other estimates.

Almost two-thirds of those surveyed noted that they would be more likely to finish a course if MOOCs offered certificates or transferrable college credit.

Qualtrics, a data-analytics company in education, partnered with Instructure, an online-learning provider, in surveying over 1,800 students participating in Instructure’s MOOC platform to gain insight into the student perspective on the MOOC marketplace. The participants ranged from ages 15-69, and 65 percent of them reside in the United States.

“Research on MOOCs has been limited to asking faculty and administrators what they think about open online learning, but little has been done to explore what students are thinking,” said Danielle Wanderer, head of marketing at Qualtrics, in a statement. “This study was an effort to move beyond anecdotes and speculation to get some real insights about what attracts students to MOOCs and what it takes to keep them engaged.”

The survey revealed that it can be challenging to keep students invested in the course if the experience is not as engaging as they expect, Wanderer told Education Week. Twenty-nine percent of students who did not complete their course cited a disappointing learning experience as the primary reason they dropped out, while the same percentage of respondents said they were too busy.

“This really puts the onus on the educators and professors to think differently about how to engage that many students” in virtual environments, Wanderer said. “They have to remove themselves from the traditional classroom and small, online course styles they may be used to in order to provide compelling and engaging material to so many students at once.”

While many students indicated they would like to receive course credit from MOOCs, Wanderer pointed out that convincing colleges to accept transferred credits from those online classes might be a challenge. In order to keep students on board, MOOC providers would be well advised to focus on making their courses as relevant and engaging as possible, she said.

Some other notable findings of survey include:

  • 77 percent of MOOC participants hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, and 42 percent of participants are educators;
  • Almost two-thirds of respondents earn less than $50,000 per year, a figure that possibly contributes to the reason why 75 percent of students cited “free” as a reason for enrolling;
  • 73 percent of students who enroll in MOOCs are white and 70 percent are women;
  • 61 percent of respondents who finished the course said it was easy to stay engaged or focused; and
  • 72 percent of students participated in course discussions, compared to only 60 percent who expected to do so upon enrolling in the class

While these survey results provide some preliminary insight into MOOCs, Wanderer noted that more research is needed in this area if the online platforms expect to keep growing as alternative forms of education for college students, and potentially in K-12 environments.

“We need to ask students what works and what doesn’t,” Wanderer said. “Then we need to talk to professors and ask them what engaging means how they define it. There is a lot more to learn.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.