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Student behaviour in the MOOCosphere

Students in a lecture hall

Does student behaviour online mirror the traditional classroom? (Courtesy: Shutterstock/wavebreakmedia)

By James Dacey

I’ve written a few times recently about the rise of massive open online courses, or “MOOCs” for short. If this trend in education has so far passed you by, MOOCs are online courses generally offered free of charge by some of the leading universities in the world. For example, Massachusetts Institute of Technology offers courses in classical mechanics and electricity & magnetism, and the University of Edinburgh has recently launched a course about the discovery of the Higgs boson.

MOOCs tend to combine video lectures with assignments such as problem sets and extended projects. In many ways, the course formats mirror or complement traditional classroom-based education, incorporating features such as forums where students can discuss the course content amongst themselves. Some of the science courses even include online “practicals” by way of virtual laboratories. But despite the proliferation of MOOCs in the past few years, very little research has been carried out on the way that students are actually engaging with the courses.

Now, a group of researchers in the US has done the first relatively detailed study of student behaviour in the MOOCosphere. The study is described in a paper published on the arXiv preprint server with lead author Ashton Anderson, a computer scientist at Stanford University. Anderson and his team examined the behaviour of the student population in courses offered by Stanford through Coursera, one of the major MOOC providers. The courses were on the topics of machine learning and probabilistic graphical models. After reading the study, it seems to me that the “take away” message is that MOOC students have many different motivations for taking these courses and as a result they behave in an assortment of ways, distinct from classrooms in the real world.

“Rather than think of MOOCs as online analogues of traditional offline university classes, we found that online classes come with their own set of diverse student behaviours,” write the authors.

Five types of student

The study places MOOC students into five distinct categories. There are the “all-rounders” who are essentially the class keen beans who watch most of the video lectures and complete most of the assignments. There are the “viewers” who primarily watch the video lectures but don’t bother handing in many assignments, many of whom may be tuning in for general interest. Conversely, there are the “solvers” who skip most of the lectures but hand in assignments, perhaps because they already know a lot of the course content from previous study. There are the “collecters” who download lots of lectures but don’t hand in many assignments, and finally the “bystanders” who register for the MOOC but don’t bother to show up once the course has started.

The thing that struck me when I saw these categories is that this behaviour does seem to mirror behaviour in traditional classrooms, despite what the authors conclude about the distinct MOOC student behaviour. Anyone who attended a bricks-and-mortar university will surely recognize all of the above personality traits among their peer group. I’m sure you can all recall a few “viewers” who turned up to most lectures but couldn’t be bothered with the homework. Likewise, I’m sure you all remember those annoying “solvers” who skipped most of the lectures but still managed to get top marks on the assignments.

Anything for a shiny badge

One other interesting feature of the study is an analysis of the discussion forums that are available to students taking the courses. Anderson and his team found that students engaged more with these forums when they were offered electronic badges for getting involved with the chats and the content-feedback activities. The researchers say it was clear that students were changing their behaviour once badges were made available: they were putting in the extra effort required to get their hands on these prizes. The study also found that those who were the first to pose queries on the forums tended to perform worse overall in the MOOC than those who were responding to those queries with helpful advice in the same discussion threads.

Again, I would argue that the idea of students putting in the extra effort when the activity is incentivized is a clear mirror of what occurs in the tradition classroom. In my primary school, I used to work extra hard for the shiny gold stars and in secondary school we used to be awarded paper credits for high achievement. Likewise, the idea of the smarter kids helping those who are struggling with the content is also a mirror of a harmonious classroom in the real world. To stretch my argument drastically, I am convinced that for most walks of life, behaviour on the Web is no different from the way we act in the real world. But that would take an entire book to justify, which I won’t bore you with here.

For more information about the rise of MOOCs, you can read my feature article “The MOOC point”, which appears in the March issue of Physics World. This special issue about education is available as a free PDF download. I also produced this short film about a new initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in which MOOC technologies are being incorporated into the traditional undergraduate physics programme. Take a look at that to discover what the students make of this new form of blended learning.

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  1. edward perry

    I have completed 13 mooc’s over the last two years. I have concentrated on courses centered around AI, machine learning, statistics, and probability utilizing Python, the programming language. I completely agree with your conclusions.

    I am a 56 year old Dartmouth trained EE, I have found that these courses to be extremely valuable.

    If you want or need a more detailed explanation of my experiences with online learning , let me know.

  2. Dileep V. Sathe

    I would like to draw the attention of readers to recent finding of J. David Smith, a psychologist from the Buffalo. He recently reported different cognitive systems at various levels. I think that his finding has some concern with “big” problems in classical mechanics. First problem is in the title of a letter in American J. Physics, “Did Newton forget his own laws of motion?” This letter is in my mind since January 1984 because I am restudying the “learning” of classical mechanics for about 35 years. In my opinion, Newton’s *conflicting* thoughts is a result of two different cognitive systems in his mind. Also I think that due to such conflicting thoughts, Frank Wilczek, a leader of theoretical physics from M.I.T., had maximum trouble in learning classical mechanics (Physics Today, October 2004). Therefore, I think, investigating students’ behavior / responses to teaching classical mechanics in general and particularly through MOOC offered by the M.I.T. can offer a challenging opportunity for Ashton Anderson-like researchers. .
    Secondly, Josie – a British teenager – studied physics in a school for one year and then left it and took up a career in biology. This incidence is strange for two reasons, i) it happened in 2007 – that is after the world-wide celebration of the Einstein year for the popularization and ii) according to Einstein (as stated by Roger Osborne in 1984) a child learns half of physics as it grows to age 03 and hence the question why physics becomes unpopular in schools / colleges? I tried to guess the reason for Josie’s reaction to physics (Physics Education, October 2007). That logical stand and findings about students’ behavior have to be coupled to make physics more popular.


    Thank you for calling attention to that very interesting Anderson, et al, paper on arXiv reprint. They used an interesting “aggregation” approach (one that would better fit machine learning than educational psychology, I thought :) to identify “features” of MOOC participation. Personally, I am not impressed with the “badge experiment.” Perhaps I am too old for that .. and I do think gaudy display of “badges” will discourage genuine forum participation and discussion. (If you have “badges” by your name, are you going to ask the same questions? Admit the same mistakes? Take risks when responding? Etc.?) I am also not sure analyzing “solvers” who apparently only turn in assignments and are less than 1% of the sample is really all that worthwhile .. other than to explore motives. There is/has been great (maybe excessive) interest among MOOC students in the “certificates” for these courses and that, I think, does represent accomplishment empirically. However, in general, this paper is a real contribution and one that I’m sure will be read and cited many times.

  4. u14113504

    Thank you for a wonderful entry, as a traditional university student I agree with your conclusion, that student behaviour online mirrors student behaviour at universities and even schools. As I have personally come across all or most of the personalities described under the subheading five types of student at the university i am currently studying at and have experience in an online class environment. we had an online class for one of the courses to revisit things that were going to be included in a test and i found that those who understood the work often answered the questions posed by their fellow students. Thus I am under the impression that one can draw a parallel between the behaviour of the students and what has been described in the above text.


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