Year One Final Report – Engaging in Open Online Courses

At present there is much discussion of the terms non-formal and informal when referring to not-for-fee study. Non-formal is beginning to be used to describe focused, conscious not-for-credit study such as open online courses whereby a learner is making a conscious effort to undertake free learning. Informal is therefore used to describe unconscious learning such as viewing an educational programme that may generate an interest in progressing through to non-formal learning. As these definitions (Colardyn and Bjornavold, 2004; Cedefop, 2000) have yet to be fully adopted by the academic community I will therefore be using the term informal when referring to a learner undertaking an open online course as the literature I will be reviewing will have used this term to maintain consistency.

The term engagement is more difficult to define in academic purposes, as its understanding being that of interest and participation being almost a given. Even in the paper ‘Through the Open Door: Open Courses as Research, Learning and Engagement’ (Cormier and Siemens, 2010) the term engagement is only used twice; once in the title and once in the opening paragraph. This unspoken understanding was routinely repeated in a range of literature based on engagement (Milligan et al (2013), Ramesh et al (2013), Ahn et al (2013), Kuh (2001), Becker (2000), Kuh and Gonyea (2003), so referral to The Oxford English Dictionary (2015) defines engagement as ‘the action of engaging or being engaged’ (mass noun) deriving its synonyms as; participation, taking part, sharing, involvement, partaking, and association. For the purposes of this research the definition of ‘successful engagement’ will be identified as completion of an open online course, however engagement itself, it is hypothesised in this research, is the co-forging of knowledge and experience that can lead to the successful engagement, therefore completion of a course.

Throughout this research the terms learner and student will be used, these are however not interchangeable in their nature. Learners are associated with for-free, informal, not-for-credit learning, whilst students are associated with for-fee, formal, for-credit study. It is important to note that though this is the terminology used within the body of the research the responses given by the learners in interviews and surveys may include referral of themselves as ‘students’ and their learning as ‘study’ as they are more used to these terms from previous exposure to formal education.

For the purpose of this study I will be using the above terms to research into the engagement levels of learners in open online courses and the possible ramifications on learning design that this analysis has. The study however won’t be taking into consideration other aspects of informal learning such as educational television programmes, audio visual files on social media sites, or learning interactives. As OOCs have the strongest association to JIFL this shall remain the sole focus of my research.

What is apparent is that MOOCs are a ‘disruptive innovation’ (Christensen et al, 2008) in education whereby a new market and value has been created that has disrupted the existing market and value of Higher Education, with Udacity’s CS101 (Computer Science 101) enrolling over 300,000 learners, making it the largest MOOC to date (Wikipedia, 2013).

The appeal of MOOCs is a global one, with no time boundaries, as there are perpetual or repeated cycle presentations. No educational or professional prerequisites exit, although certain MOOCs state that a pre-entry level knowledge is beneficial. Some xMOOC platforms set an age limit for registration, though this isn’t heavily moderated and with cMOOCs where the knowledge and materials are in the web there is no age limit, as all is required is an email address for enrolment.  Though the platforms and courses themselves are accepting of all nationalities,  due to United States export control regulations US platforms can’t be accessed in Syria, Cuba, Iran, and the Sudan (Coursera, 2014). Though the courses themselves are free to enrol on (with the exception of Udemy) certification or proctored examinations are often optional for-fee activities. The only requirement is that the learner has access to the internet to engage with the course. In many cases it is not just those who have no access to higher education who are capitalising on the phenomenon; research has suggested that middle class families are engaging in learning through MOOCs as a method to offset the high costs of education (Thrift 2013).

Though this MOOC data is important for reference, the demographic of the learners is not suitable for the purposes of this study to understand the attraction and engagement of learners towards open courses as part of a JIFL journey. Numerous demographic studies indicate that the majority of MOOC learners have a degree or higher (Balch, 2013; Belanger & Thornton, 2013; Breslow et al., 2013, Hill, 2013, Tomkin and Charlevoix, 2014).

The findings from these studies suggest that:

  1. MOOC learners are most likely to already be enrolled in university education courses or have completed higher level academic study at some point and therefore no the demographic sought for the purpose of this study to encourage learners onto a JIFL journey.
  2. The engagement and drop-off rates are consistent across the MOOCs researched
  3. Many MOOC learners already have a professional affiliation to their chosen subject area prior to registering

However, the data gathered for the first ten MOOCs presented by The OU on FutureLearn will be reviewed as part of this study in order to make a comparison with non-OU courses, to draw themes, commonalities and differences between them.

Aside from MOOCs, the majority of studies focusing upon learner engagement have taken place within a classroom setting, and engagement is normally based on attendance to class, interaction with discussion and grades achieved (Ramesh et al, 2013). Such factors are not easily observable in open courses so it is difficult to use these traditional markers in the application of this study.

Ramesh et al (2013) classify learner engagement into three categories; Active Engagement, Passive Engagement and Disengaged. Though the classification for a disengaged learner is identified by a decrease their level of posting, viewing, voting, and assessment submission it may be that the learners is not disengaged but is instead developing lurking following but not engaging or passive participant characteristics in their learning activity (Milligan et al, 2013) in the movement towards becoming a strategic learner by applying ‘surface-level processing’ (Biggs, 1989; Tagg, 2003). In situations such as this, page analytics data isn’t enough to clarify whether the activity is ‘clicking or learning’ (Reich, 2015) without actually making contact with learners to understand more. These theories will be re-examined upon the collection of data from OpenLearn as OpenLearn courses at present do not utilise social learning tools such as comments or likes so therefore doesn’t have a learning community associated with each of the courses.

It is possible the that learners are displaying the characteristics of ‘uncourse’ (Hirst, 2009) whereby they are not learning in the linear path set out by the course and therefore not engaging in the forums and discussions as and when expected, though deemed ‘essential’ by Mak et al. (2010) in regards to situated learning theory (Green, 1989) residing primarily in social interactions and secondarily in the individual. To the learner this may not seem to them as being disengaged, rather the adaptation of the course to suit their needs as a self-directed learner (Belz and Muller-Hartman, 2003), as open courses attract such high numbers diversity of the learner population the development of autonomy in their learning is expected (Mackness et al., 2010) so therefore all learners cannot be expected to learn the course exactly the educator had planned it. Learners may find the conversations disparate, due to the large volume of learners and therefore overwhelming (Lau, 2014).

Though learners may consider themselves engaged in the course by making a ‘psychological investment in learning’ (Newmann, 1992), it may not be towards completion of the course at the same timescale as set by the educator. The date ranging frequently used to analysis MOOCs is set at the course start and end dates. If a learner does not complete the course within these timescales then they may be deemed as disengaged even if the learner completes the course after it has ended, as this is informal learning it must be considered that learners have a more relaxed view as to the importance of the end date and therefore create an ‘engagement gap’.

Research has been conducted on the use of videos and forums in open courses (Sinha et al., 2014a; Ramesh et al., 2014; Rose et al., 2014; Wen et al., 2014a, Wen et al., 2014b; Yang et al., 2013) however, little research has been conducted into the learners views on all component parts collectively of a course; forums, videos, articles, transcripts, quizzes, and activities as to which they prefer to engage, or not engage, with as one size does not necessarily fit all (Sinha et al., 2013; Lie et al., 2014; Sinha, 2014b). Understanding what learners perceive to be disengaging is just as important as what they perceive to be engaged as the will to learn can be fragile (Barnett, 2007).

As demonstrated through the literature currently available, engagement is an outcome required from open online courses (Ahn et al (2013), Yang et al (2013), Yuan and Powell (2013) and Glance et al (2014), however it is a term that is not clearly defined and the entity of engagement itself is not tangible as it is measured primarily through course completion data (successful engagement) which is subject to other contributing factors. As stated previously when considering engagement itself, it is hypothesised in this research, is the co-forging of knowledge and experience that can lead to the successful engagement, therefore completion of a course. For levels of engagement to increase in open online courses, the learning design of these courses must be considered.


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