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Online student motivation

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Online student motivation

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Whilst MOOCs have undoubtedly grown in popularity since their inception a few years ago, the completion rate remains a source of consternation for the various MOOC networks.  With no money changing hands between student and institution, there is perhaps a degree of confusion about the true motivations that are driving someone to enroll on the course.

Perhaps a study published recently by the University of Texas at Arlington may help to shed some light on the matter.  The study was conducted over several years and explored the experiences of on-campus and online masters students.

“With their classes condensed from the traditional 15-week schedule to a five-week schedule, online students have very intense expectations to meet and there isn’t really a lot of research data out there that measures their experience over time. We’re trying to understand what we can do to help them stay in the program once they have committed,” the researcher said.

The study saw students on both the online and campus based courses complete a survey focusing on their levels of stress and sense of belonging.  A number of findings emerged from the study:

  1. Interestingly, it emerged that online students scored higher on a sense of belonging than their classroom based peers, although it must be said that both groups scored very highly on this score.
  2. Nearly all of the online students made regular contact with the academic coaches they were supplied with as part of the course.  It emerged that the greater the level of contact with these coaches, the greater the sense of belonging to the class.
  3. Stress levels were consistent between both groups of student, with a strong link between stress levels and grade.

A second phase of the study will commence this summer, with insights gleaned from the same students a year on from the initial survey.  It’s hoped that this will provide greater insight into life changes, such as in work or personal circumstances, that may have had an impact upon their engagement with studies.

The study should be a welcome addition to a growing canon of research into the motivations of online students.  Earlier this year, Justin Reich published a paper exploring participant motivation on the first ten HarvardX courses.  The aim of the study was to explore motivation at various points during the course, to hopefully provide a detailed picture of motivation at various stages of study.

Upon enrollment, the majority of learners revealed that they had signed up to the course to acquire knowledge and skills.  This went hand in hand with a desire to advance their careers and better serve their stakeholders.  There were nonetheless some interesting differences between students on particular courses.

Sociology and science students for instance were found to be keen on courses with a clear and direct purpose, which was often either advancing their careers or better serving their communities.  Humanities students however were much more interested in self-enrichment.

It seems that the jury is still very much out on the true motivations behind many MOOC participants, but there is a growing sense of the importance of such an understanding, and together with this, a growing canon of research exploring this important topic.

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