Rethinking Lurkers in the MOOC Experience

A discussion developed late in my "Academia and the MOOC" course about completion rates and "lurkers." The term lurker has been used for quite awhile online. At first, they were people who went into discussions and chat rooms and just read/watched without participating. The term had a negative connotation.

The term carried over to online courses. Of course, in a class online with 25 students, anyone who does not participate is readily apparent. All the major LMS allow you to track student usage. In fact, it's easier to monitor student participation online via the software than it is to monitor in a large face to face classroom. 

In my own online courses, I will nudge lurkers. But in a MOOC with thousands of students, that may not be possible. I commented in my MOOC that at least 20% of registrants did not view any content. The LMS didn't allow for me to get percentages for discussion participation for the class as a whole (only for individuals) but I could see that at least half of the other participants only participated in one of the four modules.

I suspected that some of those who used module one and then dropped out (or lurked) had decided the course was not for them. Now, I am having second thoughts about that.

As the discussion on this topic continued (and it has continued beyond the course in other places) and based on some 1:1 messages with participants, I realized that what I saw as lurking may be better described as auditing.

Module one was on the history of MOOCs and two participants told me that they were really only interested in reading that content. Although they may have looked at some of the other materials and posts, they entered the course to find out how MOOCs developed. They found what they wanted, and they left.

So, are they lurkers? I would say the term does not apply.

I had divided the second module into the roles of the stakeholders in academia that MOOCs affect - designer, teacher, administrator, support staff and student. I had contact with several people who told me that they were most interested in seeing what was posted about their role and participating in that discussion and less intersted in the other roles. I had hoped that people would enter all the discussions about the interrelated roles, but that may have been an unreasonable discussion on my part.

Again, someone who took the course to find out more about the instructional designer's role in MOOCs may have looked at some history and looked at case studies from different colleges that touched on the designer role, but may nt have had the time or interest in the other sections.

It has been suggested that MOOCs might function more as a textbook online (content repository) that includes a way to engage with the author (teacher/designer) and with others who are interested in the topic. Since Canvas allows my course to remind online and accessible to the students who registered, it is possible for people to go in after the four week live run of the class and still read discussions (no posting allowed) that they didn't get around to reading, and view the rest of the content.

So why not leave the course open for new registrations perpetually? Obviously, anyone jumping in now would be met with hundreds aof unread posts and no chance to post themselves and expect a response from the original poster who is likely to be done with the course. But there are MOOC providers experimenting with this idea and by having new start dates on a rolling basis, you could allow new groups of participants to use the material again and again with fresh discussions. Would it be necessary to have a facilitator in the course to keep things moving and revise the content? That is probably needed. My "course" was not typical in that it did not have assignments or grades, so anyone not posting in discussions was lurking/auditing. It wasn't designed as a MOOCourse, but intended to be a MOOConversation, so not participating in the conversation would be, to me, a kind of failure. That may not be true for participants.

I came across a presentation on "Learning Theories for the Digital Age" by Steve Wheeler (see below) that contained these two slides. He suggests that lurking may be considered "legitimate peripheral participation."

Where would we place the course auditor/lurker in his "architecture of participation?"

One of the participants in my course, Ann Priestly, has posted some thoughts on this topic on her own blog. She takes issue with my comment that “being engaged in any online course of any size means being involved in the discussions. It’s like web 1.0 and web 2.0 – read only and read/write.”

She is of the belief that there are many types of engagement including reading, reflecting and creating one’s own knowledge. She may be right. I am certainly coming from having taught for decades face to face and for more than ten years online in traditional credit bearing courses with always less than 25 students - and that just may not apply in the MOOC world.  I certainly have become "engaged" with books I am reading where there is no interaction between the content and myself or with other readers or the author. Was I lurking? 

Ann included a link to another post on this issue of lurking that suggest these people might be called "listeners." Still, as MOOCs become more accepted as legitimate courses for credit or advancement, the issue of what level of engagement will be required to complete a course successfully will become more important.

For now, my conclusion is that we need to rethink the reasons that people enroll in MOOCs and consider that lurkers have a legitimate reason for being there, and we might want to take that person into consideration in the course design.

I wish now that I had a required survey for students to register that included more information about what they wanted from the course and what their intention was in registering. (Typically, I see the question of how many hours do you plan to give to the course, which isn't really a helpful number to me.) If 30% of registrants were there because of a particular content area or just to "experience a MOOC," that would change your completion numbers from the start.

Learning Theories for the Digital Age from Steve Wheeler

Bridging the High School to College Learning Gap

bridgePatrick McAndrew, Professor of Open Education at The Open University, has a guest post on the Next Generation Learning Challenges blog about the "Bridge to Success" program - one of the “Building Blocks for College Completion” from NGLC’s first wave of funding.

The grant portion of the project has wrapped up, but they are still finding new people adopting the content, watching access to the site continue to rise. They have launched revised versions and hope to continue without additional funding.

The program was a collaboration of The Open University, the University of Maryland University College, Anne Arundel Community College (MD), and the Office of Educational Innovation and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Their challenge was to to help people who, for whatever reason, find it hard to cope in the early stages of college study.

It is interesting that McAndrew says that "The MOOC phenomenon shows signs of missing such people as it offers engaging learning experiences for the committed rather than nurturing the skills of learning itself." He notes that even with the large number of learners that have engaged with MOOCs so far, "the majority of those, by their own analysis, have existing qualifications or are eager to advance to further study."

MOOCs attract self-directed, motivated individuals, many of whom are learning for the sake of learning. In their challenge grant, they were working with students who are struggling and often not motivated.

They found that usage of these open courses went beyond their college population. For example, "charities used the materials to enable some of the most disadvantaged in society to return to an education or workforce path."

New versions of the courses are now available with badges added and a structure to encourage self-study and to celebrate success. The new version takes some lessons from MOOCs to organize around a start date and to offer some extra support for a limited period. Timed to coincide with Adult Learning week in the United Kingdom, the supported period will run for a week, after which point the materials will continue to be available as open resources.

The new versions: Learning to Learn (L2L) is a course for anyone who needs help to get started in college-level study, and Succeed With Math (SWIM) is a confidence-building mathematics course. Both are designed for when learners are failing in trying to take college courses. These versions build on the versions piloted in Bridge to Success, with the intention of making the material easier to study independently by adding challenges that bring out the achievements for learners as they proceed. (The original versions are also available.) 

For more about the project, including introductory videos, webinars, and guides for educators and learners on how to make use of the courses, go to

MOOC Aphorisms

During the final week of the "Academia and the MOOC" course that I facilitated, I offered a wiki page for participanys to post a "MOOC aphorism." An aphorism is defined as a short observation that contains a general truth - a one-liner not meant to be funny. These "MOOC aphorisms" were short observations based on the case studies and student experiences about Massive Open Online Courses that people felt contained a general truth.

I can't say that I agree 100% with all these aphorisms, but I would say that any single post had more than one person's support.

We even had one image comment that addresses an entire discussion in the course - defining and redefining a MOOC.

  1. Not all MOOCs are “massive.” They may contain hundreds to more than a hundred thousand participants.

  2. “Open” can mean different things, including: open for enrollment, free of cost, using open source products, with content free to reuse.

  3. Some MOOC courses are not courses in the traditional sense (grades, assignments, testing, credits).

  4. Providing education for the masses is almost always a good thing, but that doesn't necessarily mean a MOOC should be part of an academic degree

  5. The disruption of the stable traditional economical model of education has begun. Hybrid inclusion of courses from across the  world into students portfolios will increase.   

  6. "The trick is to not feel obligated to answer 400 questions, or even to read them all"  - Stephen Downes (May 8, 2013 in a course chat)  This is an important MOOC literacy skill for students and faculty.

  7. Colleges view no-credit as no dollars and will question the dollar value of providing a free educational experience. Business models will, unfortunately, be an important factor in the expansion of MOOCs.

  8. MOOCs are about learning in a networked world.

  9. This type of lifelong learning, while structured much like a course, is more of an event around a topic and possibly not connected to a school.

  10. As of now, MOOCs are self-defined with no real parameters and no evaluation metrics.

  11. Many of the issues with MOOCs (assessment, integrity, student contact, completion rates, acceptance by schools etc.) have been issues in traditional online courses for at least three decades.

  12. Much of the language of MOOCs is one of elitist entitlement - "students everywhere deserve my course" - without any validity of quality other than brand name institutions .  

  13. Better to consider some participants as "auditors" rather than "lurkers."

  14. Students come to MOOCs with different expectations. For example, some seek a portion of the content as resource to use (like a website or enhanced textbook) with some peer support (discussions) but have no intention to use all the content or "complete" the course.

  15. Unexpected benefits will come from connecting all of these "local" environments with a "global" conversation.  That will be some of the payoffs from MOOCs, including the mobile health class just starting with Venture Labs and even the new Buffett-funded Philanthropy MOOCs.  

  16. "Only you can tell in the end if you have been successful - just like in real life."    Dave Cormier 

  17. It may turn out that MOOCs are best for lifelong learning, professional development, basic skills/developmental/remedial learning and NOT credit and degree programs.

  18. The effects of MOOCs are more likely to remain in 20 years than actual MOOCs.

Understanding Cheating in Online Courses

So, there's a course on how to cheat online. But with the purpose of preventing cheating online. This course is a massive open online course titled “Understanding Cheating in Online Courses,” which is currently in progress on the Canvas (MOOC) Network platform.

Having taught a course in Canvas, I know that their offerings are more "big" than "massive" compared to ones from Coursera and others. Canvas courses are more in the 500 - 2000 range, where we know that other platforms often run courses closer to the 100K registration rate. This particular course had a cap of 1000 and quickly filled.

Bernard Bull, Assistant Vice President of Academics and Associate Professor of Educational Design & Technology at Concordia University Wisconsin, will ask participants in his new course to cheat and then ask them to disclose to the rest of the class exactly how they cheated. Being assigned to cheat is like being assigned to hack a computer system. You're not really cheating or hacking.

Having just done workshops last week for faculty that included some discussion of online cheating and plagiarism, I know that this is a topic of great interest to online (and offline) instructors. I am of the belief that practically all the cheating online has an offline equivalent and that online teaching actually offers some safeguards that surpass what is available for face to face classes.

The course runs 8 weeks and covers the vocabulary, psychology, and mechanics of what Professor Bull calls “successful cheating” in online learning.

Cyberethics is a legitimate concern. I think it is also important to put most of your efforts as a teacher into designing assignments to discourage cheating and on prevention rather than focusing on catching students after they have done it.

Bernard Bull believes, after years of studying the topic, that some courses seemed designed in a way for which cheating seemed the best option. Don McCabe of Rutgers University has said much the same thing for a decade.

I have come to believe that universities hiring online proctoring companies monitor students through webcams as an alternative to having students take examinations at a physical testing site is a waste of time and money.

I'm also on board with Bull, McCabe and others who find that the most common cheating tactics are old, tried and true and not particularly high tech. Students are more likely to share papers, work together on assignments, have friends do assignments, copy and paste or buy a paper than to use some elaborate online technique.

edX Now Has 27 Member Institutions

EdX, a nonprofit provider of MOOCs, has increased its member institutions from 12 to 27 as it crosses its one year anniversary. Though edX is a nonprofit, it also announced that it is bringing in revenue and is working towards financial sustainability.

Participating institutions now include Tsinghua University and Peking University in China, The University of Hong Kong and Hong Kong University of Science & Technology in Hong Kong, Kyoto University in Japan, and Seoul National University in South Korea. EdX also welcomes nine universities from North America, Europe and Australia. In the United States, the Consortium has added Cornell University, Berklee College of Music, Boston University, Davidson College, and University of Washington. From Europe, Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet, Belgium’s Université catholique de Louvain, and Germany’s Technical University of Munich have been added. The University of Queensland in Australia becomes the second Australian university to join the xConsortium. The expansion reflects edX’s rapidly growing global student body and supports its vision of transforming education by bringing the power of learning to all regardless of location or social status.

EdX defines itself as a nonprofit alternative to Coursera and other for-profit companies that are working with colleges. EdX says it wants to help colleges use technology to rethink campus education as well as deliver online courses.

The xConsortium was founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has a mission to focus on "transforming online and on-campus learning through groundbreaking methodologies, game-like experiences and cutting-edge research on an open source platform. EdX provides inspirational and transformative knowledge to students of all ages, social status, and income who form worldwide communities of learners. EdX is focused on people, not profit."