Types of MOOC Learners

rolesWe are well past the point of thinking that all MOOC participants are "students" in our traditional definition of that role. It was seen from the earliest MOOC offerings that there was a mix of learners who enrolled.  

There was too much emphasis on "completers" who finished the coursework and "passed" versus "lurkers" who did some parts but not all and "failed."

I was early to say that lurkers should more accurately be though of as auditors. That is an old term in the university dictionary. These learners watched videos, read documents, may have posted in discussions but were not interested in quizzes or exams. I was an auditor in several MOOCs that I enrolled in at the start. In a course on art history, I was only interested in the section on the Impressionists. 

Stanford Online and and the Stanford University Learning Analytics group have been doing this longer than other schools and described four types of students. I was pleased that the auditors made the list, along with completers (viewed most lectures and took part in most assessments), disengaged learners (who quickly dropped the course) and sampling learners (who might only occasionally watch lectures).

But those four types are still over-simplified because it is a rubric with completer on one end and disengaged at the other. I am more interested in the types of learners participants are before they even enter a course. One blogger identified ten types of MOOC takers. As an instructor, it would be very helpful to me to know the background and intentions of a participant. For example, knowing that someone is completely new to MOOCs or even online courses.

We know that many participants are new to the course topic. Taking a 101-style intro course, such as a beginning programming course, might be a way to explore something new, or to add new knowledge/skill that will help them advance in the workplace.

I would say that "upgraders" are their own group. These learners are employed people who look to upgrade their skills or people who are unemployed and looking to add to their resume.

Job seekers can be its own category because (as Coursera and other providers have discovered) there are people who want to add a certificate or some validation to their resume and are willing to pay a fee to do so.

And a MOOC will have some traditional students. They may be the students enrolled at the host institution and paying full tuition to be in the course and receiving all the traditional interactions with the instructor that others do not get. They may be students who want to learn more about a topic that they are taking a course on, or want to learn more about a topic they are unable to take at their school. In the latter case, these would likely be student-auditors in the same way that I was as an undergrad when I audited a paleontology course that would not have been accepted in my English major, but I was interested in learning about.

That can be seen as my early foray into being a lifelong learner and there are certainly many MOOC takers who are in that role. Older learners, perhaps retired and with more time, are a population that enrolls in courses. Maybe they are curious about updates in the field they have left. Maybe they want to explore things they never had the opportunity or time to explore before. I had a professor tell me after a presentation on MOOCs that it sounded like "they are just taking these courses to learn something they are interested in." He meant this comment to be a negative, meaning they were not interested in credits and degrees, but others in the room quickly jumped on his comment as missing the positive point. Who doesn't want students who are there because they are interested in learning about your topic?

I will also admit to being an academic spy in a few MOOCs. Actually, a lot of research has shown that a large proportion of MOOC takers are teachers, lecturers, professors and other academicians who enroll to get different perspectives and find new resources on a subject that they teach. If I am scheduled to teach a course I have never taught before, I will look at MOOCs on that topic in the same way that I would hope to view courses by my colleagues who have taught it. Unfortunately, not all colleagues are as "open" with their courses as a MOOC. I should note here that not all Massive Open Online Courses these days are truly Open in that the course materials are not free to use in your own courses.


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