First SOONER PhD defense: “Mind the Gap: Unraveling learner success and behaviour in Massive Open Online Courses”

First SOONER PhD defense: “Mind the Gap: Unraveling learner success and behaviour in Massive Open Online Courses”

The majority of people who follow an open online course (MOOC) do not obtain the corresponding certificate. At the same time, a large majority is satisfied with the acquired knowledge (without this certificate). This raises the question whether the success of MOOCs should be measured by the obtained certificates, or that we need another definition of success. Maartje Henderikx from the Open University investigated this contradiction. She will defend her dissertation on Friday September 6th 2019.

Strong growth of MOOCs
MOOCs are courses that are freely available on the internet. In 2018 there were more than eleven thousand MOOCs online worldwide, offered by more than nine hundred universities. The course topics range from chicken behaviour to the problem of plastic soup in the oceans. You can – sometimes for a fee – complete a MOOC with a certificate. In 2018, more than one hundred million people were enrolled in such a course. Impressive numbers, but … of the people who register for a MOOC, only slightly above five percent of these registered learners obtain the certificate. The vast majority do not reach the finish line, and some don’t even really start…

This high number of ‘drop-outs’ raises a number of questions that Maartje Henderikx started investigating during her PhD. Are MOOCs too difficult? Do the learning objectives of the designers of MOOCs overlap with what the students themselves want to learn? Are there other factors that explain the dropout rate? Or, should we simply not compare MOOCs with traditional education?

Explanations for the high drop-out can often be found in personal circumstances, says Henderikx. ‘People between the ages of twenty and fifty have a hard time combining work and family life with lifelong (online) learning activities. However, it becomes easier when they gain more experience. Also, the content of the MOOCs does not really play a crucial role in the dropout, although it is true that the participants that have a lower educational background may have difficulties with that. ‘

How do you define success?
The most interesting is, how to define success. From the learner’s perspective, you get a different answer to that question than ‘obtaining a certificate’. Henderikx: ‘MOOCs are a very nice addition to regular education, but they are not the same. Now the measure of success is too much related to the traditional educational paradigm, in which success equals a diploma. If you ask learners if they have learned something from the MOOC, then 59 to 70 percent are satisfied with the knowledge they have acquired. That is a very different percentage than the number of individuals that obtain a certificate. ”

More attention for the learner
The learning objectives of MOOC designers and the users of those MOOCs do not always match. ‘Some of the students want to get a certificate and the rest of them has different goals, for example gathering knowledge without obtaining the certificate. There are all kinds of reasons for that, that are currently being ignored. If MOOC educators are more aware of the individual perspective and behaviour of the learner, this prevents MOOCs from being unnecessarily changed or redesigned. And with smart tools such as personalised dashboards you can better respond to the behaviour of the learner in order to promote the learning process. ‘

Maartje Henderikx will defend her thesis ‘Mind the Gap. Unraveling learner success and behaviour in Massive Open Online Courses‘ on Friday September 6th 2019 at 13.30 at the Open University of the Netherlands.


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