Many of you will have probably heard of MOOCs (massive, open, online courses) and caught some threads of the related discussions around openness, connectivity, lurkers and learning (see, for example, Siva Vaidhyanathan’s (2012) blogpost). My initial reaction to MOOCs was curiosity. There is something rather appealing about the opportunity to learn while in the comfort of your own home, at any time, and without having to venture into the outside world (for inspiration, see: https://www.mooc-list.com/). But there is something more intriguing still about MOOCs, and it is the discussion around student engagement and how this might be related to retention rates and the viability of MOOCs. Forgive me, then, for taking a small detour and reminiscing. Stay with me; there is a point to this.
My own experiences of open learning began many years ago when, as a postgraduate student and keen to get more teaching experience and extra cash, I worked for the Open University in the UK (http://www.open.ac.uk/). While not open in the sense of being free (there are course fees), this is a university which offered distance learning and flexible part-time study programmes long before MOOCs (it still does, of course). Probably the best thing about OU teaching was the students: they were enthusiastic, curious, determined and quite different from the students I was seeing at my ‘other’ (mainstream, campus) university. These students ranged from their 20s to their 70s, they typically had a full- or part-time job, juggled family commitments, and experienced all the usual life events. For a while, I was even tutoring (via telephone calls and written assignments) a student in prison; it is perhaps a reflection of my sheltered life that I found this rather daring and a little scary. I even took a few short OU courses myself, feeling the apprehension that comes from being a complete novice all over again.
The thing about the OU was that as a teacher you could see the students developing over the course; I had a group of around 15-20 students whom I tutored over six or seven months. We had monthly face-to-face meetings, but mostly communicated by email, telephone (either individual calls or telephone group tutorials; yes, these are possible) or post. That’s right: hand-written letters, sent in the post. This was in the early 2000s and the world was quite a different place. The luxury of small class sizes meant that as a teacher I could work more individually with the students in a way that is typically not possible in mainstream higher education. We could get a real sense of whether or not the students were ‘engaging’ with the course and the content. As teachers, we could stimulate learning of the course material through our discussions with students, and through encouraging discussions between students. The social interaction element was vital; without that, it was mostly just subject content. This is where the engagement seemed to enter, through the way in which we could interact with the students (face-to-face, by email, by phone, even by feedback on written assignments), and they could interact with each other. And this is what I felt was most important about the OU courses, that we could discuss subject material directly. This is where it felt like the learning became more real.
Now we can return to the MOOCs and this complex issue of student engagement. We may be concerned with the ease with which one can drop-out from a MOOC or not fully engage with fellow students. It is so much easier to close down a video conferencing window on your laptop than it is to walk out of a room in which you are physically present with other people; we can silently and, without warning, simply stop being on the screen. By contrast, those who immerse themselves fully in online courses may be criticized for disengaging with the offline world around them. It is easy to become absorbed in a screen and forgot the person sitting next to you. There are many layers to this engagement issue, in that students may drop-out or disengage in different ways. Doug Clow (2013) terms this the ‘funnel of participation’ in which there are reduced student numbers at various points in the course: from registration, to course involvement, to completion. There is also the issue of lurking: sometimes defined as when students do not actively engage with other students on the course. This is perhaps less of a concern if the MOOCs are the xMOOC type; those which are more similar to delivering information online and which still seem to retain an element of the teacher-as-expert (see http://degreeoffreedom.org/xmooc-vs-cmooc/ for some discussion of the differences, and Weller, 2015, chapter 5). By contrast, cMOOCs (or connectivist MOOCS, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eW3gMGqcZQc) are underpinned by networked learning, in which the students themselves are as important to the development of course material as the tutors. In such cases, lurking is more problematic since the lack of engagement with other students has repercussions for their experiences of the course as well.
But here’s the thing: engagement in any kind of educational setting is still a much-debated research object. It is theorized, measured and researched in many different ways. The term has almost become ubiquitous in pedagogical literature, and sometimes used synonymously with student participation. We still haven’t cracked it. We might have a sense that students are engaged – and it might be that interacting with the material (e.g. talking, writing, thinking) – is one way in which engagement develops or even becomes engagement. As a researcher of social interaction, I am probably biased in this regard. But still. Whether a course is face-to-face, distance learning, online learning, MOOCs, or a blend of these parts, we need to have a better understanding of what it means to ‘engage’. Only then, once we have figured out what engagement is, and how it works in MOOCs, can we come to any conclusions about MOOCs as a form of education in and of themselves.
Clow, D. (2013). MOOCs and the funnel of participation. In: Third Conference on Learning Analytics and Knowledge (LAK 2013), 8-12 April 2013, Leuven, Belgium, pp. 185–189.
Vaidhynathan, S. (2012, July 6). What’s the matter with MOOCs? (Blog post: The Chronicle of Higher Education). Retrieved from http://www.chronicle.com/blogs/innovations/whats-the-matter-with-moocs/33289
Weller, M. (2015). Battle for Open: How openness won and why it doesn’t feel like victory (p. 232). Ubiquity Press. Accessible at: https://www.ubiquitypress.com/site/books/10.5334/bam/
 To be truthful, it was really the money I needed, even if the wages were pretty meagre. Once I had begun, however, it was working with the students that made it all worthwhile.
 The second-best thing was the television programmes produced by the OU, designed for specific courses and broadcast on mainstream British TV channels, usually in the early hours of the morning. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f7kz_8y0N9w for some discussion of the OU and these programmes (the Fry and Laurie sketch, circa 26:50 in the YouTube clip, is pretty much spot on).