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Learning in a MOOC: how people of differing backgrounds regulate their learning in a MOOC

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posted on 2022-03-28, 01:35 authored by Adrian Norman
The massive open online course, or MOOC, is a recent innovation in online learning. This new type of course has enabled millions of people worldwide to access content for free that had usually been restricted to fee-paying university students. Though there has been considerable research about the demographics of MOOC enrolees, their reasons for enrolling and their patterns of engagement, relatively little is known about how people actually learn in these environments. As MOOCs are predicted to continue to be a significant force for lifelong learning, it is important to understand how people learn in these environments, so MOOCs can better meet their needs. Also, understanding how people learn independently in online environments is growing in importance as universities increasingly require it of their students. Only through a detailed and nuanced understanding of how students learn online on their own can educators help them develop the necessary skills to succeed in their studies. This study aimed to fill this research gap by using a social cognitive theoretical framework, which conceptualises human behaviour as the product of interlinked and reciprocally determining personal, behavioural and environmental factors, to investigate how people learned in a MOOC. Within this framework, the theoretical lens of self-regulation was used to study the internal and external factors that influenced learning. Two social cognitive constructs were also used to study aspects of motivation that are key influencers of learning: self-efficacy, which relates to a person’s confidence in their own ability to perform a task in a specific domain, and achievement goals, which describe how people orientate their learning goals in achievement contexts. Within this approach, this study aimed to provide detailed accounts of how people learned in their own contexts. The research context for this investigation was Introduction to Biomedical Imaging, a 10-week MOOC provided by an Australian university. The research adopted a mixed-methods sequential-explanatory design, in which data was collected in separate quantitative and qualitative phases. Phase 1 involved the collection of data through an online survey; Phase 2, which was assigned priority in the design, was a multiple-case study with 10 case participants purposively sampled from volunteers who had completed the Phase 1 survey. Findings from both phases were then integrated to generate contextual accounts of how participants learned. Data was collected from multiple sources such as interviews, experience sampling, surveys and digital artefacts that related to each participant’s learning in the MOOC. The data was analysed following a six-step procedure that accommodated quantitative and qualitative approaches and the mixing of findings. Research findings are presented in the form of four manuscripts prepared for submission to academic journals. The first reports the findings of a statistical analysis of survey data, which aimed to determine the demographics and motivations of those who enrolled in the MOOC. The following three papers report the findings of the multiple-case study, which investigated how these individuals learned in the MOOC and what their outcomes were. Results from an analysis of survey data (n=3,172, response rate: 22.3%) found that the majority of survey respondents were highly educated and from developed countries, which is consistent with the literature. Experience of the MOOC topic, however, was found to play a significant role in the respondents’ motivational mindsets. Those who had formal experience of the MOOC topic (for example, from their professional work or formal studies) were found to be more confident about their general academic ability and more motivated to achieve than those whose experience came from informal sources, such as through a general interest in the topic. This finding was supported by the subsequent multiple-case study (n = 10), which found that participants who had professional experience of the MOOC topic were more effective at regulating their learning and achieved higher overall grades than others in this study. How participants used their MOOC study time was perhaps the most important determinant of effective learning. The results suggest that the most effective learners used strategies such as proximal goal setting, and rewards to make best use of the time they spent in the MOOC. Another key finding was that participants sought very little help from others in this MOOC. In the case of this MOOC, a combination of personal factors, such as prior knowledge of the topic, and environmental factors, such as the pedagogical approach of the MOOC, were found to be key influencers on how these participants learned. This study contributes knowledge about how people learn on their own in online environments. In the context of lifelong learning, this may assist in improving the quality of MOOCs that better meet the needs of different learners, which may in turn help to promote lifelong learning to new audiences. The findings from this study also have implications for higher education, as students are increasingly required to study independently using online environments. Several ideas for future research are suggested. A limitation of this study was that the research participants were relatively highly educated. An investigation into how people without any experience of university study use MOOCs may aid understanding of the challenges these learners face in MOOCs, and of the design of MOOCs that develop and support learners’ abilities to take control of their learning. Another gap in the literature is an examination of the influence of instructional design on learning in MOOCs. As the literature suggests that the instructional quality of MOOCs is quite poor, this kind or research is much needed if MOOCs are to become more effective instruments for lifelong learning.


Table of Contents

Chapter One. Background -- Chapter Two. Theoretical framework & literature review -- Chapter Three. Methodology -- Chapter Four. Paper 1. Who enrols in MOOCs? -- Chapter Five. Paper 2. Learning and achievement in a MOOC -- Chapter Six. Paper3. Topic experience and learning in a MOOC -- Chapter Seven. Paper 4. Help-seeking in a MOOC -- Chapter Eight. Conclusion -- Consolidated list of references -- Appendices.


Thesis by publication. Bibliography: pages 305-323

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD


PhD, Macquarie University, Faculty of Human Sciences, Department of Educational Studies

Department, Centre or School

Department of Educational Studies

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Lori Lockyer

Additional Supervisor 1

Sue Bennett


Copyright Adrian Norman 2017. Copyright disclaimer:




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