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HarvardX Fellow Justin Reich on MOOC motivation

February 3, 2014

Last Thursday Jan 30, HarvardX Research Fellow Justin Reich presented on "Motivation and MOOCs: How Student Expectations Shape Learning in Open Online Settings.” Reich’s research seeks to understand how students use MOOCs as well as to learn what motivates them to enroll and take MOOCs.  Reich believes that in order to serve learners well, educators should understand students’ motivations, especially in MOOCs, where audiences can be far more diverse than typical residential college classrooms.

Reich shared findings from a study that examines participant motivation across the first ten HarvardX courses. The ultimate goal of the study is to develop a grounded framework of student motivation and thus better understand how motivation affects student activity, performance and persistence.

Data from the study includes collected responses from students before they took the MOOCS (pre-survey). The study will also include responses after they completed the course (post-survey), however post-survey data is not yet available as most of the courses are still in process.

Pre-surveyed students revealed that the majority of enrolled learners were motivated to take MOOCs in order to acquire knowledge and skills. In addition, many were also interested in advancing their careers and better serving their communities. However at the individual course level, clear differences in student motivation emerged. For example, students in sociology and science classes tended to take the courses for more directed purposes: either to better serve their communities or advance in their careers. On the other hand, students taking courses in the humanities were more focused on advancing their own education or for simple self-enrichment. The prevailing assumption in literature on student motivation assumes students are compelled to be in courses.  It is clear that MOOCs counter this in dramatic ways.

These preliminary findings reveal clear patterns among large and diverse groups of learners. However Reich suggested that studying a small sample of learners might reveal nuances and deeper understanding than what is offered through large samplings.  In order to truly understand what is going on inside the learner’s head, one needs to explore and study at the individual and small group level. Monitoring click-stream data and recording how much time someone interacted with a video may not tell the whole story. Because of this, Reich hopes this  current study may lead to future studies that explore user behavior at the micro level.

To learn more about Reich and his work please visit:

To learn more about Harvard X Fellows please visit:

- Sonal Patel & Molly Ruggles (image courtesy Sonal Patel)

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