MOOC engagement and disengagement

Recently I contrasted ds106 with a course in statistics from Udacity, as part of my participation in a course on Open Education from the Open University. I got very frustrated writing that post because I felt constrained by the script, by the instructions. It wasn’t that I had other things to say that didn’t fit the script; it was more that following the explicit instructions seemed to keep me from thinking of other things to say. I was busy saying what I was supposed to, and therefore didn’t leave myself mental space to consider much of anything else.

Usually I only write blog posts when I have something I want to reflect on, to share with others, to get feedback about. It’s self-generated, and I care about what I’m doing. That hasn’t been the case for many of the posts I’ve done for the Open Education course, and it has just felt far too forced and unmeaningful.

I decided to stop.

Apparently the post was actually useful to some, as some Twitter conversations & retweets indicated, but it still felt dull to me because I wasn’t the one deciding what to write, or whether to write at all. Okay, yes, ultimately I was the one, of course, since I didn’t need to (a) do this particular activity for the course, or (b) do it in the scripted way, or (c) join the course at all in the first place. So yes, I decided. But my point is more subtle. And it affects how I approach face-to-face teaching as well. 

In my previous post, I listed some of the major differences between ETMOOC and the OU course, and talked a bit about why I preferred the former. Here I want to focus on one particular downside to the OU course.

The directed assignment

There is probably a better word or phrase for this–I just mean an assignment or activity in which one is told exactly what to do. This is what we had, each week, several times a week, in the OU course. It is not what we had in ETMOOC.

In ETMOOC we had a few suggestions here and there for blog topics, things one could write about if one wanted. During some of the bimonthly topics there were lists of activities we might do if we wished, including reading/watching outside materials and writing about them. But there was a strong emphasis that one should choose one or just a few of these, or none at all (see, e.g., the post for the digital storytelling topic in ETMOOC). The activities were clearly suggestions, and participants could (and many did) blog about anything that caught their attention and interest in relation to the topics at hand, whether from the suggested activities, the presentations, the Twitter chats, or others’ blog posts.

My experience with the OU course was much different. The activities were written as directives rather than suggestions. Here, for example, is an activity about “connectivism” that I decided not to do (other examples of directions can be found by clicking on the #h817open tag to the right). I am going to blog about connectivism and how it informs the structure of cMOOCs, as it’s something I’m interested in, but that’s just the point. The way the activities in the course are written, one gets the strong message that directions should be followed. The rhetoric is clear. You may be interested in writing about something else, but then you’re not participating in the course.

Sometimes I followed the instructions; sometimes not. My choice, yes, but something else happens too.

Follow the path

Follow the path, CC-BY licensed flickr photo shared by Miguel Mendez

There could easily be, and for me at times there was, a strong enough feeling that I ought to follow directions that, well, I did. It’s just a sense that that’s what you do in a “course.” And the fact that this was an “open boundary” course–meaning it had students officially registered for credit as well as outside participants–probably contributed to it having a more traditional structure. But that structure suggested, implicitly, that one should do what the instructor says.

Incidentally, this was another difference from ETMOOC–in the OU course, there was clearly one instructor in the “expert” or “authority” role. In ETMOOC there were many people involved in both planning and facilitating, and unless they were giving one of the synchronous presentations, they acted just like every other participant in the course. The information about each week’s topic seemed to come from some anonymous source, without a clear authorial voice, even though it had a list of people at the end who were involved in working on that topic. It felt less hierarchical, more like a collective group of people learning together than a set of instructors vs. learners.

I’m not concerned about having specific, assigned readings, videos, or other materials; some of those for the OU course I found very helpful, and when one is faced with something unfamiliar, having a few common guideposts on the way is helpful when learning with others. What led me to disengage was being explicitly directed as to what to do with those materials, exactly what to write about. And even though I knew that was optional, the rhetorical  thrust of both the wording and the structure of the course indicated otherwise. 

I had a bit of a discussion with Inger-Marie Christensen in comments on one of her blog posts, here, about this issue. She rightly pointed out the danger of just skipping things in a MOOC that don’t seem immediately interesting to you, and I agree. I also see that by following directions I might end up finding new things that I’m interested in, engaged with, that I might not otherwise.

Still, I think that a balance can be struck: encouragement to at least engage with most or all of the topics, read or watch at least one or two things, and then choose from a variety of suggested topics to write about or activities to do (while also providing freedom to do something else related if one chooses). I think the value of greater engagement and more meaningful work by participants by offering such flexibility can outweigh the loss of perhaps missing some aspects of a topic.

Face-to-face courses

I felt this way earlier in the OU course, but continued on for awhile anyway:

And another implication struck me then, too:

But in Uni the students either just do what you ask or drop the course. And suddenly it’s hitting me that when I provide clear, detailed instructions on what to write for essays, my students may respond the way I did. How did I not see this before?

I often give very detailed essay assignments, saying exactly what should be written about. I have thought I’m doing students a favour by providing clear directives. And for some, that’s probably the case. But I’m also:

  • doing the hard work for them–wouldn’t it be better to ask them to find the important aspects of texts and arguments for themselves, based on what they want to talk about? 
  • leading their essays to be as rigid as my instructions, and so
  • likely preventing the excitement that comes when you really want to figure something out and work with a text (or something else) to do so, as well as
  • discouraging deep creativity in responding to the texts and issues we’re discussing.

Now, I actually do give students in third- and fourth-year courses more freedom, but I tend to be more directive in first- and second-year courses. And I’m wondering if I can strike more of a balance between specificity and flexibility. I realize that people new to philosophy can use clear guidance on how to write philosophy essays well, and sometimes that could mean telling them exactly what to write about. But does it have to? At the very least, I could make it clearer that the provided essay topics are suggestions rather than directives, and emphasize that there is room to experiment.

I could, thereby, open up students to the significant possibility of writing essays that are deeply problematic because I gave them the freedom to fail. But if I also give them detailed feedback and the chance to revise without penalty, then, well, that seems to me a good way to learn. And maybe they’ll be excited to do so in the process. Okay, at least some of them.

The bigger issue

But this doesn’t address the problem noted above: even if one says, explicitly, that directives are optional, one’s other words and course structure may indicate that, after all, they really should be followed. And/or, the learning experience for many has for so long been such that when the instructor gives suggestions for what to do, many students may do that rather than come up with something on their own, because after all, the instructor is in the position of authority/expertise.

Even in ETMOOC, I recall several participants expressing how they felt “behind,” and needed to “catch up”; some even said they dropped out because they felt so behind. The message of flexibility may not have gotten through.

So I am left with two problems for my face-to-face teaching:

1. How to balance promoting flexibility and creativity, and thereby hopefully greater engagement, with the danger of learners only focusing on what they want and not going beyond their comfort zones (hmmm…seems to me I’ve visited this issue before).

2. Once I solve problem number 1, how to communicate that flexibility really means…flexibility?



  1. My post here, has more questions than answers in it. Even if some of my questions sound like answers. I need to work on that.

    I think the degree of flexibility, when to open it up, when to close it down, how to guage and moderate that, and how to provide that in a context which is not designed for, or facilitates personalisation of instruction explicitly, is huge, complicated and difficult.

    It’s also key, and constantly shifting, both between person and person, and also within individuals over time.

    Working out the challenge and support, and the realtionship between them that’s needed for students is key.

    I also think that, as educators, we need to be aware that our experiences of educational avenues may not be mirrored by everyone. At a guess, I’d say you are a motivated learner, with fairly advanced coping strategies for new learning, and established metacognitive strategies. You’re a reflective learner, with lots of experience, and positive incidences to re-inforce your confidence in your own learning strategies.

    Actually, that’s not a guess. That comes from reading your blog posts, for which, kudos.

    What works for you may not work for learners without that skill set.

    I was thinking about my learning last week, and how I learn, and I remembered something. In cases where I’m learning something new, or something that’s in a fiedl I’m familiar with, but that’s of a complexity that’s new, learning contexts where the path is not clear can be hugely frustrating, and has lead to frustration, pliunging self confidence, feelings of helplessness and abandomenet of effort.

    I was thinking of learning how to put in a well strained animal fence with electric wire. Something new to me, with many differing suggestions, and zero support where I live. Weeks of reading, effort, hard work, tool buying, lead to results that were far from perfect. Someojne telling me exactly what to do, how, and with what tools would have done the teaching in less than a day.

    To put it another way, when I was looking up heuristics for GUI usability (Nielsens ten hearuistics) there’s a nice quote from an MIT lecture on one of them. Let your users be free. Except when they need not to be.

    Bandura on learning says something similar, to a degree. Well constructed learning environments that give good corrective feedback are key to achieveing mastery, and feeling you can achieve it, one of the biggest determiners of success. And having achieved mastery of something, the next step needs to be being set free to play with and apply that mastery in ways you choose. Failure to do that is limiting, can cause loss of learning, and can reduce confodence.

    You mention this towards the end of your post, in terms of the differing levels of flexibility you offer.

    It’d difficult. Hard, and key.

    And I have mnore questions that I have answers…

    1. You’re definitely right to point out, Keith, that what works for me in a MOOC situation may have little to do with what works for students in my courses. But I just got to the point where I felt something that I thought some might also feel. Probably also feel, as I’m lucky enough to have some very motivated learners in some of my courses. It was a striking feeling, being on the “other side,” so to speak, and seeing what sort of reaction I had.

      You’re also right to note that the balance I seek is constantly shifting–it will be impossible, most likely, to provide the right amount of guidance and freedom for every learner in the course, for every activity I set. We all need different degrees of such things, which may differ even from week to week, topic to topic. Being more open, perhaps, to students asking to create their own activities (in consultation with me, perhaps) might help address this. Those that want to, can; those that don’t, don’t have to.

      Good example of the animal fence and how someone telling you exactly what to do would have solved the issue quickly. And I do think that these things depend on context: some kinds of learning, for some topics/tasks, just need directions. I need that to understand statistics, which is why I don’t mind doing an xMOOC for that. But for things that require more critical thinking, more creative work (which includes addressing philosophical issues), I think more flexibility is helpful.

      But you’re right that getting to this level of being able to use freedom well may require, early on, more guidance to build up confidence and the sense that one even wants to take on the freedom. Good point.

      Let your users be free, except when they need not to be. Key indeed. And hard to figure out that “when.” I, too, am left with more questions, which is a good thing.

      1. Very interesting discussion, Christina. I like Keith’s statement via Bandura, “Well constructed learning environments that give good corrective feedback are key to achieving mastery, and feeling you can achieve it, one of the biggest determiners of success. And having achieved mastery of something, the next step needs to be being set free to play with and apply that mastery in ways you choose.” As you said, you could help students with a consultation as they delve into areas where, as Keith said, they may not have a well developed background to draw from on a topic/field. I was just reading some writing by Grant Wiggins this week on “Feedback: What it is and isn’t”, ( and is important in the learning process for students. Building well developed arguments based on text is part of the new Common Core State Standards for high school students, in particular, to prepare them for college/career. Critical thinking needs some freedom, within a set of boundaries to help it stay focused, I think. Balancing that with students is a fine art, I think. At the college level, there should be a place where once they’ve demonstrated some competence in stating the argument after critical textual analysis, for them to find topics in philosophy to apply that learning. I’m not a teacher of philosophy, but I think it would be intriguing, regardless if it is history, sociology, psychology, or philosophy. I have to say that a lot of college profs wouldn’t be concerned with what you’re taking a close look at – student engagement. Many would just put out what is required and expect students to engage and create great content. I’m glad you care enough to struggle with the pedagogy. It’s a struggle I see with some of our high school district’s teachers, as well. Thanks for bringing it our through your own learning experiences.

        1. Hi Glenn:

          I think you’re right about needing to find a balance between freedom and boundaries, between directing students to help them develop some fundamental skills, and letting them take those skills and do creative things with them. It just really hit home to me when thinking about the differences between these two MOOCs how much I was bothered by the directive approach, and how much I tended to just go along with the instructions even when I didn’t have to. I finally felt myself in the position of a student, which I kind of didn’t with etmooc, for some reason. Probably because it felt more a community than a course.

          I still think that giving detailed, comprehensive directions for some assignments can quell creativity in some students, and engagement. But I also realize that I am in a different position than, say, first year students in philosophy, for whom complete freedom could mean simply engendering confusion on their part. Deciding when to direct and when to set free is going to be difficult, and depend on the course and the activity. Students’ first work in writing philosophy essays is going to be more directed than when they are still doing it a few years later. And reflective blog posts could be completely open, so long as they have something to do with the topics being discussed in class.

          I think it might be good for more teachers/faculty to put themselves in the position of students and see what it feels like, what they like/dislike. Perhaps it would make a difference for some. And maybe that’s one good thing that can come from xMOOCs? If teachers themselves see the problems with the forms of learning in some of them, then…… (not that the OU course was an xMOOC; I think it was more of a hybrid).

          1. Hi Glenn, Hi Christina,

            I think I’m seeing a lot of things that make sense to me here, and a lot of similar experiences, that fine art Glenn mmentions, the balancing act, is familiar to any educator who takes their role seriously enough to try to fit it to the individuals they encounter, as individuals.

            I was rereadingsome ;Laurillard, recently, and her conversational framewrok, as she calls it, which os a kind of iterative framework, where everything is arranged so that studentn and educator both have evolving senses of where they are at, with regard to each other, the tasks, and the syllabus, and alter and adapt theor responses accordingly.

            It partially relies on asynchronous feedback, partially on noth student and teacher reflection, and on mutual feedback. It also relies on large aspects of the studnets learning and thinking process being rendered visible. I think it offers a good, flexible, and robust way to adjust to those moving targets with regard to freedom and constraint, and how we judge the degree of each.

            I went to college in the earlky nineties, and processing and reflection nhappened over a pack of Camel filters in the cafeteria, which gives me an analogy for the frameowrk. Its as if those several hour post lecture, and mid essay chatfests had been recorded surreptitiously, and then the lecturer had adjusted their next task, lecture, tutorial or feedback session based on what the session tolkd them about how their stuident was processing.

            Laurillards framweork involves task setting, reflection, peer engagement, and then assessment informing further task sertting.

            Stunedts are gieven tasks, they blog the task, and their thoughts on the task, their plans, ideas, and understanding of the task, and peers engage (tasks may or may not be universal or personalised) and inform the idea forming stage, and the educator follows the blog, commenting, correcting, suggesting and encouraging as necessary.

            If the student is way off beam, a feedback session can be set up based on the blog conversation, and if not they plough ahead.

            Student engages with the task, and blogs, again, subject to peer feedback, instructor feedback, and their own resultant reflections.

            Again, the transparent learning process opens up the opportunity to make informed, contextual decisions on what the student needs – and also involves them in a reflective process that may involve them asking for that as part of their feedback to the educator 9feedback goes both ways in this system).

            Again, further feedback sessions, or additional tasks can now be scheduled as support if the sy=tudent needs them.

            Student completes the task, posts, and rewflects, and gets peer and teacher feedback, and reflects. Task is either thenm finished, or re-engaged with, and again posted, comnmented etc.

            Finally, the student and teacher meet again for a feedback session, two way, informed by both their reflective processes during the task evolution and explication proess, and the next set of tasks / stage to the learning path is then set out, agreed on and executed (hopefully as a conversation, informed by reflection, rather than didcatically)

            And the entire process begins again.

            Advantages are that context, student perception and understanding are transparent, available, and assessed, by both instructor and student, on an ongoing basis, and the flexibility that offers, and informs, may make the balancing act easier to achieve. The educatpor gets a rolling review of their teaching, and the opportunoty to fine tune their method, and the conceptions being formed by students, where necessary.

            The big disadvantage is the time required – it;s time sonsuming to deploy across multiple studnets, and propmt and meaningful instructor engagement is key, though solid and good work on peer involvement and group dynamics, as well as response modelling, and sessions focuing on teaching critical engagement can help here.

            Just a thought… and very implementable in philosophy, and also highly MOOCable too…

            1. What a great idea, Keith–thanks for pointing it out. Do you have a specific paper or other resource you could point us to? This sounds excellent.

              As you note, though, it could be hard to do with a large number of students (read: time-consuming, not hard otherwise). So it would be best for smaller classes…but I’m fortunate in that many of mine are pretty small (20-30 students–wish they were all like that, but no). I’m not sure how I would do it in a class of 100-150, like I have coming up for Intro to Philosophy. Nor how it would be MOOCable, unless peer feedback is the main feedback. I love peer feedback, but it requires careful planning, and training students to do it effectively. Still, that could be an interesting option for a larger class.

  2. Christina,
    Adding this (and your previous post MOOCs I have Known) to my list of “blog posts I wish I had written.” Yes to your experience with MOOC assignments. Yes to how this translates to face-to-face class instruction. Yes to the problems you think about re: f2f instruction.

    What you write here translates exactly to the experiences and challenges I am thinking about in teaching graduate students in organizational learning and change.

    You post made me think of this: I wonder if there is value in being more transparent with our students about how pedagogy/instructional philosophy informs our course design? etmooc did this. (This of course raises the issue of faculty ability to actually HAVE a pedagogical perspective and think about design…but that’s for another post).

    But what I am getting at is changing the language from “here is my syllabus and assignments” to “here are activities I’ve designed in service of our contract to explore the course topic in the time we have together.” So…I’ve designed some activities to give you an opportunity to explore the topics that are most meaningful to you. Some activities, however, are more scripted, and designed so that I can give you very specific feedback on a particular capability or objective.

    In my case, students use a class site to write blog posts and discussions. I do suggest some questions to explore — but only as pretty open-ended prompts for blogging or discussions. They can then write about whatever topics intrigue them.

    But I also have structured, academic paper assignments designed in part to help prepare them to (ultimately) write their final master’s thesis. In this case, I give very pointed and structured feedback about their ability to think critically; to form logical arguments; cite properly; etc.

    It never occurred to me to be very, very explicit about these design intentions. I talk about the flexible exploration part some – in large part to break students out of the habit of thinking they just have to answer my prompt questions. But I never really thought about engaging the students in a very open, clear way right from the beginning about my design intentions. Might just be hubris :) — “can’t these guys just see the brilliance of my design?”

    Half-baked thinking out loud here. But thanks again for writing so elegantly about my own thinking. :) Spot on. If I experiment, I’ll certainly share and insights discovered along the way.

    1. Hi Jeff:

      I think you’re spot on here, in several ways. First: yes, I do think that being more transparent about our course design is a great idea. I have done a little of this, but not enough. And to be quite honest, part of the reason why is because I, myself, haven’t always been as thoughtful about design as I should be. The past few years I’ve really been working on that. But it does seem really important to share our reasons why we’ve designed activities in the way we have. It could help students if they find the activities dull or not useful, to see why they’re there. And possibly, if we’re open to it, students might have other ideas of how to achieve the goals we’re trying to achieve with those activities, and we could have a discussion about that (and possibly change the activities). Which sounds to me like a good thing to do.

      But like you, I haven’t thought carefully before about sharing my design intentions, but have only done a little bit. So thank you for pointing this out and helping me consider it further.

      Second: yes, some assignments/activities need to be more structured. The ones where you just need to learn to do something first so you can do something else later. Some such things require explicit instructions and following such instructions. I should have been more clear in my blog post: not all activities in a course need to be flexible. I’m still thinking about which ones should be, and why.

      And please do share your thoughts as you experiment!

  3. I think there are two issues here.

    One of them is the issue of “leading the student by the nose” through an assignment. Which is the right thing to do. And the wrong thing to do. (I’ll come back to this.)

    The second is that most people who claim to remove the boundaries in the classroom are just kidding themselves. How so? In general, controlled input and controlled output is a zero-sum game, because a course, to retain any sort of coherence, has to have some constraints: remove constraints on input and you will have to add them in output (and then pretend you’re not doing it!) — constraining the input means that everyone’s got a common grounding and is predisposed to treading similar ground to each other, even with a very open question. Eliminate that control and you have to assert it at assessment time, or you end up with no fair marking scheme whatsoever.

    Which brings us back to the first point, and the by-the-nose approach. I studied my first degree at Edinburgh University, in a technical subject (Computer Science). The concepts to be learned were modelled. Then we did tutorial tasks on them. Then our assignments would combine multiple concepts. Those concepts would be revisited and reused, and recombined with other concepts in later assignments.

    The result was that we would never submit any assessed work without having received tutor feedback on every individual component concept involved. This is leading the student by the nose the right way, because while conceptually it may seem like cheating, people still failed. It may seem to be removing learner responsibility, but it actually reinforced it: don’t go to tutorials? You get a lower mark. Don’t read your tutorial feedback? You get a lower mark.

    And in fact the structure of the assignments was often such that the feedback from one assignment would have direct relevance to the next.

    However, when I decided to change career, I ended up studying as an undergraduate with two different institutions, and in both cases this progression was missing. Tutorials were not aimed at building up the knowledge for an assignment, so there was no opportunity to assess the gaps in your knowledge and understanding before the assessed task. A great many of the assignments were such that after the assessed task, you would never do it again, so often I lost marks for not understanding exactly what was expected of me, and I the teachers’ feedback was rendered valueless as I was not given the opportunity to apply it to a similar task.

    In short, assessment did not lead to learning, which defeats the purpose of the exercise….

    1. Hi Niall:

      I actually agree with your points here–I don’t think removing all boundaries in a course is a good idea, and I do see that there are situations in which leading students through a progression of information is crucial. I still think some flexibility can happen, say, in a writing course like philosophy. Often what we ask our students to do is to read texts, discuss the arguments in them, and write a response of their own to those arguments. Now, we could tell them exactly what in the texts to respond to, or we could leave that more up to them. But in either case there are still common things we look for when marking, such as cogency of arguments and structure of written essays. I certainly agree there is such a thing as going too far in flexibility, and it’s the balance I’m trying to figure out.

      The point about leading students through a progression of assignments also makes sense, and I have done a little of that myself in philosophy: I’ve asked students to write about their own views on a subject, then get feedback; then write a new essay where they present their own views and take into account those of a philosopher we’ve studied (either criticize that philosophers’ views, or show how they support the students’ own conclusions, or something else) and get feedback; then do this a third time and add yet another philosopher into the essay. I think that worked pretty well. For learning certain things, in certain contexts, such progressions can be all important.

      I still think that in my own courses, even then, there’s room for flexibility. And I guess what I just described already has it: students can write their own views and defend them with arguments, then choose which philosophers to write about as well in their essays, and what exactly they want to say about those philosophers’ views. For students just learning to do philosophy and write philosophy essays, that kind of “chunking” can be important, and there’s a bit more flexibility there than when I write essay assignments saying students should compare philosopher x and y’s views on z, specifically.

      A great deal also depends on the context. For the OU course on Open Education, I didn’t think it was necessary to have such specific assignments/activities for open participants. We could have been asked to look at two other MOOCs, e.g. (or one, or three, or however many we wanted) and reflect on similarities/differences in whatever way we chose. I was looking for a bit more flexibility, not total flexibility. Especially for an open course with people coming from very different backgrounds/preparation levels/kinds of work, etc. It might have been quite hard for some people to try to create an entire course on digital skills, for example (though I noticed that at least some other people, besides me, took this assignment in their own direction, including creating courses focused on their own area of expertise). Some may not have even been interested in trying to create a whole course at all.

      All of that said, though, I did learn a great deal in the OU course, partly by following directions. So I am a bit torn on all this. If I hadn’t read all the things on issues with OER and followed exactly what I was supposed to talk about according to that activity, I wouldn’t have really thought through those issues as deeply as I did. That’s why I’m still looking for some kind of balance.

      Thank you for pushing me to think further about flexibility vs. structure, and about the progression issue in particular.

Comments are closed.