Survey Finds Curiosity, No Cost Motivate Successful MOOC Students

Education technology company Instructure Inc. and research firm Qualtrics have released the results of a new research study on the motivations of massive open online course (MOOC) participants. The study found that the primary motivators for students are the course topic and the quality of the learning experience, which should be welcome news to critics of online education who have charged that MOOC students are often mere hobbyists.

The course topic is the main motivator for enrollment among 35% of MOOC participants, followed by personal or professional development and the fact that MOOCs are free, according to the study.

"This study confirms that for MOOCs to be a relevant part of education's future, they must offer a more compelling experience than the traditional college course," said Misty Frost, chief marketing officer at Instructure. "The popularity of MOOCs shows an appetite for learning in the open online format, but these courses are competing for attention in an age of digital entertainment and social media. Simply replicating the lecture model of instruction in a MOOC doesn't facilitate the educational experience needed to sustain engagement."

The study found that MOOC participants are highly educated and they are not typical college kids, many of them older people have already earned advanced degrees. Successful MOOC students like online courses because they are curious about the specific subject matter, and they are motivated in part by the courses' being free of charge, according to Yuliya Chernova of The Wall Street Journal.

According to the survey, 55% of highly-engaged students who completed several MOOCs have a master's degree or higher. Age-wise, 74% of the highly engaged students are between 24 and 53 years old — and 63% of them are female.

The findings may also raise the question of when and how numerous well-funded startups that offer MOOC platforms will be able to charge students, since such courses being free is a primary motivator for enrolling for 75% of the respondents in the study. "One of the big hopes of MOOCs is that they could democratize education and bring the costs of advanced degrees down. That's exciting and totally unproven," said Byron Deeter, partner at Bessemer Venture Partners, an investor in Instructure.

The survey found that two-thirds of the participants earn less than $50,000 annually, a demographic to which advanced knowledge at no cost appeals strongly.

Deeter said that he worries about the pressure pure-play MOOC companies might be experiencing over monetizing their businesses. "The risk is business failure and subsequent blowback on the industry," he said.

The survey polled 1,834 people who registered to take a MOOC on Instructure's Canvas Network during May and June this year.

Instructure provides learning management and MOOC solutions to more than 425 colleges, universities and K-12 districts, and Qualtrics' research platform is used by 1,300 colleges and universities, including 95 of the top 100 business schools.

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