Focusing course design on learners

Focusing course design on learners

MIT Open Learning

Qualitative research project from MIT examines learners’ motivations and goals for taking massive open online courses

By Meghan Perdue, MITx Digital Learning Scientist

“Design for use” is the guiding principle of any practical design project, massive open online courses (MOOCs) included. However, as a designer of online courses for MITx, I have found it has been a tricky goal to achieve. While MIT’s MOOCs are closely based on the courses offered at MIT, the learners who take the MOOCs have much more diverse motivations and goals for the material than MIT students.

So how can we design for this large and varied audience? I have embarked on a long research journey to answer this question, working with MOOC learners, designers, and MIT faculty. I have condensed my findings into this MOOC Learner Design Guide, that I hope will be a useful tool to help online course designers going forward.

Exploring learners’ motivations

My first mission was to understand why people take online courses, and what they hope to get out of the experience. I conducted a qualitative research project interviewing 15 MITx learners from a variety of courses to try to find these answers. The simplest answer is that all MOOC learners take courses to learn new things or further their education, but this can look very different depending on their motivation for learning.

After analyzing the interviews, I found three core reasons for why people take MOOCs: Application, Exploration, and Connection.

  1. Learners coming to a course with an “application” mindset are seeking specific material to help them accomplish a goal, such as learning a new skill needed for a work project, or seeking a credential to help bolster their resume when applying to a new job.
  2. Learners who are motivated by an “exploration” mindset think of themselves as adventurers exploring new knowledge and expanding their world, and are happy to be on the learning journey set out for them by the course.
  3. Learners who identity with the “connection” mindset are interested in being a member of a community of interesting, educated people around the world, as well as reconnecting with their own sense of themselves as a learner or student.

All of these mindsets are very different and have a large impact on the way learners engage in courses. Another thing to keep in mind is that they are not rigid, and learners’ reasons for taking a MOOC can change throughout the course — even based on the course material itself!

Graphic with text “Why do people take MOOCs? Application: knowledge or skill acquisition to use for a specific project or goal. Exploration: for a love of learning, and to expand knowledge and understanding. Connection: to connect with an academic community, or to one’s own identity as a student.”

Creating learner characters to help course designers

After identifying these core learner motivations, I shared my findings with my colleagues in the Digital Learning Lab (DLL) and staff at MITx, and recruited a few of them to help translate this work into a usable tool for designers. I worked closely with a team of DLLs: Ana Bell (Computer Science), Jennifer French (Math), Darcy Gordon (Biology), David Grimes (Chemistry) and Michelle Tomasik (Physics), as well as Shira Fruchtman (Lead Learning Designer, MITx).

They echoed my sense that the sheer scale and diversity of MOOC learners creates a lot of anxiety for course designers, who don’t have a clear idea of who these people are or what they want. They recommended creating a list of archetypal MOOC learners, to help faculty and designers imagine the different types of people who take courses. I went back to my qualitative research, and created the characters in the guide based on the real learners that I spoke with.

Illustrations of 6 people of different genders and ethnicities.
Archetypal learners from the MOOC Learner Design Guide.

Generating tips and tricks for course design

The teams I worked with also suggested including some guidance for how to design a MOOC to best meet learners’ needs. We brainstormed ideas for what were the most important things for MOOC designers to keep in mind based on the motivations of learners, principles of learning science, and our experiences designing courses.

We refined these into the top 10 “tips and tricks” in the guide, to help instructors and course designers engage active learning, promote community, facilitate a seamless user experience, and create reusable educational resources. While the tips are focused on MOOCs, they really could apply broadly to most educational design. In the future, we hope to expand this into a broader website with more examples and data. But in the meantime, I hope it is a helpful resource to new (and experienced) course designers!

Focusing course design on learners was originally published in MIT Open Learning on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.


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