On Tuesday 28 August, 2021 I presented “Learner revisitation of the same MOOC: formative feedback and its impact”, informally known as Our course could be your life(style): formative feedback edition at the Virtual FLAN Meeting – FLAN is a network of academics and research students based at FutureLearn partner institutions, and the aim of this group is to share research, and explore shared research opportunities.
For expediency, we’ll assume that everyone is familiar with MOOCs, massive open online courses and the hopes and dreams for them to make learning available to everyone at scale, and that there’s some awareness of the huge amount of research on them as a phenomenon.
Our research was to identify the factors that contribute to learners revisiting a MOOC. We asked:
‘What can we discover about the behaviour and motivations of revisiting learners from comments in a MOOC and how can these findings inform the design of MOOCs in the future?’
Although the goal of this research was to investigate enrolment data, learner activity data and themes identified from comments made by revisiting learners between 2015 and 2020 to identify the factors that contribute to learners revisiting a MOOC, this presentation will focus on the contribution that formative feedback made to learner revisiting.
‘Mindfulness for Wellbeing and Peak Performance’ (known as MIND) and the follow-up complementary ‘Maintaining a Mindful Life’ (known as MINDLIFE) are four week courses, with a time commitment of 3 hours per week to work through the course material and sample each mindfulness exercise.
Each experiential course makes extensive use of video and audio as well as text-based explanations of mindfulness concepts. Quizzes, articles and additional reading are also included to provide learners with opportunities to check their understanding or dedicate more time to explore the science of mindfulness in more depth, and to provide additional information to where claims or references to research are made in the course.
Learners are strongly encouraged to watch the videos, practise the mindfulness meditations and exercises, share their ideas, reflections and experiences and join in the discussions – each run of the course features two course mentors to ensure appropriate facilitation and guidance of learners throughout the course.
So, what’s a revisiter?
For the purposes of our study, we defined a revisiter as a learner who has enrolled in more than one run of either of Monash’s mindfulness courses on FutureLearn between 2016 and 2020.
What we know. Combined, a total number of 33,990 revisiting learners joined a Monash mindfulness offering between 2015 and 2020. It’s worth noting that this number is determined by enrolments (joiners) and does not represent active learners – typically, around 4% of learners leave a course run.
It’s also worth noting the varying number of revisits, so there were joiners who revisited a monash mindfulness course from as many as 14 times (12 learners) incrementally down to revisiting 2 times (21,321 learners).
A lot of time was spent exploring the comments. Initial thematic analysis of the comments revealed core themes of:
- Observed outcomes
Of note are the themes of:
- Content approval – identified the value of the course content (videos, written content, mindfulness meditations and exercises, and bespoke weekly feedback videos).
- Course team – celebrated and valued the contribution made by the course team – the lead educators and course mentors.
How formative feedback fits within the themes of content approval and course team.
Video is the primary means of content delivery in a Monash mindfulness courses.
Besides pre-recorded course content, video is also created in response to learner activity and plays a critical role in enabling educators and course instructors to provide formative feedback to learners throughout the delivery of the course.
Henderson and Phillips (2015) reported that the affordances of video enable instructors to convey detailed and elaborate feedback as well as encouragement and praise to learners more so than written commentary.
They also reported positive learner response to video-based feedback, where learners felt they had a closer connection with the instructors or educators. Echoing the reports from Henderson and Phillips are learner reviews posted on Class Central, a search engine and review website for free online courses.
The use of video-based feedback in this capacity not only addresses any potential knowledge deficit experienced by learners, ‘makes the massive feel intimate’, but also personalised the course in a meaningful and practical way, while actively contributing to the change in learner perceptions of the course as the type where an ‘instructor is not as available because there are tens of thousands of others in the class’.
Because weekly feedback videos by the lead educators are freshly recorded at the end of each week of each run of MIND and MINDLIFE they deeply personalise the course experience for learners.
Responding this way to learners helps cultivate a unique currency for learners to contextualise their experience to immediately relatable personal and emerging (local and global) situations that may benefit from the application of mindfulness practices.
Formative feedback modality – presence of the course team
For learners in an online course like a MOOC with potentially thousands of learners, a course team presence is a crucial component that ensures the facilitation and guidance of discussions and interaction between the learners so they can have a rewarding experience.
Learner reviews about Mindfulness for Wellbeing and Peak Performance on Class Central revealed the contribution of the presence of the course team as mode for formative feedback.
A learner review on the course description of MIND noted the course team as being like mindfulness companions.
Revisiting learners greatly valued the efforts made by the course team to connect the conversation in the course comments (with the course mentors) to the conversation (between the lead educators) in the weekly feedback videos.
Typical comments made by revisiting learners in relation to the theme of the course team include references to the lead educator’s capacity to model mindful behaviour and attitudes with their relaxed non-judgmental approach that help build a bond of trust and confidence between them and the learners.
Learners also noted how the course mentors help frame course content and provide additional support (in the comments and in the feedback videos) as the course progresses.
Some clear conclusions about our revisiting learners. First time course participants may join for the content, but then choose to revisit for the community, course team, content updates and the impact that revisiting has on the way they act and feel.
Analysis of the comments revealed learners revisit because they’ve been able to cultivate a greater awareness of emotions, attitudes, stress response and how to manage them, and establish or continue their formal mindfulness practice, but benefit from ongoing participation in the course as a reminder to re-establish their lapsed mindfulness practice.
This highlights the importance of the value that revisiters place on a sense of community or affinity of a group of like-minded people that support each other throughout the course. This is connected to the role of the course team, where the way the course team engages, interacts and models mindful behaviour to learners, which is another contributing factor for revisiting.
What learnings are there for course designers?
Understanding the factors that contribute to learner revisiting is of interest to all organisations that offer online learning experiences (particularly those that are experiential or open-ended with no logical conclusion) because it may provide insights on how to best design, develop and deliver the experience.
When cultivating opportunities for formative feedback, designers need to:
- ensure opportunities for conversation and rich discussion and a strong presence of the educators/course team.
- consider how different modalities can be used to cultivate an educator presence and interactions between learners.
Know your customer (KYC) – consider learner archetype e.g., FutureLearn’s ‘Flourisher’ and ‘Fixer’ learner archetypes – their motivations go beyond learning about mindfulness, and extend into life outside of the course.
To support this, course design could create opportunities for these learners to further embed what they’ve learned into a lifelong practice by providing access to content (for offline use/outside of course) and tools (apps, journal templates, downloadable checklists) for learners to practice and also reflect on their experience.
Many thanks for attending the session – I hope you found it interesting.
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