This particular MOOC platform is supported by Instructure, the maker of the Canvas learning management system, and allows universities who are customers to host free courses on the same cloud-based software. The survey, conducted in May and June, polled 1,834 people from the Canvas Network registration database, including 696 who had just enrolled and 1,138 who had completed MOOC courses.
"Number 1 -- and maybe this should be obvious -- but the topic needs to be really compelling," said Dani Wanderer, chief marketing officer of Qualtrics, the survey software firm that conducted the study. MOOC students are enrolling for free but also with no promise of formal credit for their studies "so the MOOCs need to figure out a way to make the course engaging," she said.
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"Until now, research on MOOCs has been limited to asking faculty and administrators what they think about open online learning, but little has been done to explore what students are thinking," she said. "This study was an effort to move beyond anecdotes and speculation to get some real insights about what attracts students to MOOCs and what it takes to keep them engaged."
Of the incoming students surveyed, 76% said they signed up because of the topic, 75% because it was free, 61% for professional development, and 44% because they wanted to find out what MOOCs are all about. It turned out that 72% of those who enrolled were themselves professional educators.
Although not a major motivation at time of enrollment, the study did find that credentials or college credit could increase MOOC completion rates. About two-thirds of respondents said they would be more likely to complete a MOOC that offered a certificate or transferable college credit. About 10% who didn't complete noted lack of incentive as the main reason.
Although the survey didn't necessarily capture a representative sampling of all those who dropped out, of those who said they did not complete a MOOC, 68% said they got too busy and 20% said they lost interest.
"Time is a very valuable commodity, and things do come up," Wanderer said. "When the course is electronic or virtual, it's easier to walk away than it would be from an in-person engagement."
The study also found that only 60% of incoming students planned to participate in MOOC discussion forums, but 72% of those who completed the course wound up engaging in online discussions. Students who were highly engaged in discussions were six times more likely to complete a course, according to the survey. "If they stick with it, they tend to engage more," Wanderer said.
Of the incoming students, 30% had taken a MOOC previously, most commonly with Coursera (81%), followed by another Canvas Network course (36%), an edX course (22%) or one from Udacity (20%). Many were building on prior higher education, meaning a four-year degree (19%), a master's (37%) or a doctoral degree (11%).
"They tend to be lifelong learners or people who have advanced degrees already," said Misty Frost, Instructure's VP of marketing. "They're people who are interested in learning -- and interested in learning interesting things." If they find that the material is not interesting, it's easy enough for them to drop the course, she said. Perhaps that's why the Canvas Network's number-one course is one on "Gender Through Comic Books."
"It has that edutainment value," Frost said. Instructure worked with Qualtrics to poll students in an effort to better understand what attracts MOOC students. The LMS provider is in the MOOC business to support its customers who want to experiment with the medium, she said.