Background/Context: The advent of massive open online courses (MOOCs) has fueled much attention among educators. However, despite the high interest they generate, we still understand little about student engagement in these large-scale online courses. Existing studies tend to focus on how MOOCs affect higher education institutions in terms of faculty identity, workload, responsibilities, and policy. Other studies have mostly employed clickstream data analysis to predict student dropout or completion. Although studies such as these are useful, they fall short of explaining the reasons why participants find the activities or course engaging.
Research Questions: Unlike many previous studies, this study seeks to uncover what factors related to MOOC pedagogy or to the individual instructor may encourage or discourage student engagement. This study explores the following questions: What elements related to the course design or the teaching staff did students find enjoyable, beneficial in helping them learn the materials, or motivate them to participate in the activities? What elements did students wish to improve? What elements related to the course design or teaching staff did students find frustrating?
Participants: The sample consisted of 4,466 learners who participated in one or more of 10 highly rated MOOCs. Highly rated MOOCs were sampled because they were likely to exemplify good practice or teaching strategies.
Research Design: Qualitative research methods were used in this study. More specifically, detailed observations of the 10 MOOCs’ course features and grounded analyses of the 4,466 learners’ course review data were conducted.
Findings: Findings suggest six key factors that can engage online students and nine reasons for student disaffection. The four most frequently mentioned engagement factors were (a) problem-centric learning, (b) active learning supported by timely feedback, (c) course resources that cater to participants’ learnings need or preferences, and (d) instructor attributes such as enthusiasm or humor. The two most commonly reported student disaffections across the 10 MOOCs were due to forum- and peer-related issues.
Conclusion: This article ends with five main implications that could provide practical guidelines to other instructors of large online courses. The findings may also offer tips for instructors of traditional e-learning courses. Although we cannot generalize the findings of this study to traditional e-learning courses, it is possible that at the very least, the information presented here may suggest probable solutions for traditional e-learning courses that might otherwise be overlooked.