MOOC Matters: Keeping Students Engaged

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Are my students engaged? This is the burning question that can be challenging to answer when you’re teaching students face to face — let alone when they are squirreled away behind a computer screen halfway across the world. 

That’s why a group of faculty members from Georgia Tech is looking into the issues related to keeping students engaged and involved in massive open online courses (MOOC).

“We’re trying to figure out what can and cannot be replicated when you transition a course from an on-campus to an online learning environment,” said Al Ferri, associate chair for

Undergraduate Studies in the Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering and the project “champion.” “And we also want to know about subtle things that can help students successfully complete MOOCs.”

This project is one of seven being explored by a group of mini innovation hubs that are researching questions related to MOOCs and online learning. The hubs are part of an initiative led by the Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning and the Center for 21st Century Universities.   

“As luck would have it, when our hub was forming, ME was getting ready to run a special course called ‘The Buzz on Open Online Courses,’” Ferri said. “The students who signed up for the course each took two MOOCs of their choice and were the perfect subjects to help us learn more about our research topic.”

During spring of 2013, 13 students enrolled in a number of MOOCs — ranging from Aboriginal Worldviews and Education offered by the University of Toronto to Introduction to Finance offered by University of Michigan — and completed all assignments.

As part of their participation, the students gave final presentations about their experiences with the MOOCs. There were a number of  common themes that students shared:

  • Students enjoyed the convenience and ability to “go at your own pace” that MOOCs provide.
  • They found technical glitches were particularly frustrating when coupled with the lack of access to a professor.
  • Students who had peer-evaluation activities associated with their MOOCs mentioned that they did not like it.
  • Many students mentioned the importance of having a good instructor in their MOOCs. They commented on instructors’ “enthusiasm,” “expertise,” and “care for their students’ learning.”
  • Many commented that they wanted/needed to see the professors’ heads in the inset box on the computer screen.
  • The students said forums are an important part of the success of MOOCs, but they must be managed to maintain a high signal-to-noise ratio. Assigning expert personnel to monitor the message boards is crucial in making effective use of this medium.
  • Students indicated variety is important, even in a world of six-minute modules. They reacted very positively to mixing lectures with demos, interviews, outside videos, etc.
  • The consensus among the students was that they liked the MOOCs as a way to gain exposure to a new subject area or to review a topic they had already studied, but they acknowledged that the rigor and depth of most of the courses were not up to the level found in their Tech face-to-face classes.

The hub is taking the information gained from the students and will continue their research in the months to come.

“The study that we did in the spring semester showed what sorts of things a MOOC developer could do to encourage students to stay engaged, and what mistakes can discourage or frustrate students,” Ferri said. “But we need to know much more about what drives a student to complete a MOOC, why the attrition rate is so high in MOOCs, and why completion and pass rates in face-to-face classes are so much higher in

For more information or to join this hub, contact Ferri at For video and PowerPoint presentations from the May 8 showcase, click here.



  • Workflow Status: Published
  • Created By: Amelia Pavlik
  • Created: 06/11/2013
  • Modified By: Fletcher Moore
  • Modified: 10/07/2016

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