MOOC’s and Motivation

If I offered you $10,000 to learn one college subject, would you do it? How about if I paid for the courses? Sounds like a good deal, doesn’t it? That is essentially what MOOC’s offer. A MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) is free to the student, offers the best minds in the various subject areas as teachers, and has almost unlimited enrollment. Who wouldn’t be interested in that kind of deal, right?

Sadly though, the current course completion rates for MOOC’s hover between 10% and 15%1. There are many reasons for these dismal success rates, but what it really comes down to is motivation. What we’re seeing is that few people can consistently apply themselves to learning a subject unless someone is there to applaud them for their accomplishments or console them when they fail.

Attendance is not monitored in a MOOC, so “cutting class” has little, if any, immediate consequence to the student. And let’s face it, when it comes to being a good student and mastering a course, it requires constant focus and stamina. As it is, students often seek other activities that are more attractive than spending time learning a subject that may not have any immediate benefits.

Complicating this issue is something called expectancy. Expectancy is a term coined by Victor Vroom of the Yale School of Management that explains why people choose one thing over another2.  The theory proposes that people choose to act based on three subconscious beliefs: expectancy, instrumentality, and valence. Expectancy is the belief that one’s effort will bring about a successful performance; instrumentality is the belief that the successful performance will bring about a favorable outcome; and valence is the belief that the outcome will bring about a valued consequence.

Unfortunately, in our experience, very few students come out of the traditional “factory-based” schools with these three beliefs intact. For a number of reasons, they either lack strong self-confidence, do not think that a grade is much of a reward, or do not think that academic success ranks very high in life’s priorities. Consequently, few can apply the effort needed to complete a MOOC.

So how then can we supply students with the motivation they need? Well, short of redesigning the school system, the best answer is to redesign the online course. Students need three things to maintain interest for long (as attested by any video game addict): immediate feedback, levels of progression, and a rich visual environment.  

By structuring an online course where students receive frequent and immediate reinforcement for their efforts, students can begin to believe that they can learn successfully, healing their expectancy. By seeing their successes lead to a higher status, they will heal their instrumentality. And the rich visual environment reinforces their feeling of the value of their efforts.

What we’ve learned, student motivation can generally be improved by the end of the first course in which these elements are prominent.3 Therefore, students can begin to build their intrinsic motivation to succeed academically.

The potential of MOOC’s to solve the higher education problems in our culture will remain largely unfulfilled until such improvements in instructional design are made. The needed changes are neither expensive nor difficult, but they require an uncommon appreciation of the human psyche.


2Vroom, Victor H. Administrative Science Quarterly 13 (1): 26–46.

3Press release, available upon request.

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