Duke Research Finds MOOCs Offer Learners Emotional Growth, Not Just Facts

Millions of people around the world have enrolled in massive open online courses (MOOCs), attracted by their promise of low-cost education for career advancement or gaining knowledge. New research from Duke University has found that beyond new facts, MOOCs help individuals develop emotionally.

The findings are described in an article published this week in EDUCAUSE Review.

The article’s authors, Kun Li and Kim Manturuk, analyzed the topics in MOOCs offered by Duke on Coursera and looked at students’ comments in the courses. They found widespread evidence that the MOOCs helped students develop positive attitudes, keep motivated in learning and value diversity.

In the education field, the emotional and attitudinal component of education is known as affective learning. “Affective learning encompasses skills like critical thinking, reflective listening and engagement,” said Manturuk.

“Affective learning, to me, is just as important as cognitive and psychomotor learning,” said Li. “For example, a student can be good at certain topics (high in the cognitive domain) but holds negative attitudes toward the topics or doesn’t know how to collaborate with people with different opinions (low in the affective domain).”

Li and Manturuk identified four main ways learners experienced affective learning in MOOCs: sharing instructor enthusiasm, engaging with controversial topics, exposure to diversity, and experiencing innovative teaching approaches.

The authors quote one student who developed greater confidence in discussing evolution after taking the Duke MOOC Introduction to Genetics and Evolution: “…Before I took this course, I guessed evolution was true, but I didn’t know where the uncertainties were, and where they were not. Now I can make the case for evolution with confidence…”

In another example, Li and Manturuk cite comments in which both male and female students express positive feelings about taking a statistics course taught by a female professor. They note that these comments are consistent with previous studies that showed female professors serve as positive role models for female students and help change male-dominated stereotypes in STEM fields.

The idea of affective learning dates to the 1950’s, but Li and Manturuk are some of the first researchers to see if, and how, affective learning happens in MOOCs. “In a traditional face-to-face classroom, facilitating affective learning has typically been reliant on back-and-forth student to teacher interactions and student to student interactions,” said Manturuk. “We didn’t expect to see [affective learning] in MOOCs, which tend to be more one-directional.” Their research, she said, showed that affective learning happens in MOOCs, even without face-to-face interactions.

The massive nature of MOOCs, and their accessibility to individuals around the globe, is part of what makes that possible. “In a MOOC, [a learner] can interact with students from all over the world with all kinds of backgrounds and education every day. The diversity that MOOCs provide is something that no traditional classes can have,” said Li.

Read the article at EDUCAUSE