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Effective Habits of Power Users: A Look At Recent MOOC Research

Recently published research on student behavior in the first edX MOOC reveals some interesting insights about the persistence of  certificate earners and about the time they put into the various course activities.

MOOC research on effective habits of power users

Dennis Skley via Flickr

“Learning in the Worldwide Classroom: Research Into edX’s First MOOC” was produced by a group of MIT and Harvard researchers, led by Lori Breslow, director of MIT’s Teaching and Learning Laboratory, and published in the summer 2013 issue of RPA Journal from Research & Practice in Assessment. The analysis looked at Circuits and Electronics (6.002x), taught in early 2012 by edX President Anant Agarwal to nearly 155,000 students, and they particularly focused on the 7,100 students who earned a certificate for passing the course.

The researchers chose to focus on the behavior of these successful students in order to identify common traits or behaviors. Even a casual observer is struck by how consistently those students used forum discussions while doing homework and other assignments, suggesting that engaging peers in their own learning is a common strategy among successful students.

Even before the study, the forum use surprised faculty. In a special keynote conversation at the SXSWedu conference in March, 2013, Agarwal described his delight with what he was witnessing the first time he taught the MOOC.

“The biggest surprise in my mind was the power of the discussions. With 155,000 students, at first I didn’t sleep at night worrying about how to answer questions from students. So, I’m sitting up at 2am after the second day of the course watching the discussions and answering questions as fast as I can. A question pops up. I try to type the answer. But, before I can type the answer, I see an answer pop up from another student, who happened to be in Pakistan. He almost correctly answered the question asked by the first student. I started to write up a correction to the advice provided, and then before I could correct it somebody else popped in with another answer. Then I sat back, fascinated. This was an epiphany for me. Before I knew it, student contributions came in from all sides, discussing the question and going back and forth. And in the end, they got the right answer. As an instructor, I merely blessed it as being correct.”


Breslow et al., RPA Journal, Summer 2013

Evidently, such student interactions became commonplace for these first certificate-earning edX students. Across the spectrum of course resources available to students and measured in the study, the discussion forums were the most frequently used resource. Forum use went up ahead of homework and test deadlines. Most striking, before mid-term and final exams the time spent on forum discussions went up while the time spent watching videos and doing other kinds of course work went down.

Breslow et al., RPA Journal, Summer 2013

Taking into account that all discussion activity was purely optional for students, this forum use by the most successful students deserves careful attention. It brings into question how MOOCs are designed and how students actually use them.

When I’m re-evaluating something so fundamental, I tend to examine the word itself.  Simply looking for the root word for “education” reveals the verb educe, which means “to draw out” or “to call forth.” Without questioning how far our traditional education system has strayed from the root meaning of that word, how can online systems become more true to that meaning?

One clue might be seen through the work of Harvard-trained biologist Francisco Varela and the field of autopoiesis, or “self-creation.” Varela proposed that the brain is a system constructed so as to create a stable reality rather than merely being a device designed to pick up information and respond to questions to see if it got it right. When reviewing the research provided by the first edX MOOC, it seems there is more of this reality-creation going on among the best students than might be expected. What’s more, these students seem to know they are essentially on their own to make the most of what they have in front of them.

What this MOOC research suggests about effective strategies for students

So what are they doing, and how can MOOCs help future students do more of it? Whatever it is, these students like to show it off. While the course discussion threads are not available to outsiders, the course wiki provides insights into what went on during the class. The wiki usage, while hardly showing on the research graphs, does show upticks before the mid-term and for a sustained period before, during and after the final examination. Of particular note within the wiki are ad hoc student-provided course notes and guides as well as winning submissions for two Circuits and Electronics Classmates Contests.

The efforts of student work showcased on the wiki goes far beyond “passing the course” and well into “reality creation.” Consider the videos made by winners of the Classmate Contest project, for example. Enrique Corpa Rios’ video demonstrating his Ring Oscillator is a careful production pointing to something he obviously has great pride in, whether to impress friends and relatives or potential employers. (And the link to the video he made of himself unpacking his third place award is worth a watch, too.)

I would categorize the group of students examined in this research, representing less than 5% of the original course enrollment, as “extreme users.” The Palo Alto-based design firm IDEO has developed the practice of watching extreme customer behaviors in order to surface a broad spectrum of use cases to consider while new designs are developed. The persistence and on-going engagement mentioned in the research might not be realistic to expect from all students, but MOOC developers should think about the progression of activities discovered by these pioneers in the first edX course.

In my view, the discussions identified in this study triggered valuable self-directed learning activities, collaborations and projects. The students who went the extra mile came up with creative projects, validated their approaches in great detail and were able to explain the underpinnings of their designs. And, in the most extreme cases, the students showcased what they had done for others to see. They seem to tell us that making and sharing something, even a photo of a sketched-out solution to a class problem, is by itself evidence of learning.



Last month I attended what was billed as “the greatest show and tell on earth” — The Maker Faire. Over 100,000 people showed up that weekend and many exhibited the same kinds of projects showcased in Circuits and Electronics (6.002x). The phrase “show and tell” invoked for me positive experiences from my first school years and does again as I consider this research. As we walked around the fair, I told my daughters about the day in second or third grade when a teacher apologetically informed the class that we wouldn’t have time for show and tell as in earlier grades, even though we in the class argued that this was the time when we learned the most.

Could MOOC technologies bring back show and tell on an even greater scale than is possible with Maker Faires? To me, some of the evidence that justifies doing so is staring us in the face. The research presented by Breslow and her team provides a tantalizing glimpse at what MOOC student success looks like now and suggests possibilities that educe more successful students in the future.


John Duhring (7 Posts)

John Duhring has been s a founding team member at nine startups, including Supermac Software and Bitmenu. During his career he has also applied technology to learning at large companies such as Prentice-Hall, Apple and AOL. Follow him on Twitter @duhring.


  1. Great article. The big data that is just starting to cone out of MOOCs is going to change education, I predict. Will be using this as a consultant on MOOCs. Thanks so much!

  2. More on the “show and tell” concept. This piece by Lynda Weinman makes the case for such “soft skills”.

    “It’s really hard to find great people who also possess the social and communication skills needed to work effectively. The truth is while it’s easier to learn facts and find information through online education systems, mastering critical thinking, collaboration, presentation and empathy is another matter. These are skills that require human connection, interaction and practice, and are best acquired in person, not online.”