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Self-Directed Learning: The Core of Successful MOOC Participation

Submitted by on May 1, 2013 – 1:29 pm13 Comments

rising bar graphMOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) have gained extreme momentum since they appeared in higher education. Although many universities, vendors, and students have joined the MOOC bandwagon, we remain in the early stages of MOOCs; we’re unsure of their long-term role, and some thought leaders question if MOOCs will successfully disrupt higher education. As MOOCs continue to develop, we must identify challenges learners face as MOOC participants, specifically for learners accustomed to the face-to-face classroom—many of them disengage in MOOCs as the course progresses because online education has shifted the learner’s role into unfamiliar territory: online students are now more accountable for their own learning, time management, and motivation to complete coursework.

Understanding Two Learning Styles

Cognitive style may impact learner’s success in online courses. For students to adapt to a new, more autonomous role in their own leaning, they must identify how they learn. Some students are field-dependent—they need strong support from their instructor; others are field-independent—they are more self-directed in their learning. Each learning style has advantages and disadvantages; however, both are important for learning. For online students to become well-rounded learners, they should identify which style they feel less comfortable using and develop that style to enhance their learning experience.

MOOCs Require Self-Directed Learning

MOOCS are designed for  large audiences and lack the level of instructor responsiveness students have become accustomed to in traditional courses. Typically, MOOC instructors do not offer students individual, specific feedback on assignments, like critical analysis papers. For the field-dependent student, the instructor-learner relationship in a MOOC is challenging because instructor feedback plays a vital role in their learning process.

Tips for Teaching or Participating in a MOOC

If you facilitate MOOCs, share these tips at the beginning of the course to communicate to students their role as self-directed learners. If you’re a MOOC student, use these tips to adapt to your role as an autonomous learner:

  • Determine priorities of the course.
  • Locate topics and resources that interest you—avoid trying to read every resource provided.
  • Communicate in manageable groups with other students.
  • Find an organizational system or tool track to your notes, links, comments, and other resources.
  • Enjoy! Remember, you are doing this MOOC for yourself. Don’t let it become overwhelming.

Your Turn!

Have you participated in a MOOC? If so, share your tips and experiences. [social-bio]


  • Dr. Will says:

    I love this post. Dr. Farmakis, you do a great job explaining what to expect as a learner in a MOOC. As someone who earned both his master’s and doctorate online (LMS was Blackboard), I can tell you form experience that being a self-directed learner is the key ingredient to a successful online learning experience.

    Dr. Farmakis, in your research, what surprised you the most? What did you disagree with the most? Where do you see MOOCS fitting into the overall higher education landscape?

  • Valerie Storey says:

    These are excellent tips for students. I would also add that developing Critical Friends Groups can be beneficial. If the Critical Friend protocol is applied it ensures that each CFG member is not only supported but challenged.

  • Dr. Farmakis says:

    Hi Dr. Will-
    I am so glad you enjoyed this post. The introduction of MOOCs has triggered an evolution among the varying roles in education. As a result of MOOCs, students are becoming more self-directed, professors are utilizing different activities for larger audiences, institutions are inclined to offer MOOCs due to the demand of the market.
    MOOCs have opened the doors to education as a marketplace. Professors are branching out on their own to offer MOOCs with no university or college affiliation. Vendors/private industry are also seizing the opportunity to offer MOOCs. What I think will be most challenging with MOOCs is evaluating the success. Did the MOOC deliver on what it intended to do from the professor/university/vendor perspective? This will vary and is open to interpretation. I think MOOCs will be around in higher education, but I also think that this is just the beginning of an even bigger picture. I suppose we will have to wait and see. Bring the popcorn!

  • Dr. Farmakis says:

    Dr. Storey–
    Thank you! I am very student centric in my thinking as you know. I like your suggestion of the Critical Friends Groups (CFG). I recommend that students form small manageable groups for communication, so they don’t lose their voice among larger audiences. This strategy will help students from becoming disengaged. The idea of a CFG is ideal because it incorporates a support structure. Students need to feel a sense of community.

    We are in the process of developing a microMOOC on gamification. The process and research behind this is very intriguing. Hope all is well at UCF! I am sure you are in your element there!

  • Stewart Hase says:

    Hi, I think self-determined learning (heutagogy) is a better explanation than self-directed learning. In heutagogy people determine their own learning as well as process. They pick, mix and match, move from one thing to another depending on what questions they have in their brain-determined by previous learning. MOOCS, if anything, enable this.

  • Jeff Hall says:

    Great post Dr. Farmakis. I appreciate your student focus, and your tips for student success strike me as dead-on. I would like to build on a comment you made to Dr. Will. Since we are in the nascent stages of this educational change, in a lot of ways we are in the Wild West. There are all kinds of players entering the game and they all are playing with different rules and bring different conceptions. One of our challenges as an industry is to insure that we are offering well designed, positively aligned and efficacious courses, no matter how they are delivered.

  • Dr. Farmakis says:

    Hi Stewart –

    Heutagogy has recently resurfaced as a learning approach (it’s foundation in andragogy). As xMOOCs and cMOOCs are introduced we are definitely seeing a trend moving from andragogy to heutagogy.

  • Dr. Farmakis says:

    Hi Jeff-

    Thanks! I agree completely! As you can see in this comment thread, there are lots of items to consider with MOOCs. There is an evolution of roles within education as we know it. With something so new as MOOCs, we can only build on it from here on out. We will see various learning approaches and pedagogies continue to shift as MOOCs continue to emerge. It is a very exciting time!

  • Dr. Farmakis says:


    The heutagogy learning approach is an excellent follow-up post to this post. Thank you for your comment.

  • We have a lot of different advice from MOOC students in our success strategies section. The one unique idea I would emphasize is to think of MOOCs in terms of a finished project. If you have a specific project or work product that you’re trying to complete and will have to show at the end, that increases motivation and context. A couple different writers have said something like that in their essays.

    Robert McGuire
    Editor, MOOC News and Reviews

  • Dr. Farmakis says:

    Hi Robert-

    Thank you for commenting!

    Working with an end goal in mind is an excellent strategy. Knowing that you are achieving pieces of a larger project makes people feel productive. It is an internal motivating factor because each time you work on that smaller piece, you are coming that much closer to the final product. Thank you for sharing these success strategies with us!

  • Glenn Hervieux says:

    Hi Heather. After meeting you via Twitter as you were getting ready to begin your new job, this is nice to read some of your work on elearning. I had no idea what a MOOC was when I did the recent ETMOOC sponsored by Alec Couros and his cohort. I looked over the course and the direction resonated for me. I was glad the first week that we did a basic introduction and why were were involved in ETMOOC. It helped me consider some goals I had for the course – or for me, more of a connected learning space than a course, per se. A couple of your suggestions were things that worked for me and others in ETMOOC. First, creating communication pathways and making some initial connections. Sharing learning through blog post and reading/commenting on others was a great way to connect with others. Second, curating (reading, sense making, collecting, sharing) the many resources using social bookmarking (Diigo), Twitter, Evernote, and Google Reader, were key to not having the whole experience unravel, with the intense amount of stimulation, interaction, and information that was coming my way. Learning to manage my interaction with social media and information is something I’m really working on as a result of being in the ETMOOC. Being self-directed as a learner is a key – and being able to persevere the new learning spaces online. It gave me a lot of insight into how we need to work with students to see how online learning is alike and different from the traditional learning space they’re used to working in. Getting a sense of how they learn and what supports they need is more important than ever. Thanks for the article.

  • Dr. Farmakis says:

    Hi Glenn-

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment! Establishing communication via social media is a wonderful strategy for success in a MOOC. You mentioned “being able to persevere the new learning spaces online,” this is a strategy in itself too. It is important to be aware of how to to this.

    If you are interested…
    I have an upcoming webinar on “5 Ways to Prevent Cheating in Online Courses”.

    See you in twitter!