The secret life of face-to-face learning in MOOCs (Part 1)

Massive, open, online courses (MOOCs) are generally designed with the intention that learners will learn online. Indeed, the name implies this. And one of the key advantages of MOOCs, from a learning design point of view, is supposed to be that all activity by learners is visible online and therefore available as data for analysis, with the power to help course designers improve the course in the next iteration. Reports on MOOC-based learning usually include quantification of enrolment numbers – often compared with completion numbers – as well as data on average viewing time on any video content, number of clicks indicating resources accessed, and analysis of various kinds of learner activity on the course platform. Data of this nature has been used to explain how learners progress through courses (Perna et al, 2014; Milligan, 2015), and is sometimes claimed to have the capacity to reveal how learning takes place (O’Reilly & Veeramachaneni, 2014).

Some researchers are seeking further insights into the nature of MOOC-based learning by investigating social learning in MOOCs, focusing on interactions taking place within the MOOC discussion forums (for example, Brinton et al, 2014). Other studies have also investigated the nature of social learning in groups set up by MOOC learners outside the MOOC platform, such as on Facebook and other online social networking sites (for example, Alario-Hoyos et al, 2014).

I have a hunch, however, that quite a lot of learning in MOOCs is taking place face-to-face (F2F). I think this is likely to range from spontaneous, informal chats with friends and family members about the MOOC content (I can attest to that happening on the MOOCs that I and my friends have taken), through to regular, planned gatherings of MOOC learners in local meeting places – organised perhaps by a MOOC learner or by a local institution, with varying degrees of formality. I suspect also, that at the latter end of this spectrum, there may be many additional active MOOC participants who have not themselves enrolled on the MOOC, and are therefore invisible to the MOOC organisers.

In order to test my hunch, I did a Google Scholar search using the terms “MOOC” and “study group”/”meet-up”, and found a handful of articles which confirmed that MOOC-related F2F learning is playing an important role in the MOOC experience for some learners in places as diverse as Mexico City, Northern Sweden, Indonesia and Tokyo (Sanchez-Gordon, 2016; Norberg et al., 2015; Firmansyah & Timmis, 2016; Oura et al., 2015). However, the literature in this area seems to be embryonic – and it begs more questions than it answers.

A key question is: what are the effects of F2F interaction between MOOC participants on learning? Linked to that question are several others about the why, the how and the what of F2F learning in MOOCs, such as:

  1. Why do MOOC learners choose to participate in F2F gatherings?
  2. How are F2F gatherings organised? (E.g. via Twitter, Facebook or, by word of mouth, or by someone sticking a notice on a local library/ church hall notice board?)
  3. Who organises the F2F gatherings? (E.g. a learner on the MOOC, a local volunteer teacher, an education institution?)
  4. How often are the F2F gatherings held?
  5. How many people come to the gatherings?
  6. What percentage of the participants at the gatherings are enrolled on the MOOC? (E.g. all, just a few, or just one person who shares content with the rest of the group?)
  7. What happens in these gatherings?
  8. What do participants get out of these gatherings? (E.g. social enjoyment, a meal, drinks, deeper insights or understanding of the MOOC subject matter?)
  9. Do participants have to pay to participate, and if so, where does the money go?

I will soon be summarising my findings from the literature, but in the meantime I would be very grateful to hear from anyone who has experience of F2F learning in a MOOC. I would love to get comments on any or all of the questions above – and any further questions you think I should have asked.

Thank you in advance – I’m looking forward to your comments!


Alario-Hoyos, C., Perez-Sanagustin, M., Delgado-Kloos, C., Parada G., H. A., & Munoz-Organero, M. (2014). Delving into participants’ profiles and use of social tools in MOOCs. IEEE Transactions on Learning Technologies, 7(3), 260–266.

Brinton, C. G., Chiang, M., Jain, S., Lam, H., Liu, Z., & Wong, F. M. F. (2014). Learning about social learning in MOOCs: From statistical analysis to generative model. IEEE Transactions on Learning Technologies, 7(4), 346–359.

Firmansyah, M., & Timmis, S. (2016). Making MOOCs meaningful and locally relevant? Investigating IDCourserians—an independent, collaborative, community hub in Indonesia. Research and Practice in Technology Enhanced Learning, 11(11), 1–23.

Milligan, S. (2015). Crowd-sourced learning in MOOCs. In Proceedings of the Fifth International Conference on Learning Analytics And Knowledge – LAK ’15 (pp. 151–155). New York, New York, USA: ACM Press.

Norberg, A., Händel, Å., & Ödling, P. (2015). Using MOOCs at learning centers in Northern Sweden. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 16(6), 137–151.

O’Reilly, O.-M., & Veeramachaneni, K. (2014). Technology for mining the big data of MOOCs. Research and Practice in Assessment, 9(Winter), 29–37. Retrieved from

Oura, H., Anzai, Y., Fushikida, W., & Yamauchi, Y. (2015). “What Would Experts Say About This?” An Analysis of Student Interactions outside MOOC Platform Methods Post-survey procedure Post-interview procedure Acknowledgments. In O. Lindwall, P. Häkkinen, T. Koschmann, P. Tchounikine, & S. Ludvigsen (Eds.), Exploring the Material Conditions of Learning: The Computer Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL) Conference 2015, Volume 2 (pp. 711–712). Gothenberg: International Society of the Learning Sciences. Retrieved from

Perna, L. W., Ruby, A., Boruch, R. F., Wang, N., Scull, J., Ahmad, S., & Evans, C. (2014). Moving through MOOCs: Understanding the Progression of Users in Massive Open Online Courses. Educational Researcher, 43(9), 421–432.

Sanchez-Gordon, S., & Luján-Mora, S. (2016). Accessible blended learning for non-native speakers using MOOCs. In Proceedings of 2015 International Conference on Interactive Collaborative and Blended Learning, ICBL 2015 (pp. 19–24). Mexico City.

About Gabi Witthaus

Open educator. Blogger at Art of E-learning. Learning design consultant at University of Birmingham. PhD student in HE Research, Evaluation and Enhancement, Lancaster University. Previously Research Associate at University of Leicester (Beyond Distance Research Alliance and Institute of Learning Innovation); Learning and Teaching Facilitator at Loughborough University; Distance Learning Manager at Bradford University School of Management. Qualifications: Masters in Training and Development (USQ, Australia); Masters in English Education (Wits University, South Africa), PGC in Mediation (Robert Gordon, Scotland), BA Hons in Applied Linguistics (Wits University, South Africa).
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10 Responses to The secret life of face-to-face learning in MOOCs (Part 1)

  1. jennymackness says:

    Hi Gabi – your post made me immediately think of Coursera’s Modern and Contemporary American Poetry MOOC – This MOOC encourages participants to meet up in their geographical areas to engage in face-to-face close readings of the poems being studied in the course. Not only are there many meet ups (which you can sometimes see organised on their Twitter stream @modpopenn, but they are also encouraged to video these meet-ups and close readings and then post them back to the course site. To my knowledge this has happened at least for the last two runs of the course.

    There was also a face-to-face meeting organised by participants of a MOOC that I helped to design and run in 2012. This was Oxford Brookes University’s First Steps in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education MOOC. – – A small group of participants arranged a f2f meet up in London to discuss their learning on the MOOC.

    I’m sure there must be many more examples.

    Hope this helps – Jenny


  2. Robert Schuwer says:

    Hi Gabi,

    Interesting this! Are you also seeking of experiences of a MOOC as component in a regular program? In my institution, some of our courses make use of an existing MOOC, but organize the discussions and other learning activities in class. I am not sure if you are also interested in these stories.

    Furthermore, this Soring SURF organized two MOOC cafes around 2 MOOCs on blended learning. I was not involved in this, but maybe Martijn Ouwehand from TU Delft or Janina van Hees from SURFnet can tell you more about their experiences.


    Robert Schuwer


    • Gabi Witthaus says:

      Hi Robert

      Yes, at this stage I am aiming to map out the territory, so I’m interested in both formal, classroom-based use of MOOCs and non-formal, learner-organised get-togethers. I’ll follow up with Martin, Janina and the SURFnet folks – thank you!



  3. Darco Jansen says:

    Hi Gabi,

    Nice reflection and research. You might extend this to what extend those f2f meeting helps participants to achieve their goals (learners perspective) and if it influences retention rates (course providers perspective)?

    A remark : according to EU-definition of MOOCs the online dimension only state that the delivery is completely online. See

    Learning indeed happens at home, at work, with colleagues, family and friends and in informal or even organised group settings. Regarding the latter I remember a succesfull initiative in Israel using MOOCs in cities without an university:

    But more examples must exist – espcially outside developing countries…..



    • Gabi Witthaus says:

      Thank you Darco – I love the idea of MOOC-hubs in the second link you posted. And yes, I am hoping to gather examples from both developing and developed countries.



  4. francesbell says:

    I think that is very valuable research so thanks. in some ways these MOOC groups are analogous to self-organised (but possibly tutor/lecturer encouraged) peer study groups that have accompanied f2f learning and teaching and there must be literature on that. Good educators think a lot about what happens when they aren’t there 🙂


  5. Pingback: The secret life of face-to-face learning in MOOCs (Part 2) | Art of e-learning

  6. I largely refer to MOOCs as resources, not courses (hence, “MOORs”). The point is that much learning can happen in any mode of study (including f2f) when good resources are put to good use. And some MOORs are actually quite good. So yes, learning does happen in f2f mode with the aid of MOORs, and that’s not “secret”.


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