The secret life of face-to-face learning in MOOCs (Part 2)

Many thanks to the folks who commented on Part 1 of this blog series, and to those people who contacted me privately to tell me about cases where face-to-face learning is playing a significant role for MOOC learners. In this post I will share what I have learned from that communication, as well as briefly summarising some of the literature I have found on the topic. As I am particularly interested in the potential of MOOCs to increase access to higher education in developing countries, that will be my focus in this post. To set the scene, it is worth noting that learners in developing countries tend to face many constraints that are likely to restrict their ability to take MOOCs. To give just one example, my colleague Bernard Nkuyubwatsi, reporting on MOOC usage in Rwanda, points out that limited internet penetration (around 7% in the case of Rwanda) and unreliable broadband connectivity, combined with other issues such as limited awareness of open educational practices and low levels of digital literacy skills, may create almost insurmountable obstacles for potential learners on MOOCs in Rwanda. Where learners do overcome such obstacles in developing countries, I am interested to know whether, and to what extent, face-to-face (F2F) learning is playing a supporting role.

My list of nine questions in Part 1 of this blog series will require more in-depth, longer-term research, and so for today I will just look at three of those questions, with reference to a few initiatives:

  • Who organises the F2F gatherings?
  • What happens in these gatherings? (I’ll combine the answers to this question with the first one, to avoid repetition.)
  • What do participants get out of these gatherings?

Who organises these gatherings and what happens in them?

Some of the F2F gatherings around MOOCs are formal, and are organised by institutions or organisations that provide a facilitated MOOC learning experience for learners. In an example from South Africa, the social enterprise organisation RLabs organises F2F classroom activities based on UCT’s  ‘Becoming a changemaker: Introduction to Social Innovation’ MOOC on Coursera. (For more information, see the article ‘Online course opens doors for changemakers’.)

Another example of a facilitated MOOC comes from India in the form of the TESS-India project, in which the UK’s Open University, with funding from UKAID,  is supporting learning around open educational resources and an EdX MOOC for teacher development.

An example of a slightly less formally organised MOOC F2F gathering comes from the Philippines, where  the US Embassy in Manila hosts occasional MOOC meetups, such as this one on the ‘Art of Poetry’ MOOC. This particular session included a poetry  reading by local participants, and a virtual lecture by one of the course leaders, who joined the meeting from the USA.

At the other end of the continuum, MOOC meetups can be informal, and organised by MOOC learners themselves. In the paper by Bulger, Bright & Cobo (2015), the authors analyse the data from the website,  based on invitations to over 4000 MOOC related events, in over 140 countries around the world, over a two-year period. The meet.up website focuses on Coursera-related gatherings, mainly in industrialised countries, but also in some developing countries, including a number of South American countries, Nigeria, Southeast Asia, India and Pakistan. These events tend to be organised by MOOC learners themselves. According to Bulger et al’s analysis, the meet-ups in developing countries are usually more focused on general networking around online learning than specifically looking at particular MOOCs. They speculate that this may be because of the (postulated) small numbers of learners on any given MOOC in the local areas where the meet-ups are being held.

In a related initiative in Jakarta, Indonesia (Firmansyah & Timmis, 2016), some MOOC learners took the initiative to form their own F2F learning community, which they called ‘IDCourserians’. A study was carried out with six group members, over two months in mid-2014. The researchers found that the participants had three aims in common, which were: a) to create a learning place for people taking Coursera MOOCs, b) to promote online learning (in particular, Coursera MOOCs), and c) to localise the content of selected MOOCs for the Indonesian context. At the group meetings, members voluntarily presented about the courses they were studying and facilitated the discussion process following the presentation; they also had some ‘semi-guided discussions’ – general discussions about online learning strategies with reference to a range of different MOOCs; and they also set up some specific study groups based around particular MOOCs.

What do participants get out of these F2F gatherings?

Most of the above-mentioned initiatives do not (yet) have findings reported from the learners’ perspectives; however, the paper by Firmansyah & Timmis (2016) provides some encouraging conclusions. Members of the IDCourserians group reported in this study that they were more motivated to learn new courses, and to finish what they had started – offering indicative evidence that F2F meetups around MOOCs might have a positive impact on MOOC completion rates. These learners also reported that the F2F get-togethers helped them to make the new knowledge they were learning more contextually relevant, as they were able to explain concepts to one another using local frames of reference. They also believed that they had helped one another to overcome difficulties and they experienced greater motivation to complete the MOOC and pursue the certificate because of the achievements of others in the group. The whole shared experience contributed to creating a sense of community and belonging for participants, prompting the authors to describe the IDCourserians group as a Community of Practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991).

As before, comments on this post are welcome. I will be dipping into this theme on and off over the coming months, and will appreciate being able to continue the conversation with others who are interested in exploring these issues.


Bulger, M., Bright, J., & Cobo, C. (2015). The real component of virtual learning: motivations for face-to-face MOOC meetings in developing and industrialised countries. Information, Communication & Society, 18(10), 1200–1216.

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.

Lave, J., and E. Wenger. 1991. Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nkuyubwatsi, B., 2013. Evaluation of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) From the Learner’s Perspective. In Proceedings of the International Conference on e-Learning. Prague: IADIS, p. 340. Retrieved from:


About Gabi Witthaus

Learning and Teaching Facilitator for School of Business and Economics, Loughborough University; also consultant (Art of E-learning). Previously Research Associate at University of Leicester (Beyond Distance Research Alliance and Institute of Learning Innovation); Distance Learning Manager at Bradford University School of Management. Masters in Training and Development (USQ, Australia); Masters in English Education (Wits University, South Africa). Currently undertaking PhD in Higher Education: Research, Evaluation and Enhancement through Lancaster University.
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