Supporting Professional Learning in a MOOC

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Milligan, C., & Littlejohn, A. (2014). Supporting professional learning in a massive open online course. The International Review Of Research In Open And Distributed Learning, 15(5). doi:


In this study, Milligan and Littlejohn explained that massive open online courses (MOOCs) present a potentially useful means for supporting and enabling professional learning; however, there has been a limited understanding of their actual effectiveness. This study looked at the learning behaviors of health professionals within a MOOC offered by edX. A survey designed to establish a profile of each participant was conducted during week 4 of the course. Those that completed the survey were then invited to volunteer for a follow-up interview, containing questions that were intended to explore how the design of the course supported professional learning. The following research questions were identified:

  1. How do professionals prepare for learning in a MOOC?
  2. What learning behaviors do professionals exhibit while learning in the MOOC?
  3. How do professionals relate their MOOC learning to their professional role?

In the end, their data found little evidence of professional learners routinely relating the course content to their job role or work tasks, and little impact of the course on practice. While many professional learners intended to align the course to their professional learning needs, their performance in the course focused on viewing and reading content to gain the certificate at the end. There was no indication of professionals personalizing course goals to their professional practice.


I found the organization and structure of this article easy to follow and understand. The research questions were clearly defined in the introduction and then again in the results, as each question was answered along with the corresponding data. The introduction also stated the order of what was going to be discussed. This approach made the goals very straightforward and left little ambiguity in how interpret the article. Additionally, I thought sources were cited appropriately and used effectively.


I would have liked to know a little bit more about how the MOOC in this study was structured. From the ‘context’ section, it sounded like the course basically consisted of video lectures, readings, and an automated assessment at the end. In other words, the course just sounded like a traditional schooling scenario. More work could have potentially been done to better embed professional practice into the curriculum. It shouldn’t be expected to simply rely on students to relate course material to professional practice on their own. That might work for some individuals, but not for those that who struggle more with self-directed learning. One respondent had even said that their time was concentrated around the video content and the homework assignments, that they didn’t have time to check out additional resources.

It wasn’t absolutely necessary, but it would have also been great to see some sort of graphic or chart illustrating their data. The authors said their study collected some quantitative data, but it was not all presented. This would help with scannability by allowing readers to quickly review the findings and then read the detailed text if they were interested in breaking them down or gain additional insight into the results.

Best uses

This study can be used to understand how students learn in an online environment. I personally could use this to better help with my course design, as I could argue that the structure in this course wasn’t very effective. It would also be interesting if there was a follow up study, with some modifications to the course, to see if that helped professional learners relate course content to their jobs more. For example, rather than having the automated assessments at the end of each unit, offer more customization by allowing learners to pick their own curiosities and pursue assignments related to their field.

There were some interesting comments in the course discussion forum that stood out to me as well. The course discussions received mixed responses, as some of the survey respondents found it helpful while others did not. 20% of the survey respondents choose not to contribute, choosing instead to lurk. That might not necessarily be a bad thing, as I do that on many of the communities I’m a member of, but it would be interesting to look at ways of increasing participation.


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