The MOOC Paradox – Expecting External Motivation to Produce Internal Motivation

Reading John Gatto’s pioneering work Dumbing Us Down, and took to musing on one of the paragraphs, this one from Dan Greenberg, founder of Sudbury Valley School, who wanted to look at what students need from modern education in a modern economic, social and political landscape:

Children must grow up in an environment that stresses self-motivation and self-assessment.  Schools that focus on external motivating factors, such as rewards and punishments for meeting goals set by others, are denying children the tools they need most to survive.

As noted in my previous post looking at Thomas Friedman’s thoughts on MOOCs, there is a disconnect between the idea that education needs to produce a strong workforce and the idea that education needs to produce creative, critical and divergent thinkers who can tackle multi-faceted problems facing society and the world at large.  Writers such as Gatto (2002), Stephen Ball (2003), and P. Taylor Webb (2009) see the contemporary political and curricular landscape of education as a system of rewards and disciplines, from the national level and No Child Left Behind all the way down to the individual classroom providing stickers or detentions.  Such an environment, based on standardized assessment of content remembered, facilitates a workforce to provide a good or service rather than to tackle complexity.  Even more general-minded individuals such as Sir Ken Robinson (2009) see a problem with a school system designed to produce scalable assessable results rather than critical, creative and divergent outcomes based on the context of the content.  

Educators say the way to produce critical, creative and divergent thought is to utilize a number of the existing learning theories (constructivism, project-based learning, social learning, even some cognitive style) in a manner that encourages authority, authenticity, agency and understanding of the issue in its myriad of complexity.  This is difficult to do in a landscape of standardized assessment, funding inequality, and competitive racing to a federally-mandated destination.  The imagined landscape fosters development of internal motivation, while the existing plays into external ones.

I’ve been fascinated by motivation since reading Herman Witkin’s work on field dependence and field independence (1977 for a full summary; his original research began in the 50s), produced in an effort to see if individuals looked inside themselves (independence) or to outside influences (dependence) to make decisions.  A lot of recent writing on this is junk science, saying that some people are internally motivated and others are externally and that’s just how it is, but Witkin’s work and subsequent studies have shown an ability to influence where motivation comes from…it’s not a black-or-white genetic thing, but rather a spectrum where individuals can fall.

What does this have to do with MOOCs?  Well, a MOOC provides content in a course module without the non-content aspects of an educational setting (these including scaffolding, motivation and context within environment and society).  This is one of the difficulties of distance education, and study in distance ed (which, it needs to be mentioned, has not been utilized in the development of xMOOCs).  There is a school of thought that heutagogy, which is a theory of learning based around adult education, is a good model for distance education.  But at the heart of heutagogy is the notion of self-directed, internally motivated learners.

And as the evidence (albeit limited so far; MOOCs are still new and research takes a while to get to publication) suggests, the primary factor in finishing a MOOC is a sense of internal motivation.  However, with the exception of higher income individuals, schooling is not providing opportunities for internal motivation to grow.  So how can the disruptive technology of MOOCs take hold if the main pre-requisite for success doesn’t exist in people who the MOOC is supposed to serve?

18 thoughts on “The MOOC Paradox – Expecting External Motivation to Produce Internal Motivation

  1. LIndax

    Can’t wait to see some research on this because my sense is that the completion rate for MOOCs is more dependent on the match between learners’ prerequisite skills and the expected, or rather assumed and often undeclared, prerequisites for the course than on internal motivation. The difference between “interested” and “motivated” might just be whether or not you believe you can do it.

    1. Rolin Moe Post author

      And having just read Gotto, he quotes Bertrand Russell as noting that compulsory schooling does more to negatively affect the self-reliance of an individual than any other institution. We expect people to believe in themselves but train them to look to others for permission and follow the rules.

      1. Angie

        I can see how motivation has a direct connection to MOOCs. I recently heard that roughly 5% finish a MOOC. But it was also argued that 100% finish a MOOC. The reasoning being that what they put into the MOOC is what they got out of the MOOC.

        Who are MOOCs intending to serve? Are they not for those who wish to learn a specific passion? Are MOOCs only being utilized by those who have a strong internal motivation?

        As an elementary teacher, I consider it my job and goal to teach kids to be internally motivated. But I am only one influence in their lives. Is most motivation learned by environment (parents)?

      2. Rolin Moe Post author

        Hi Angie. There’s a lot of research on motivation and how intrinsic or extrinsic are measured; Hermann Witkin is the seminal guy. Regarding MOOCs, if the courses are utilized as professional development and lifelong learning then the motivation is fine if intrinsic and heutagogical. But if society puts the MOOC out there as an alternative to the status quo, then motivation becomes huge as the existing system of MOOCs has shown no ability to assist the six-sevenths of learners who struggle with intrinsic motivation.

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  10. Dan Esquerra

    It is intuitive that students will be more motivated if they are engaged in their learning. I believe MOOCs are giving us data on how long students stay motivated in their learning. In one of my 24 years of high school teaching, I remember thinking that engagement would solve the motivational problems of my students. We spent time talking about their individual interests with the promise that I would create an Algebra 1 curriculum around each student’s interest. I did. I was younger.
    Here is the short version of the outcome. After a week of attacking Algebra 1 standards from ten different points of interest, most students realized they were not interested in their chosen topic after all, at least not enough to tackle and in-depth analysis of algebra. My informal recollection on percentages is eerily similar to data that Jeffrey Pomerantz cited from his Metadata MOOC— 90% dropout rate. Many are called, but few are chosen to finish. Still, here is why MOOCs have my attention. If over 27,600 students had been in my class and over 1400 had finished, I surely would have continued the class. If 1400 students had helped design the course, it might be a MOOC option today. Hmmm . . .

  11. Jennifer Skelton

    Individuals who enroll in MOOC need be intrinsically motivated to, just by signing up for the course is evidence of that. To truly succeed in a MOOC the students must maintain that internal drive to learn more of the particular subject. How much time and effort is put forth will determine the outcome of the students growth. As stated, the current educational system does not address the skills needed for an individual to be more like a self motivated learner. It will take more than one outside influence to foster learning as self motivating trait. An individual’s entire environment needs to reflect this idea and start introducing it early to children.

    1. Rolin Moe Post author

      Well, can you teach motivation? The research says that such a hope is an unlikely happening. So if you set up a learning system that lacks external motivation support (outside this notion of badges and certificates that don’t have a value as of yet), the results make perfect sense. But while we cannot necessarily teach motivation, we can design learning to cater to intrinsic and extrinsic individuals. That, IMO, is the next step.

  12. Christine

    You brought up a very interesting and important topic…student internal motivation. This is something our school has been attempting to research and improve upon for some time now. As teachers, we are constantly trying to find ways to motivate our students. We use rewards, fun choice activities, and so forth, but what about once they hit the working world, where projects and activities won’t be tailored to their personal interests. So, the question, I am constantly debating and contemplating is how. How do we teach, train, or instill internal motivation into our students?

    In regards to the MOOCs, I can see how internal motivation plays a big role, especially since it is self-paced, and self-directed. People also have the option to research and participate in topics that interest them. This allows them to follow their passion, which I think is an internal motivator in itself.

    1. Rolin Moe Post author

      On motivation…in a K-12 world, students are savvy enough to see what they do for themselves versus what they do for an arbitrary letter that loses any meaning come May matriculation to the next grade. There are lots of us educators who bemoan the “training” aspect of university many people advocate today…but we also bemoan the “teaching to the test” happening in K-12. Hermann Witkin, one of the seminal psychologists looking at intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation, would say it is not something easily trainable. But what you can do is scaffold and facilitate experiences to gain greater rounds of buy-in.

      If I am interested in a topic, I can take a MOOC. They are successful in that regard. If I need a class to graduate, MOOCs have yet to prove successful. If I am an at-risk student, limited MOOC research shows the platform to be detrimental to my development. This is novel to higher education, but K-12 teachers deal with this all of the time. I would say, from a learning theory perspective, the issue is not the technology but rather the mix of formative learning experiences, scaffolding and building of community.


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