Date of Award

Spring 2015

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Curriculum & Instruction

First Advisor

Peggy Ertmer

Committee Chair

Peggy Ertmer

Committee Member 1

Jennifer C. Richardson

Committee Member 2

William Watson

Committee Member 3

Jake Burdick


Massive open online courses (MOOCs) have been credited with disrupting the traditional classroom and challenging distance education models in higher education. MOOCs were developed with the intention of opening up education to the masses, specifically those in developing countries who could not readily access educational resources or opportunities. However, early quantitative reports have shown that MOOC participants tend to be adult learners who already possess bachelor's or master's degrees. Additionally, MOOC completion rates have been reported to be significantly low with less than 15% of enrolled students actually completing them. This has led to questions about who the true target learners are and whether completion is the proper measure for gauging the effectiveness of MOOCs. Qualitative research has the potential to demystify questions about MOOC learners' motivations and perceptions of success and completion. However, ethical issues of conducting qualitative research in open online environments present challenges and require a thoughtful research design regarding consent, privacy, and intellectual property. This study used virtual ethnographic, narrative inquiry, and photo-elicitation methods to qualitatively examine the experiences of adult learners (n = 12) from around the world who were enrolled in a MOOC on the social justice topic of human trafficking via the Coursera platform. The anthropological nature of the research methods led to a richer understanding of the adult learner MOOC culture as a socially dynamic democratic environment involving social presence, lurking, up-voting, down-voting, peer review, and reputations. Results from the study include co-constructed narratives of adult learners' MOOC experiences, themes of commonalities and differences across learner experiences, a thick description of MOOC culture, and an initial conceptual framework for understanding adult learners' perceptions of MOOC motivation, success, and completion. The findings of this research and its resulting conceptual framework could be beneficial for platform providers, instructors, and instructional designers who are developing MOOCs intended for adult learners in the areas of continuing education, professional development, volunteerism training, as well as for adults who are considering enrolling in graduate school. This study highlights a need for a more learner-centered approach to MOOC design and suggests that MOOCs have the potential to facilitate a global discussion on social justice topics as a component of attitude change instruction. Implications for MOOC design and suggestions for future research are presented.

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