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Exploring instructors’ contributions to Massive Open Online Courses

Fereshte Goshtasbpour, University of Leeds

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are one of the most accessible forms of education (free to join and with no enrolment limits), and so have attracted the attention of researchers for their potential to reach thousands of learners worldwide and to provide access to expert knowledge and learner communities. However, little is known about how these factors affect the practices of MOOC instructors who play a crucial role in facilitating learning (Raffaghelli, Cucchiara, & Persico, 2015; Veletsianos & Shepherdson, 2016; Zhu, Sari, & Bonk, 2018). In our paper, ‘Look who’s talking: Exploring instructors’ contributions to Massive Open Online Courses’, Bronwen Swinnerton, Neil Morris and I explored what instructors do in MOOC discussion areas and how learners engage with them (Goshtasbpour, Swinnerton, & Morris, 2019).

The study examined 818 learner-instructor conversations from three FutureLearn MOOCs and analysed their contents based on the community of inquiry (CoI) framework’s learning constructs; that is, social, teaching and cognitive presences. Social presence is concerned with the development of interpersonal and purposeful relationships during an online learning experience, and consists of personal, open and cohesive communications. Teaching presence focuses on the design of educational experience before the course (design and organisation) and facilitation of learning during the course (facilitating discourse and direct instruction). Cognitive presence reflects learners’ development of higher-order thinking and includes four phases: triggering event, exploration, integration, and resolution (Garrison, 2017).

Our findings show that the majority of instructors’ contributions to learner conversations are social (56%), followed by teaching (40%), with cognitive (4%) postings constituting the smallest proportion of instructors’ contributions. This suggests that instructors do not focus equally on the social and teaching contributions, and that there is an imbalance between the social and content-related support that MOOC learners receive. The lower level of teaching contributions means that the academic support to move learners through the stages of higher-order thinking is not strong. In addition, we found that instructors’ teaching contributions are not balanced in their focus on facilitating the learning discourse and providing direct instruction. This suggests that while learners are supported in their thinking, the academic leadership required to move them through the phases of inquiry and higher levels of cognitive presence are weak. This has significant implications for raising instructors’ awareness and informing their future decisions and priorities in discussion areas to facilitate learning.

Conversely, the predominance of instructors’ social contributions reflects the social orientation of their discussion activities. However, it is important to note that the high level of social presence is due to frequent use of simple group cohesion strategies such as greetings and vocatives. While this indicates instructors’ efforts to make learners feel comfortable sharing and exchanging information, they are aimed at individual learners and do not contribute to community building.

Instructors’ cognitive contributions constitute the least frequent contributions in discussions, demonstrating instructors’ focus on supporting learners through social and teaching contributions. It is possible that MOOC characteristics – particularly the course’s short duration – inhibit both instructors and learners from engaging with cognitive activities more. Moreover, it is likely that instructors do not use explicit cognitive codes and their cognitive contributions are covered by their teaching contributions. Nevertheless, the appearance of all three presences in instructors’ and learners’ contributions shows that CoI presences develop in MOOCs to varying degrees, despite the short course duration, and large numbers of demographically diverse learners.

Another major finding of our study is the extent and the ways in which learners engage with instructors’ contributions (that is, liking or responding to contributions). We found that learners do not engage with the majority of instructors’ contributions (58%), most likely because they do not meet learners’ needs, do not encourage a learner response, or may simply become lost in the large volume of comments. Learners are least likely to respond when an instructor’s contribution has a high level of social presence. By contrast, high learner engagement is evident when the contributions are focused on teaching presence.

By exploring instructors’ discussion activities in MOOCs, our research offers new insights into the type and level of instructors’ contributions to MOOC discussion areas and enhances the understanding of the dynamics of learner-instructor interactions in open and large-scale educational settings. It also reveals features of instructors’ contributions that can (dis)encourage learner engagement. Additionally, it proposes a revised CoI model that can inform future research.

This blog is based on the article ‘See who’s talking: Exploring instructor contributions to Massive Open Online Courses’ by Fereshte Goshtasbpour, Bronwen Swinnerton and Neil Morris, published in the British Journal of Educational Technology.


Goshtasbpour, F., Swinnerton, B., & Morris, N. (2019). Look who’s talking: Exploring instructor contributions to Massive Open Online Courses. Advance online publication, British Journal of Educational Technology.

Raffaghelli, J., Cucchiara, S., & Persico, D. (2015). Methodological approaches in MOOC research: Retracing the myth of Proteus. British Journal of Educational Technologies and learning practices in higher education, 46(3), 488–509. doi:10.1111/bjet.12279.

Veletsianos, G., & Shepherdson, P. (2016). A systematic analysis and synthesis of the empirical MOOC literature published in 2013–2015. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 17(2). Retrieved from

Zhu, M., Sari, A., & Lee, M. M. (2018). A systematic review of research methods and topics of the empirical MOOC literature (2014–2016). The Internet and Higher Education (37), 31–9.