Does teaching presence matter in a MOOC?

A recent study of a Coursera MOOC is really interesting in that it implemented a random assignment of student to 2 conditions – one with no teacher interaction with the students and the other with teacher and teacher assistant interaction in forums. The study is

Tomkin, J. H., & Charlevoix, D. (2014). Do professors matter?: using an a/b test to evaluate the impact of instructor involvement on MOOC student outcomes. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the first ACM conference on Learning@ scale conference. Retrieved from

The study concluded that teacher presence had no significant relation to course completion, most badges awarded, intent to register in subsequent MOOCs or course satisfaction.  This is of course bad news for teacher’s unions and those convinced that a live teacher must be present in order for significant learning to occur. However, the findings is predicted by my Interaction Equivalency Theory in which I argue that if one of the three forms of student interaction (student-student, student-teacher, student content) is at a high level, the other two can be reduced or even eliminated.  Adding additional forms of interaction may increase satisfaction (though it seems not to have done so in this experiment), but it most certainly also increases costs and thus decreases accessibility.

Tomkin and Charlevoix argue “The results of this study broadly support the connected learning model, at least for these motivated, educated participants. The absence of the professor did not impact the activity of the forums – the participants did generate their own knowledge in this arena. It should be stressed that this MOOC was highly structured, so an alternative explanation is that the enhanced machine interactivity that MOOCs provide relative to textbooks, or older styles of distance learning, may be sufficient to stimulate student engagement. ” p. 75

I see this as one the few tangible outcomes of the “digital dividend” that actually results in cost savings to students.  The student-teacher interaction was morphed into student-content interaction through the digital videos. The study shows there was student-student interaction, however in no teacher interaction MOOC, this interaction was both stimulated and supported by the students themselves.

I’m discouraged by the ever increasing costs of higher education and most notably our incapacity to scale higher education to meet needs (and the capacity) of students in developing countries. I believe we have a moral obligation to help all students become proficient life-long learners who are capable of learning with or without active teacher presence – despite the potential impact on our own employment.


8 thoughts on “Does teaching presence matter in a MOOC?

  1. Despite the advancement of artificial intelligence and semantic web, the teacher’s role is still very important and sometimes decisive for the progress of students and the completion of the course, including the MOOC as more advanced expression (not better) of the distance education.

  2. I’m discouraged by the fact that so few scholars seem to understand the way we so conveniently get so much of just the kind of scholarship called for by the economics of the time. Once upon a time there was a science of drapetomania. Now there’s a science of learning, and it’s no less interested and no less methodologically suspect (though much more sophisticated in disguising its flaws, and thus more dangerous).

    Anyway, the study is very interesting–at least as a case study in the corruption of science by neoliberal politics.

  3. आचार्यात् पादमादत्ते पादं शिष्यः स्वमेधया। पादं सब्रह्मचारिभ्यः पादम् कालक्रमेण च॥

    A student gets a quarter (knowledge) from his teacher, a quarter by his own intelligence. A quarter from his fellow students and a quarter in due course of time.

  4. I don’t know that this study proves anything at all. I would be interested in knowing a lot more about the quality of the interactions of students with the instructor.
    Also, it is possible that the expectation for MOOCs is lack of instructor interaction.
    It is also possible in some MOOCs that interaction with other students is more (yes more, not just equally) valuable. I short, I don’t like the experiment and I have not even read the whole report yet!

    I do, however, believe (from personal experience) that student-student interaction (esp for adult learners) can provide enough engagement without too much teacher presence. Having said this, the MOOCs i have participated in with more teacher presence were much better. But that might be coz the teachers were more invested in the MOOC overall

  5. That’s a fascinating finding Terry, and I share your desire to find ways to scale up the provision of higher education to be more accessible to the masses of uncatered-for learners in developing countries. I’m guessing though that the students in this study were typical MOOC students, who are more likely to be relatively well-off and well educated. (I couldn’t access the original article because it wasn’t open source!) So if my guess is right, then what we don’t know yet is whether the same findings would arise in a study where the participants are those potential undergraduates in developing countries, who by definition are likely to have less experience of formal education and lower levels of digital and academic literacies – and higher expectations of teacher presence based on their previous experience of education. Ironically, these findings are therefore most valuable to universities offering postgraduate degree courses online to students in relatively well-off circumstances: they would do well to incorporate the lessons from this study into the design of their provision. (I’ve written more about this at

  6. Interactivity theorem is one of the rare theories that talk directly to me as a learner who evolved from a developing setting and learned from self-guided learning based on hand-written notes, self-guided learning via radio, face-to-face and eventually migrated into online education and MOOCs. And guess what, the course I learned mainly on radio is the one in which I scored the highest grade in the national exams which I had to take to compete for student loan and admission for undergraduate education in a developing country setting. Of course, now that I technologically migrated and have plenty of opportunities open to me, I would not choose learning on the radio over using computer and the Internet, but if radio were the only medium for my learning, I would happily learn, provided that my learning leads to my social inclusion. I think radio and mobile phones are unexploited technologies that could transform education and learners’ lives in developing settings.

    With technologies, the teacher is omnipresent: on radio, online, in face-to-face classroom. I understand teacher’s presence is mostly used to refer to f2f presence of the teacher, but to me, that is not a significant enabler of learning, except for pre-university learners. I also had chance to attend postgraduate education in the USA and UK and the courses were easier when compared to my undergraduate education because I had access to plenty of resources and support. The major challenge in my postgraduate education was not deficiencies because I had learned through self-guided modes. It was rather what I refer to as cultural translation issues: class discussion that bases on a TV show with an assumption that everyone watched that show, for instance. TV and landline phones are technologies I skipped in my endeavour to catch up with technologies that I have been undertaking since 2007. So, I had to prioritise technologies I engaged: priority was given to technologies that could contribute directly to my education advancement. I think I really accomplished a lot within seven years since my migration into digital technologies.

  7. MOOCs are free online courses, we’ve had them in one form or another for almost 20 years. I like them, but they have had no real impact on the formal education, sector despite the last round of hype in the 90’s

    If you want to see the research on the impact of teacher/instructor involvement in formal education (as opposed to opt in opt, out online courses) have a look at the mountain of research done in the 90’s. He’s a brief summary –
    crap resources + crap teacher = crap outcome
    good resources + crap teacher = a possibility of a slightly less crap outcome
    crap resources + good teacher = good outcome
    good resources + no teacher = crap outcome (for all except the self motivated outliers)

    People who choose MOOCs are, by the very act of choosing, already in the self motivated category.

    Saying that MOOCs will have a significant impact on current teaching practice in just nonsense. Put down the cool aid.

  8. Thanks for the note Camero. The first three points of your “summary” align with my Interaction Equivalency theory- but not the final one. I think the literature is not clear on this final point as evidence from hundreds of thousands of correspondence students over the years, and more recently from students studying via video of both teachers and documentaries shows that good resources alone can and does work for quality learning. Sure self-motivated do better, but the resources themselves can be constructed to be motivating, and this does move beyond “outliers”. In addition there are those who can’t stand teachers or peer learning, but still find a learning niche that works for them.

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