A window into MOOC learners' lives: Preliminary results from an interview study with ChinaX learners

by Selen Turkay, Tiffany Wong, and Meghan Morrissey

What can we do to improve learner experiences in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)?

This is one of the most asked questions in MOOC research community.  To be able to answer this question, we first need to know how learners engage with course content, the challenges they experience, different ways they participate in the learner community, and how the course impact their everyday lives. In other words, we need to open a window into the lives of learners, and get a comprehensive understanding of their current experiences with and around MOOCs.

In collaboration with VPAL Research, ChinaX course team of HarvardX embarked on a research endeavour to form a holistic understanding of who the ChinaX learners are, what motivated them to take the course, how they went through the course, what engaged them during the course, and the impact the course had on their lives. For this purpose, we conducted a mixed method study that combined a qualitative analysis of semi-structured interviews with 118 learners (conducted by Meghan Morrissey and Tiffany Wong), surveys and clickstream data.  

Recently, the team produced a preliminary yet comprehensive report using the data from this study. The report is divided into several sections. The first section introduces the course, and describes the course structure. The second section talks about learner characteristics. The third section presents results from the semi-structured interviews. Below, we present some highlights, excerpts from the report, and a link to the full report which includes key takeaways and recommendations to faculty, developers, learners, and researchers.

About the course:

The first iteration of ChinaX, a ten-part Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on the history of China, produced by HarvardX and delivered on the edX platform, concluded after 18 months. ChinaX was divided into 10 mini-courses (also called parts) made up of 52 modules. Each mini-course had four to eight modules that were released every week in the courseware on the edX platform. Depending on the content, a module consisted of about one to two hours of video content broken up into 2-15 minute segments.


This ambitious educational endeavor, engaging over 50,000 learners worldwide, provided an opportunity to reflect and think about lessons learned in the creation of and participation in ChinaX from the perspective of the learner.

Number of Unique Learners by Participation Type

Registered in at least one ChinaX part


Went into and viewed at least one ChinaX part


Explored* at least one ChinaX part


Certified in at least one ChinaX part


Certified in all 10 ChinaX parts


Received verified ID in at least one ChinaX part


Received verified ID and certified in at least one ChinaX part


*Explored is defined as completing over half of the courses content.


Figure 2. ChinaX 1-10 on edX viewers by country


What engaged learners?

Each MOOC competes for learners’ time and attention. We found that ChinaX engaged learners for a plethora of reasons, including familiarity, prior interest, curiosity and utility. They found specific sessions or topics more engaging than others while some learners also expressed an interest in the whole scope of the topics covered, preferring the breadth ChinaX provided.

Sense of community was both a motivation and a motivator for further engagement. Participants mentioned how much they liked the sense of faculty and staff presence and the sense of cohort. One of the participants from Australia, Brandon, even described this experience as “... almost a family experience.” Some of the aspects of ChinaX that facilitated these feelings were discussion forums, social media groups, and office hours.

How did participants learn?

Learners accessed and learned course content in diverse ways. While computers were the most common medium for accessing content, learners reported using tablets, smartphones, and even media-streaming players (e.g., Apple TV, Chromecast). Several of them also reported downloading and listening to the audio of the associated content, and downloading and reading the transcripts of video materials. Many also took notes on paper and on computer. These note-taking practices ranged from basic to sophisticated, to the extent that some learners shared their notes with other ChinaX learners.

A majority of learners reported spending approximately three to four hours learning the new content for ChinaX each week, usually either in one long study session or two to three shorter sessions during evenings or on weekends (typical non-working times).

ChinaX learners were not only learning course content, but engaging with it and attempting to transform it or better-relate to it in meaningful ways. Many learners engaged in off-platform learning and social learning behaviors. They reported finding books or additional resources to read about China and Chinese history online, and discussing the course content with their fellow learners on facebook as well as their friends and family that were not enrolled in the course.

What was the impact?

The impact was operationalized into three main categories: sense of community, gaining and sharing knowledge, and transformative learning.  

Learners felt a strong sense of community as they formed connections with learners worldwide, as well as with ChinaX professors, staff, and Harvard University itself. ChinaX represented a foundation from which learners could experience together what many described as ‘invaluable,’ ‘enriching,’ and ‘long-lasting.’  As learners immersed in the content and learning experience, strong bonds and supportive learning networks formed on and off the platform. In addition, interactions among learners and teaching staff enhanced learners’ sense of community. Even only observing these interactions was enough for some learners.

The knowledge gained from ChinaX impacted learners in both their personal and professional lives. Learners were personally interested in learning about Chinese history and culture for many reasons, some of which were learning for the sake of learning, for filling gaps in their knowledge, for relearning previous knowledge, and for understanding the geography of the country as well as their own country. Learners reported that gaining content knowledge about China and its rich history made them even more engaged and interested in learning Mandarin, traveling to China, learning about other histories, and for putting China-related news into context.

Learners discussed ways in which the course entered into and changed their thinking, perceptions and behaviors, as often as everyday. As the course entered into their mindset, vocabulary, and daily chats, it changed their perceptions as they critically thought about topics from different angles. Learners also reported an increase in their ability to understand and interact with those from other cultures as they learned more about China and interacted with learners from around the world.

In conclusion, listening to ChinaX learners was integral to the creation and success of ChinaX. Our interviews and surveys confirmed the importance of experimentation in MOOCs to improve our pedagogy, and the experiences of the learners. They also helped build strong relationships with learners in the process.

We believe that researchers, course creators, and learners should engage in activities where they can learn from both each other and from each other's goals. This would allow course creators to iterate course design based on learners’ feedback and research results. It would also give researchers insights to be able to devise innovative research that can assist course developers to design better experiences for learners. Most importantly, such collaboration can allow learners to have a voice in course design.  

To read the full report, please go to:


*All names in this report are pseudonyms.

Disclaimer: Responsibility for the information and views expressed in this blog lies entirely with the author and are NOT endorsed in any way by organizations mentioned in the blog.