Pathways for Affective Learning in Massive Open Online Courses

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Key Takeaways

  • Massive open online courses serve different needs among learners, from career advancement to interacting with peers to learning about topics of interest.

  • MOOCs can also change student attitudes and increase their engagement with a topic through affective learning, which involves the emotions.

  • Theory-building research at Duke University found four different mechanisms through which MOOCs can potentially drive affective learning.

  • This article provides examples of how each mechanism would potentially operate and gives quotes from learners in MOOCs to support these proposed mechanisms.

For learners, massive open online courses (MOOCs) serve different needs. Some learners use MOOCs for career advancement, while others treat MOOCs as places to interact with peer students, to learn about a topic they consider fun and enjoyable, and to challenge themselves.1 Additionally, a constant demand exists for citizenship education that focuses more on individual characteristics, values, and traits, aside from skills.2

Affective Learning

Bloom and colleagues identified three types of learning domains: cognitive, affective, and psychomotor.3 Affective learning involves students' attitudes, emotions, motivations, and feelings. Although few courses specify affective learning objectives, if the course is designed well, affective learning often occurs simultaneously with cognitive or psychomotor learning. However, there is a lack of emphasis on affective learning compared to cognitive learning in current higher education.4

Many researchers have examined learning in the cognitive domain in MOOCs. Far fewer researchers have examined non-cognitive learning in MOOCs. One team of researchers found that MOOCs offer an opportunity to change student attitudes.5 They analyzed a MOOC on human trafficking and found that students' attitudes about the topic changed more when they had interactions with the instructor in the discussion forums. When those interactions were personalized to the student, such as the instructor responding directly to an individual by name, the attitude change was greater. They concluded that instructors seeking to create attitude change should build both a teaching presence and what they termed a "social presence" in a course.

In another study, students reported affective learning gains when they participated in a study group through a MOOC.6 Students gained a strong sense of community and were more motivated to learn when they participated in a video-based online study group. However, this approach to facilitating affective learning is difficult to scale; study groups are only effective if they are small.

Very little other research has examined the opportunity for affective learning through MOOCs, and many MOOC providers have turned their attention to career professional development opportunities rather than affective learning. In this article, we argue that, even though major MOOC providers have emphasized career-related courses, MOOCs can generate affective learning in ways that are scalable.

Affective Learning Pathways in MOOCs

MOOCs can generate affective learning through four pathways or mechanisms:

  • Sharing instructor enthusiasm
  • Engaging with controversial topics
  • Exposure to diversity
  • Experiencing innovative teaching approaches

For each of the four mechanisms, we present examples of courses that provide the affective learning pathway we describe; student comments provide evidence to support our theory. While the specific courses are mostly ones Duke University offers on the Coursera platform, we believe the four pathways are not unique to these examples and could be implemented in other courses on other platforms.

Sharing Instructor Enthusiasm

Compared to the standardized curriculum of most universities, MOOC topics vary more and have more flexible structures. Instructors can design and teach courses they are enthusiastic about, while students freely choose courses that interest them. In fact, one of the reasons that many college professors decide to teach a MOOC is because they have the flexibility to create a course that focuses entirely on a topic they feel passionate about but that likely would not be offered on campus as a for-credit course. Steve Kolowich reported in 2013 that most faculty who responded to a Chronicle of Higher Education survey admitted that they taught MOOCs by choice — often hoping for their expertise to reach a larger audience — without pressure from a superior.7 When this occurs, the course content is often affective because the instructor has an emotional connection to the topic.

An example of a course with content that evokes an affective response due to the instructor's enthusiasm is Duke's Dog Emotion and Cognition course. One of the learning outcomes in this course is building a closer relationship with dogs as friends by understanding dog psychology. Because the instructor has such strong feelings about the topic, he intentionally created learning outcomes that are affective in nature.

As a result of both experiencing the instructor's passion for the topic, and the explicit inclusion of affective learning goals, many students described having emotional experiences during the course. One student described how the course helped her manage grief after the loss of a pet:

"Thanks for the great course! I started taking it after our dog died as a way to keep me tied to my love of dogs. It also helped me with my grief. I'm reading The Genius of Dogs book and I only wish that I lived near Duke so I could work in the Canine Cognition Lab!"

Another student explained that he/she had a closer relationship with his/her dog after taking the course:

"The course has enriched my relationship with my own dog! The cognitive approach to training seems to me to be hugely important and I intend to explore this further with my dog (who tested as an Ace) and see what I can discern in terms of practical applications. Thank you, thank you, thank you for a great experience and for inspiring me and others to learn more about such an important field of study."

It would be unusual to find this type of affective learning goal in a traditional campus-based course or even in a for-credit online class. MOOCs' openness and flexibility allow instructors to build these types of affective goals. In our examples, learners experienced affective learning both by sharing the instructor's enthusiasm and passion for the topic and by completing course activities that were explicitly intended to create affective learning outcomes. Our second pathway for affective learning, engaging with controversial topics, creates affective learning in a very different way.

Engaging with Controversial Topics

Goals of a liberal arts education include that students learn to be open-minded, respect different ideas, and engage positively with people who hold different opinions when they take courses about controversial topics. Researchers have found that controversial topics can increase student engagement in learning and respect for each other.8 Studies have also found that, after discussing controversial topics, students reported increased motivation and confidence approaching the topics.9 We find evidence that this type of affective learning also happens in MOOCs when students engage in virtual or digital discussions.

Examples of Duke's MOOCs involving controversial topics include Responding to 9/11: Counterterrorism Policy in the 21st Century and Introduction to Genetics and Evolution. The Responding to 9/11: Counterterrorism Policy in the 21st Century course focuses on American counterterrorism policies after the 9/11 attack. It also connects the policies to current issues related to terrorism. One student expressed appreciation that the course presents information that is often misunderstood or mischaracterized:

"I was very impressed with the excellent connections to the many legal questions that appear to be grossly misunderstood by a lot of my peers. Thank you professor for sharing your knowledge and profound academic opinions on the many topics that were presented."

Introduction to Genetics and Evolution covers basic biology about genetics and evolution. Although the course is presented as a fact-based science class, discussions often turned to the topic of personal opinions about the compatibility of science and religion as they relate to evolution. One student described gaining confidence to discuss evolution and express opinions:

"At its best, a good education makes a person 'worthy of free men,' to paraphrase Thoreau. Before I took this course, I guessed evolution was true, but I didn't know where the uncertainties were, and where they were not. Now I can make the case for evolution with confidence. That makes me a more informed citizen and a better voter — me and thousands of others, whether we earned a certificate (with distinction, thank you very much) or watched just a few lectures."

These quotes encapsulate how talking about controversial topics can foster affective learning. The learner gained new knowledge about the topic (cognitive learning), and then gained newfound confidence (affective learning) by discussing the topic with others. While students in a traditional college course, whether online or on campus, engage with controversial topics, it is the scale of MOOCs that provides a different type of interaction. Instead of hearing a few different points of view, learners in MOOCs can learn how people from all over the world perceive a controversial topic. This would be difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish in any learning environment that does not have scale.

Exposure to Diversity

Students learn to value diversity when they take classes from instructors they admire and respect who come from different demographic backgrounds. For example, female instructors in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses may influence male learners to value the contributions that women can make to science and technology fields. Studies have reported that retention rates are higher for female students in STEM fields when they take classes taught by female instructors.10 Female professors have also been shown to serve as positive role models for female students and to help change male-dominated stereotypes in STEM fields.11 By interacting more with female experts in STEM, female students are more likely to change attitudes toward STEM fields, build self-confidence, and pursue STEM careers themselves.12

Many MOOCs are taught by female instructors, many of them distinguished scholars in their respective fields. An example is the Coursera course Data Analysis and Statistical Inference, which is taught by a female statistics professor. The course introduces basic statistics concepts, theories, hypothesis testing, useful models like linear regression, etc. One learner in the course mentioned the role model the instructor made for all females pursuing STEM careers:

"Mine [the instructor] is a great role model for women entering engineering; who says girls can't do math! Need more females to take this class!!!"

Another student expressed gratitude for how inspirational the instructor is:

"Çetinkaya-Rundel [the instructor], you are an inspiration! It's so great to have my first online learning experience be this positive. I have raved about this course to many people, including friends who work in traditional higher [education]. It's also great to see a young, energetic, female expert in a math field. Thank you!"

Both comments illustrate learners responding positively to taking a course from a female instructor in a STEM field. Note that comments of this nature were written by both male and female learners in this course, providing evidence that affective learning is not limited to people who identify with the instructor personally but extends to others who have a positive experience and gain an appreciation of diversity in education — a form of affective learning.

While students in Çetinkaya-Rundel's campus-based classes likely also experience affective learning from being taught by a female role model in a male-dominated field, the sheer number of MOOCs creates a diverse field of instructors far beyond what most college students experience during their four years on campus. Coursera, the largest MOOC platform as of this writing, has over 2,000 courses taught by instructors of all backgrounds. Learners can experience a much more diverse array of racial and ethnic backgrounds in the people they learn from in MOOCs than in a traditional class, thus creating more opportunities for affective learning.

Innovative Content Delivery

Students may develop new interests or change their attitudes about a subject when the content is presented in a new or innovative way. Creative teaching is considered critical to engage students and to help them develop higher level thinking and better attitudes toward the topics.13 Students who were exposed to experiential learning, a more innovative teaching method, had a more favorable attitude toward the subject than students who received traditional lectures.14 Duke's Medical Neuroscience course discusses the neurophysiology of the human central nervous system in order to understand human behaviors. One of the more innovative elements of this course is that the instructor filmed many of his lectures in a lab where he could use actual human brains as visual aids during lectures. Many learners took notice of this and commented that it both increased their ability to comprehend the material and made the class feel more interesting and engaging. One student wrote, "Really interesting course. I loved the videos 'in the lab' with the human brains. I've never seen them before." Another student commented that this was the first time he/she had seen actual human specimens used in an online class:

"I enjoyed a lot the anatomy classes with brain specimens, this was new for me in online courses. I also enjoyed a lot prof. White's [the instructor] approach of explaining experiments showing the methodology and explaining very clearly the data. The course was [a] great experience for me, and I plan to apply a lot of what I've [seen] here in my future work as a professor."

Another student commented more broadly about the appeal of the variety of teaching tools provided in the course:

"This was an excellent course; it was well [organized], well run, and employed solid pedagogy. I enjoyed the lectures and lab demonstrations and especially [appreciated] the tutorial notes and images… I don't believe MOOCs are a panacea for higher education's woes and I don't believe they are appropriate for everyone, but I am glad I have been able to participate in such a great one so that I know what can be accomplished."

MOOCs offer faculty members an opportunity to experiment more in their pedagogy than they would in a traditional classroom setting and thus are often more innovative. Typically, MOOCs are offered at a much lower cost than most university courses, and learners generally have the option to request a class for free. The result of this is that instructors don't risk significant financial losses to the learners if the experiment fails. Such experimentation has resulted in MOOCs being the source of many innovative content delivery channels and, in turn, pathways for affective learning.


Researchers and practitioners have emphasized the importance of affective learning outcomes and acknowledged the insufficiency of research in this domain in education. Recent research has determined that MOOCs can influence affective learning, although the mechanisms for doing so have remained largely unspecified.15 In this article, we explained four different mechanisms through which MOOCs can potentially drive affective learning, with examples of how each mechanism would potentially operate, supported by quotes from learners in MOOCs. Note that this should be considered theory-building research; we provided qualitative evidence to support potential explanations for how affective learning happens. Further research is needed to quantify or document the prevalence of these mechanisms.

With that caveat, however, we did find widespread evidence that MOOCs are fostering affective learning. In every MOOC that Duke has offered, many learners volunteered unsolicited examples of affective learning. These typically fell into one (or more) of the following three categories: (1) the course gave them a more favorable attitude toward a subject that they previously found uninteresting or difficult; (2) the instructor personally inspired them; or (3) they were motivated to make a positive life or career change.

While the mechanisms that create these types of affective learning outcomes are only beginning to be explored, we believe that our work presents a solid framework for beginning to test how affective learning happens in MOOCs. We also believe that MOOCs represent an opportunity for educators to become more intentional in incorporating affective learning outcomes into their courses, potentially using the mechanisms outlined in this article.


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  6. Yang-Hsueh Chen and Pin-Ju Chen, "MOOC Study Group: Facilitation Strategies, Influential Factors, and Student Perceived Gains," Computers & Education, Vol. 86 (August 2015): 55–70.
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  8. Rudy Berdine "Increasing Student Involvement in the Learning Process Through Debate on Controversial Topics," Journal of Management Education, Vol. 9, No. 3 (October 1, 1984): 6–8.
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  10. Benjamin J. Drury, John Oliver Siy, and Sapna Cheryan, "When Do Female Role Models Benefit Women? The Importance of Differentiating Recruitment from Retention in STEM," Psychological Inquiry, Vol. 22, No. 4 (December 2, 2011): 265–269; and Florian Hoffmann Philip Oreopoulos, "A Professor Like Me: The Influence of Instructor Gender on College Achievement," Journal of Human Resources, Vol. 44, No. 2 (2009): 479–494.
  11. Danielle M. Young, Laurie A. Rudman, Helen M. Buettner, and Meghan C. McLean, "The Influence of Female Role Models on Women's Implicit Science Cognitions," Psychology of Women Quarterly, Vol. 37, No. 3 (April 11, 2013): 283–292.
  12. Jane G. Stout, Nilanjana Dasgupta, Matthew Hunsinger, and Melissa A. McManus, "STEMing the Tide: Using Ingroup Experts to Inoculate Women's Self-Concept in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM)," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 100, No. 2 (February 2011): 255–270.
  13. Teresa Grainger, Jonathon Barnes, and Stephen Scoffham, “A Creative Cocktail: Creative Teaching in Initial Teacher Education,” Journal of Education for Teaching, Vol. 30, No. 3 (2004): 243–253.
  14. Karen E. Pugsley and Laura H. Clayton, “Traditional lecture or experiential learning: Changing student attitudes,” Journal of Nursing Education, Vol. 42, No. 11 (November, 2003): 520–523.
  15. Watson et al., "Instructional design, facilitation, and perceived learning outcomes,"; and Sunnie Lee Watson, William R. Watson, Jennifer Richardson, and Jamie Loizzo, "Instructor's Use of Social Presence, Teaching Presence, and Attitudinal Dissonance: A Case Study of an Attitudinal Change MOOC," International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, Vol. 17, No. 3 (2016).

Kun Li is an online courses builder, Center for Instructional Technology, Duke University Libraries.

Kim Manturuk is a program evaluator, Center for Instructional Technology, Duke University.

© 2017 Kun Li and Kim Manturuk. The text of this article is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0.