The allure of open access to online educational content can be diminished by a sense of virtual crowding. To explore this idea, a team of researchers from the University of Münster, Germany examined how online course type and relevance of individual participation impacts online learning engagement. While other studies on MOOCs have focused on individual learning, this study explored how course type ("number of virtual others") and the perceived relevance of participation (low or high) impacts engagement.
Researchers surveyed 169 students at the University of Münster and found that engagement among online learners increased when their participation was framed as being highly relevant. Participants were assigned to one of four experimental conditions. There were two groups of students in a MOOC and two groups of students in a virtual seminar consisting of a small group of students. In each scenario, one group was told the relevance of participation was high while the other was told it was low. Researchers found that the use of the first person pronoun increased when individual participation was seen as more relevant among participants in the MOOC. No differences were found for participants assigned to the virtual seminar. Similarly, the use of references to other students increased when relevance of participation was perceived as high among participants in the MOOC, but did not differ for students assigned to the virtual seminar. This may have been due to students' perception of being visible in the virtual seminar that contributed to their sense that participation was highly relevant.
Findings reveal that students are less likely to refer to themselves and others if the relevance of their participation is not emphasized in large learning spaces. This suggests that purposely telling learners that their voices matter can support individual engagement and increase social exchange. An isolated learner may not engage of their own accord, but this study shows that online learning providers have an opportunity to encourage individual and student-to-student engagement.