Can massive open online course – MOOCS – effectively teach complex subjects

Knowledge into Action 

A Realistic Evaluation of a Care and Compassion MOOC – PhD Study


What we know

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are a relatively new phenomenon not just in healthcare but also in education as a whole (Sarabia-Cobo et al, 2015; Parkinson, 2015).  Their main purpose is to capture the attention of a diverse and global audience in order to increase knowledge through the provisions of university level education (Sneddon et al, 2018; Hebdon et al, 2016).  The Scottish Improvement Science Collaborating Centre developed a care and compassion MOOC, hosted by FutureLearn a digital education platform.  This five-week MOOC provided learning resources, activities and information to healthcare professionals and the public to help raise awareness and understanding of compassion and improve the provision of compassionate care. 

 Study Aim:

The aims of this research were to (1) evaluate a MOOC as a pedagogical approach to teaching the essential and complex subject of compassion (2) consider the participants experiences of their learning and (3) explore the impact that this learning may have on the work practices of healthcare professionals

What this research explored

A Realistic Evaluation approach was taken to evaluate the care and compassion MOOC.  This approach provided an opportunity to utilise mixed methods of data collection thus allowing for the complex nature of the educational intervention to be examined (Pawson and Tilley, 1997).  Quantitative data from 957 participants were collected through the MOOC; including fundamental demographics as well as learning analytics which allowed for an understanding of attrition and retention rates as well as mechanisms of learning and self-reported impact.  Qualitative data was collected through the use of a pre and post course survey, an online discussion board and telephone interviews with learners.  This allowed for a more in-depth examination of motivations to participate, reasons for successful retention as well as individual learning experiences. In keeping with realistic evaluation, the key components of context, mechanism and outcome were considered throughout the analysis. 

What this study adds

Findings from the quantitative research show potentially promising retention rates with only 8% of enrolees choosing to no longer take part in the course.  Reasons for participating in the Course, were captured from the 957 respondents who completed the pre-course survey (multiple responses were allowed):

  • 441 (46%) undertook the course to help their career;
  • 311 (32%) to help their academic studies;
  • 349 (36%) for personal reasons;
  • 698 (73%) for social networking.

94 learners completed the post course survey and 91 respondents rated how the MOOC met their overall needs:

  • 93% provided a positive response;
  • 7% negative/unable to respond.

The findings in terms of changes to work practices appears to be overall positive.  Self-reported data showed that the majority agreed that their work practices had improved as a result of the course.  As well as this more learners agreed that their work had been positively influenced after completing the MOOC than not. 


This PhD project was undertaken by Julie McLaren, with supervision provided by Professor Jayne Donaldson, University of Stirling, and Dr Stephen Smith, Napier University.


Julie McLaren, Jayne Donaldson and Stephen Smith (2018). Learning analytics suggest a positive experience:  A descriptive Analysis of a Care and Compassion MOOC. European Conference on E-Learning 2018 in Athens.

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