Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs have grown in membership and influence since their introduction at the beginning of the 21st century. Research on these courses and their communities has focused primarily on learning outcomes for participants and economic sustainability for course producers. This study focuses on how learner and community attitudes toward giving, gift economics, and community expectations could positively influence learner experience and lead to a greater sense of belonging, ownership and collaborative production in a MOOC. Twenty-one interviews and 221 surveys were completed with learners from a single set of MIT online courses to create three learner archetypes, the Audit Learner (free rider), Credential Seeker (paying participant) and the CTA (volunteer teaching assistant). The research compares self-assessed feelings against the other groups as well as against two attitudes scales, the LOTR scale for general attitudes and Helping Attitudes Scale for prosocial behavior. Three archetypal attitudes are discussed to give depth to historical philosophical and behavioral research on the nature of ‘the gift’ and gift economics in several social contexts. Gratitude_x finds varied attitudes and rich contrast between the three archetypal senses toward gifts and public goods. Audit learners are most grateful for receiving something free but still feel some obligation to help others in return. CTAs experience the most wonder, gratitude, and sense of responsibility to give something back to the community. They demonstrate the highest helping attitudes rating of all three groups. Credential seekers still experience a sense of being a part of something greater than themselves. This research recommends that opportunities for the giving of gifts in the form of voluntary participation and opportunities for collaboration be a part of future online course offerings. Further research should be completed to compare sentiment and attitudes uncovered here with actual course production and participation data.

Thank you

Thank you to all the participants in the MITx MicroMasters in SCM courses who responded so generously to my survey and interview requests. This book is dedicated to you. Your devotion to learning and the online community is an inspiration to me and to many others. Gratitude to James Read, Lars Fischer and everyone at MassArt MDes as a vibrant place to mix the study of design and business innovation. Thank you to Chen, David, Eliza, Joe, Mo, Raquel, and Shailee for your endless attention as we iterated and irritated. Gratitude to Nate Lippens as artistic advisor. Thank you to Chris Caplice, Eva Ponce, Inma Borrella, Lita Das, Yinjin Lee and many others at MIT who advised and helped review this work.

Introduction – Gratitude_x

The academic legitimacy and perceived market value of an online learning community platform contribute to its vibrancy, relevance, and impact. In addition, its efficacy, credibility, and power to disseminate learning fundamentally benefit when the platform is granted to its learning community as a gift.

In Gratitude_x, I studied three types of learners participating in a massive open online course or MOOC. As the community manager for the learners in these courses, I had unique access to, and interest in, their perception, motivation, and practices. I had the sense that learners might perceive the free and low-cost learning platform and its related courses, as a gift to them and to the public. If my sense was validated, I wondered would this perception create a circular spirit of gratitude and giving in the course membership and learning community? Would this spirit lead to greater cooperative production than can be accounted for by calculating only economic, reputation oriented or other motivating forces?

The first type is called the Audit Learner. This learner is one who takes the courses entirely for free. I expected that this type would experience the highest sense of gratitude, though may not be motivated to give back to the community. Credential Seeker, the second type, pays a verification fee per course and receives a downloadable certificate of completion upon successfully passing. I imagined that this type would be the most resistant or ambivalent to the economics of the gift.

Lastly, the Community Teaching Assistant (CTA) type is a learner who has completed at least one course as paid and verified. They then return to volunteer in a subsequent course to assist the course staff with the discussion forums and error reporting.

Of all of the course participants, the CTA demonstrates the highest level of engagement with course staff, with each other, and with other learners. They tend toward giving something back to the community and in so doing offer a unique opportunity for consideration relating to gratitude and gifting. CTA sentiment and behavior is contrasted with the Audit Learner and Credential Seeker attitudes.

Combining results from 21 interviews and 211 survey responses, I present each of the learners as an archetype. I explore the theory and history of the gift, gift economics, reciprocity, and altruism from multiple disciplines. This gives context to each archetype’s experience and to looks for patterns or signs of gratitude and giving in their responses or approaches.

Throughout this thesis, I shift from archetype to theory and back so that you can get to know the learners gradually and to at least in spirit, see how a circular economy of gifting arises between the MOOC participants. Using a general attitudes surveys I also contrast learner sentiments against their own orientations toward life and helping others.

By the end of this book, we see that a cyclical gift economy exists, and adds value to the learner experience and the quality of the courses. This economic gift cycle is then discussed to see if once recognized, described, and deployed, it may anticipate new and compelling approaches toward networked online and offline platforms and communities in the future.

Finally, I recommend that additional research and discussion be done to compare learner sentiment and attitudes with actual course participation and activity data from the online courses.

The Learners

Jordan – Audit Learner

Gratitude_x Learner Archetype Jordan

Jordan had been working for the same U.S. firm for about a dozen years and had recently been promoted to a senior manager role in procurement and carrier management. The job description had said, “The Middle Mile team is looking for a proven leader to drive a transformative redesign of our shipping network.

“I really needed some help. But it had been ages since I had even taken a math class.” Jordan laughed. He assumed that because I was well into my own career, I would know what he meant. Jordan had children already ending high school and in college. He had recently finished an MBA but still had not found the skills training he was looking for in order to do his job with the competence he envisioned having.

I was interviewing him remotely on video chat. We each sat in our own offices after business hours under not so flattering lighting in front of slightly upturned computer screens. “It felt like I had lost a lot of technical ability since undergrad. The MBA was more strategic but didn’t bring me back up to speed on analytics. And these days, it’s all about data.”

Monica – Credential Seeker

Gratitude_x credential Seeker archetype

Monica was sitting for an on-camera interview during a company sponsored trip to the MIT campus to take the comprehensive exam that completes the online course program. “It was great because otherwise, I didn’t see any opportunities for me in my own country. At the time, I was smiling, I was like, I can really do this!” Monica laughs a little and adjusts her position on the chair. “Back home we have a chocolate business. It was started by my dad and now it’s doing really well. I want to be able to help out to make the business grow, so I thought why not learn more about how the logistics actually work?

“I did really well in school, so I looked online for some courses that could help me out. When I found the MicroMasters credential I was pretty much ready to sign up for the whole thing. But I hope you don’t mind me saying. It was kind of a serious investment. And I couldn’t find a place with decent internet to do the courses, because we always have power outages, you know, in my country. Especially the timed exams and stuff.”

Though she could have taken the exam online, she opted to come to campus due to internet issues at home in Central America. She expressed her gratitude to me for the opportunity these courses had offered her. I asked her how she thinks she did not the final. She seems pretty confident about it. “I think I did pretty well, I mean there were a couple of tricky questions, but I studied a lot before.”

Prashant – Community Teaching Assistant

Gratitude_x Prashant learner archetype

“When I first saw this posting on an MBA forum, I was like, wow, you can really get into MIT with this online course? I come from a school back in India where my classmates went on to do really big things. I have my strengths but I was not this kind of person who gets high grades. And MIT is a really famous brand where I come from, so I was not sure if I should really try these courses.

“At first I couldn’t believe they were offering them for free. So I think when I started my first one I took the free version.” Yes, it was called the ‘audit’ version I added. Prashant and I were having coffee in two Eames-style lounge chairs in a small meeting room. He was visiting the MIT campus during a business trip to Boston and agreed to meet to share his experience in the online courses.

He seemed eager and open. I got the sense that education was super important to him, but that he had given his professional and personal life precedence. He intimated that at 32, he’d been married recently and it had changed his point of view about what he wanted to accomplish in life. He was motivated to continue his education and inspired by the MIT brand. “It’s so funny you know when you get into a relationship you start to hold yourself to higher expectations. I started to realize, I’m good, hardworking. I’m good at solving problems, I’m good with people. And now there is a chance     that I can actually be with the best in the world.”

About the archetypes

Jordan, Prashant, and Monica represent three types of learners who participated in the MITx MicroMasters in Supply Chain Management (MM_SCM) online course series. The program was created by the MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics and offered on the edX platform. ( Each of the five courses in the program exemplifies a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). These are open access, online courses offered to an unlimited number of people via the internet. (Ng & Wisdom, 2014)

The interview statements above and later in this manuscript are written to imitate actual interviews. In the sections marked by the archetype names, Jordan, Monica, and Prashant, the conversation contains quotes from learners that may be embellished with background information from many people in order to build the character of the archetype. In any other section of text, quoted material is verbatim directly from interview or survey results of an individual. My interest in attitudes of giving and the learner experience stems from my paid work with them as a community manager in these online courses.

Learners from all parts of the world responded to the survey and interview requests. The icons in the map below indicate where respondents were located and what kind of course archetype they represented.

gratitude_x map of respondents

Special thanks to the following 2018 MIT Blended Master’s of Supply Chain Management students for allowing the use of their actual likenesses to represent these archetypes.  Rafaela Nunes – Monica, Sanjay Gupta – Prashant, Jeffrey Baker – Jordan