Social motivation in online classes (#edumooc)

I just watched a TED talk by Clay Shirky on How congnitive surplus will change the world. The ideas of social motivation and congnitive surplus got me thinking about how those ideas could be applied to online learning – and when I say online learning, I mean distance education designed using social constructivist learning principles.

In the TED talk Clay shows the research results of what happens when a fine is applied to daycare pickup. In that research, the fine actually caused less compliance to the rule (that is, less people picked up their kids on time). The fine removed the social motivation to comply with the rule and replaced it with a finanical incentive.

That got me thinking about marks and online distance education. One of the techniques used to motivate students to participate in the online discussions is marks. If you don’t assign marks, the students don’t participate. But does this also have the same effect of limiting participation? That is, students participate enough to get the marks, but then stop there? Would using a social motivation techinique rather than a monitary one be more effective at motivating students to partcipate? If you could find a way to being socially generocious with their participation, would you get more meaningful dialogue?

Of course that begs the question "how do you cultivate social motivation in online courses?" Any suggestions?

3 responses

  1. Debra Mynar Avatar

    I had the pleasure of hearing Clay speak on this very topic a few months ago at a Teaching and Learning with Technology Symposium at Penn State. Not only do I agree with the comment above, but I also believe that, in order to consider your question, we must look at the learning community creating a threaded discussion. When we use the threaded discussion as a learning tool, but in the context of a limited timeframe such as a 10, 12, or 16 week course, is there enought time and effort spent establishing community and do we have reliable methods to accomplish this goal in a short time? Building a community of learners is one way to establish that shared purpose which results in social motivation taking over or sharing the position of external motivation in the form of grades. What do you think?

    1. Rebecca Avatar


      You bring up a good point – just how long does it take? When I did my MA at Royal Roads, we had a pretty tight learning community, and discussions were rich. For most of us the participation marks were not relevant – we were all there to learn from each other. In other online courses I’ve taken, I’m seeing the attitude “it all about the marks”. I’m not sure how you get over that.


  2. John Graves Avatar

    The key to social motivation is having a shared purpose.
    In the day care situation, before the fine, parents shared in the concern about the end of the day. Albeit for a different reason than the day care workers, but everyone wanted the same thing: the kids needed to be picked up so the day care workers could go home. After the fine, parents felt they were compensating the workers for staying late via the fine, so they stopped sharing the concern about lateness and (possibly) became concerned about their budget for day care fines instead. Hence, no more shared purpose.
    Do the students in an online course have a shared purpose with the instructor? Or are the marks the whole purpose? If students don't participate if they are not marked on participation, they are no different from day care workers who won't work if they are not paid.
    It is informative to look at online situations where there is very clearly a shared purpose related to sharing knowledge. For example, see Software developers participate, sharing detailed and valuable knowledge because they understand the social bargain involved: "if I tell what I know, someone else will tell what they know and we can all benefit from the sharing." If your online class is actually trying to DO something (the way all the software developers on Stackoverflow are trying to creating high quality, working software), they may enlist themselves in the "cause" and have a social motivation to participate.  This drive created Wikipedia and will, if Shirky is correct, drive the creation of many more collaborative efforts.

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