Ask a MOOC champion or critic what’s most lacking in a massive open online course and you’ll likely get some variant on “interaction with others.”
Small classrooms where students get to build relationships with teachers clearly provide something a large-scale online experience cannot (and even small online classes struggle to create intimate teacher-to-student bonds).
I know that many college experiences involve huge classes taught by poorly paid adjuncts coupled with sections managed by graduate students (or even fellow undergrads). But even at its worst in terms of professional-teacher-to-student ratios, traditional schooling at least allows student work to be graded by humans (vs. servers), creating the opportunity for more complex and challenging assignments.
The other intimacy supposedly lost with online classes (especially MOOC-scale ones) involves students interacting with one another. Where are the discussion sections that give students the chance to argue their points and learn from each other? Where are the all-night bull sessions over caffeinated drinks with names like “Black Death” where students fight over the finer points of philosophy or physics? And where are those group study sessions I remember from my original college days that gave me the chance to both learn with and bond with my peers?
In theory, this part of the educational equation is handled online by the myriad discussion and social media components of a course. And if you peek into the discussion board of any MOOC class (or associated Facebook and Google+ pages students create for themselves) you’ll find lots and lots of discussion threads, most of them very high quality. (In fact, it’s more likely you’ll be interacting with people who know more than you about a subject in a MOOC discussion forum than you would in your Freshman dorm.)
But if you were to count up the number of exchanges (formal and informal) that take place in just a one-hour, face-to-face study situation, you’ll see that even the most active discussion boards can’t possibly keep up with that level of content generation. And given that a majority of human-to-human communication is supposedly non-verbal, the use of smileys cannot mask the fact that online interaction is simply a different creature than face-to-face.
Now there is nothing stopping groups of people from getting together in a physical environment and forming their own class while enrolled in a MOOC. After all, most MOOCs feature a meet-up link that allows people living close to one another to form their own study group or even build their own classroom (flipped or otherwise) while enrolled in a massive course.
But doing a little math, if you spread the 50-100,000 people enrolled in a course throughout the world the chance that you will find even a handful living near one another to participate in a study group is pretty thin. And even in areas where MOOC students are concentrated (such as urban centers like Boston, New York or San Francisco), finding enough motivated individuals with flexible schedules to build a class from is a tough task (which is why most MOOC meet up anecdotes involve students showing up at an agreed-upon meeting place only to be stood up).
So if we can’t count on the facilities built within a MOOC (such as discussion or meet-up boards) to replicate the classroom, is there something we MOOC students can do on our own to create some sort of intimate, interpersonal learning experience?
That is the subject I’d like to spend the rest of the week exploring.