MOOC-ing Together

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.

Next –  Pre-fab Learning Teams

3 Responses to MOOC-ing Together

  1. Paul Morris October 19, 2013 at 3:03 pm #

    Although there is some variation between courses, I’ve found that I actually have far more interaction via discussion boards than I did in my full-time on-campus studies. It is a common observation, however, that the vast majority of MOOC students take no active part in the discussion boards.

    On most courses we see no more than a few hundred posters (from 20-100,000 registered students) and probably no more than 20-30 regular contributors. Although it is impossible, as a student, to know how many are ‘lurking’ without actively posting a common estimate for boards generally is around 10:1 readers to posters. This would suggest that around 1% post (maybe 0.1% regularly) and about 10% read without posting.

    These figures seem pretty poor until we consider that fewer than 10% complete most MOOCs. While some of those counted as board participants will later drop out and acknowledging lots of ‘finger in the air’ estimates, this seems to suggest that the use–active or passive–of the discussion boards is actually more common than might at first appear to be the case; at least among those who complete the courses. There is certainly research that shows an association between involvement in the ‘learning community’ and an increased completion rate.

    Although the 10% who access the boards may not map exactly to the 10% who complete the course, it is not unreasonable to assume that there is some correlation. Certainly, the amount of traffic on the boards does not diminish by 90% over the course, even if the number of students submitting assignments and watching videos does.

    • DegreeofFreedom October 20, 2013 at 1:06 pm #

      I was talking with the journalist recently who said he was told by one of the major MOOC providers that there was a direct correlation between involvement in forums and final pass rate. I don’t know if this was the result of a rigorous vs. preliminary analysis of MOOC data, but it certainly does correlate with intuition regarding level of involvement as a success factor.

      And I do agree with you that discussion in both online forums and physical classrooms can vary substantially in terms of commitment and quality. But I think it’s fair to say that classroom discussion at its best and online discussion at its best represent different types of activities which have different strengths and weaknesses. For while I never expected fellow students with PhD’s to regularly chime in with answers to my questions when I was an undergrad (something that did happen in online MOOC forums), I don’t expect a forum conversation to ever have the rapid give and take of some of my more engaged conversations with fellow students (even if every message in an online exchange tends to be more thought through than a remark thrown out in a face-to-face discussion).

      • Paul Morris October 20, 2013 at 6:07 pm #

        I’d agree, the nature of online discussions is somewhat different from face to face conversations, the contributions in the former tending to be more considered (in general!) than the latter. This difference in style means that some participants will prosper more in one environment than the other.

        Perhaps even more important is that much traditional education is far from the ideal that we all hold dear. A student is far more likely, in my experience, to have indifferent lecturers addressing hundreds of semi-comatose students and too-large seminars dominated by the few who have actually read the course texts than to experience inspiring lectures and enlightening discussions with small groups lead by a top rate educator.

        A recent chat with a friend, who teaches in higher education, was illuminating, if depressing. When I mentioned Socratic dialogue he laughed and told me: “If I don’t tell them what to write down–virtually dictate notes–they’ll have no idea when it comes to the exams. I’m paid to get the kids the highest marks possible and discussion just wastes time”. Sadly, his view isn’t uncommon and, as more lecturers find themselves judged primarily on the grades achieved by their students, the pressure to extend the ‘exam-factory’ style of teaching from schools to universities increases.

        As for informal peer discussions, I’ve little experience of that first hand. In the periods when I was actually learning full time on campus most of my colleagues seemed to spend their study time locked into individual study in the library and their free time drunk in the bar with little interest in thinking about their studies.

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