Revisiting MOOC Discussion

During an interview last week with the team behind edX’s Greek Hero class (which will air a week from Friday), I had to sheepishly admit that discussion boards were the element of my MOOC classes to which I’ve dedicated the least time.

For the people managing those discussions, the chance to see input from hundreds or even thousands of students (much of it extremely original and insightful) makes the boards and important (and extremely satisfying) component of the course.  But for those of us that hoped the boards would provide an adequate substitute for one of the key components of a traditional classroom experience (regular exchanges with fellow students), discussion forums are a decidedly mixed bag.

I’ve commented before on the consequence of my just-completed Justice class requiring responses to two prompts per week: dozens or even hundreds of new comments flowing into the boards on an almost hourly basis.  Which meant that even when I wrote something I was proud of, or commented on someone else’s interesting or provocative posting, by the time I returned to see if a conversation had ensued, whatever I’d posted or replied to had gotten buried in pages upon pages of more recent material.

The consequence of these numbers is that the vast bulk of comments submitted to a discussion board have zero responses, meaning they are part of monologue rather than dialog.  And while I chose to treat prompted questions as an assignment to be taken seriously (which meant writing the equivalent of a one-page paper or the type of provocative rejoinder I would have used to mix things up in a live class), so far online discussions have not provided the kind of community I would like to have (especially in an ethics class like Justice where exchanging ideas should be a cornerstone of the learning experience).

All that said, I may have given up on discussion a bit too early (or chosen to push it aside when my courseload got too heavy).  But now that my sophomore year is coming to a close with the number of classes that have active discussion boards dwindling to just a few, I’ve decided to give the forums another try, committing to dedicate at least 30-60 minutes a day to this element of my courses.

I also have a new course starting next week (Coursera’s English Common Law) which I’d like to use as an experiment to see if participating in active discussions throughout a class can provide the type of connection to a learning community I’ve not gotten so far.

My suspicion is that creating a genuine cohort of fellow learners that could simulate the type of interaction you would get in a well-managed live discussion group will require going outside discussion board systems built-in MOOCs that are designed to manage input by thousands of people with differing interests and varying degrees of commitment to a class.

But as the experimentalists among us might say: there’s only one way to find out.


3 Responses to Revisiting MOOC Discussion

  1. Sheri June 3, 2013 at 2:14 pm #

    Discussion groups is the one area I have found most intimidating in the MOOC environment. I look forward to reading your post on how you handle forming a smaller community. I have a MOOC starting in July and I intend to spend more time dedicated to the discussion board.

  2. Paul Morris June 4, 2013 at 11:38 pm #

    Snap – I’m also enrolled on the English Common Law course!

    I’ve found discussion boards of variable utility but certainly an easy way to lose a couple of hours. Some boards were extremely useful – those on most programming courses, for example, have offered loads of practical support. Similarly, the boards on Stat2.1/2.2 (Berkeley’s intro to Stats sequence on edX) have been tremendously helpful and warm hearted. I think I have gained most when I have been involved in supporting others – not for any altruistic reason but simply because explaining a point to others is the best way to clarify and embed your own learning.

    It’s worthwhile remembering that, in general, only a tiny proportion of students will ever post to a discussion board. I seem to remember a figure of fewer than 5% being mentioned of whom an even smaller proportion would ever initiate a discussion. I had a very brief scout around a few boards for the courses and estimate that 10-20% of the posts on any forum come from fewer than ten regular contributors. Considering that these courses typically have enrolments numbered in the tens of thousands that is pretty startling.

  3. Smorgus Team June 17, 2013 at 5:29 pm #

    Thanks for the great post and follow up comments. This is a great summary of the frustration in using online discussion forums for open-ended group conversation. After having similar frustration, myself and a fellow university colleague have embarked on designing a visual group communication platform aimed at solving the many problems you’ve mentioned above. This new form of communication will (in theory!) provide a visualized communication structure which resembles a real group conversation, gives graphical weighting to key questions and responses (so that gem of a response that you left is properly read!), and provides a more ‘consumable’ representation of the group discussion outcome.

    We are still very early in the development process of the platform and would be hugely aided by the DegreeofFreedom community’s help in clarifying the problems associated with discussion forum use in MOOCs. If you would be willing to assist us in solving this problem for the hundreds of thousands of MOOC learners, we’d love to hear your feedback through the online site we’ve recently set up ( or from any other comments on this post. Really looking forward to any feedback you might have!

    – the smorgus team

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