Should MOOC students be grouped?

I am currently participating in the Carpe Diem MOOC offered by the Swinburne University of Technology, under Gilly Salmon’s leadership. Although I’ve enrolled in many MOOCs before (going right back to CCK08 by Siemens, Downes and Cormier), this is the first time I’ve participated in one with more than a passing flutter of activity. To use Downes’ metaphor, I’m ‘reading’ this MOOC as if it were a book to be consumed from cover to cover, not dipping into it as if it were a newspaper.

One of the reasons for my atypical (atypical for me and for MOOC participants in general) engagement with this MOOC may be my strong motivation to get something out of it: the MOOC is about learning design, and I have a specific course in mind that I want to design. But I doubt if that alone would have been enough; after all, I am familiar with the Carpe Diem process, so I don’t really need the MOOC to help me design my course. I think there is another reason that I am still actively engaged halfway through the 6-week course, and that is that I am part of a group (delightfully named ‘Penguin 4’) and I feel a sense of commitment to my peers to contribute my bit.

The idea of allocating MOOC students to groups was new to me (I’m not aware of any other MOOCs where this has been tried), and for me at least, it is working quite well. There are 28 people in my group according to the name list, and out of these, eight of us seem to be regularly active – five in my subgroup (designing a course on ‘Converting face-to-face courses to e-learning courses’) and three in a separate subgroup (designing a course on giving feedback). I think that, as MOOCs go, this is a relatively high proportion of active members – more normal would be about 6% of the total. So those of us allocated to Penguin 4 got lucky. We were also lucky in that we were able to relatively quickly reach agreement on the two topics for the subgroups to work on. I have read posts in the general discussion forum from students in other groups (under poignant headings such as ‘Lonely Octopus’ or ‘Ghosts in the Jellyfish group’) indicating that there are some people who are languishing alone in their groups and trying to find ways to join more active groups.

So to summarise so far, the advantages and disadvantages of having pre-set groups in a MOOC seem to be:


  •  A sense of ‘belonging’ right from the start, which I have not felt in any other MOOC I have participated in. (And it’s easy to get ‘lost’ and drop out if you don’t have a sense of belonging – after all, who would even notice?)
  • A sense of commitment to the group which keeps individual participants coming back when they might otherwise feel they had more important things to do
  • All the benefits of collaborative learning (being challenged to reconsider one’s own views, getting feedback from peers; having to articulate one’s views clearly and to negotiate a shared understanding – these are all things that I have personally experienced in Penguin 4 in the last three weeks)
  • Collaboratively producing a joint product (an example of this is the Storyboard produced by my group – see screenshot of work in progress. This is quite different from the Storyboard I would have produced had I done this alone, and is not necessarily the Storyboard I will use in my actual course design, but it will certainly inform and enrich my own course design process.)
  • The opportunity to network with wonderful people from around the world and benefit from the diversity of thinking that they bring to the learning process.

As for disadvantages, there are only two that I am aware of in this particular MOOC:

  • Some people have ended up in groups where there is little or no participation from others. In these cases, the active participants are experiencing even more intensely the feelings of isolation that are common in MOOCs, with the additional frustration of knowing that there is good stuff happening in other groups, but those groups are closed (at least the way the course is designed on CourseSites).
  • Even in cases where groups have several active members, it has not always been easy for members to agree on topics to work on together. Again, this has led to some frustration for individuals who wanted to work collaboratively but could not find anyone within their group of 28 who shared their interest in a particular topic.

It seems therefore that there are more advantages than disadvantages, and at first glance, it would appear that the disadvantages could probably be overcome by simply allowing all the groups to be open to all enrolled members of the MOOC. However, I can see how that would have been considered highly risky from a design point of view:

  • If participants had free choice to wander between different groups, it might have taken much longer for the groups to ‘gel’ and there would be no sense of clear identity from the start, leading to lower commitment from group members and ultimately, reduced engagement.
  • Some groups might have attracted massive numbers of participants (for example if there was a well-known person in a group who attracted a following, or individuals from a certain institution might have all migrated to one group), thus reducing the diversity and serendipity effect of a totally random grouping of participants.
  • If some groups attracted very large numbers, say in the thousands, this would have created a nightmarishly chaotic discussion forum/ wiki, and might even have crashed the system. (I’m no learning technologist so I don’t know how realistic this last bit is, but I can imagine it was a consideration.)

So I can see why the MOOC was not designed to allow a free flow of people between groups. Perhaps one solution to this problem would be to simply not use a Virtual Learning Environment (in this case CourseSites), but rather to go back to the humble roots of MOOCs and ask participants to communicate using their own tools – blogs, wikis and so on. (There’s a fantastically mind-boggling example here of how this was done on CCK08, which probably serves to explain why this route was not chosen by the Carpe Diem MOOC design team!)

I’m wondering whether there’s anything that MOOC design teams could learn from the face-to-face tradition of open space technology to solve this problem in future MOOCs – I’ll come back to this in a later post.

About Gabi Witthaus

Open educator. Blogger at Art of E-learning. Learning design consultant at University of Birmingham. PhD student in HE Research, Evaluation and Enhancement, Lancaster University. Previously Research Associate at University of Leicester (Beyond Distance Research Alliance and Institute of Learning Innovation); Learning and Teaching Facilitator at Loughborough University; Distance Learning Manager at Bradford University School of Management. Qualifications: Masters in Training and Development (USQ, Australia); Masters in English Education (Wits University, South Africa), PGC in Mediation (Robert Gordon, Scotland), BA Hons in Applied Linguistics (Wits University, South Africa).
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13 Responses to Should MOOC students be grouped?

  1. Hello/Hallo Gabi,

    I read with interest your post about grouping in open courses and specifically for MOOCs. I was going to have a look at this MOOC but I need to register first?

    We have been using groups on the open course FDOL, see for some time now and developed an open and flexible PBL approach. I am using one of the FDOL course iterations for my PhD research. The design can be found at (All 3 versions of the course are on this site and you will be able to see how the course has changed over time). Also writing the FDOL journey up at the moment.

    I am presenting some preliminary findings at Ed Napier next week which are mainly linked to this case. Adding a link to a presentation here, just in case you would like to have a look.

    Would be lovely to stay in touch and hear more about your experience learning in groups in an open course.



    • Hi Chrissi
      Many thanks for your comments and all the links to your research and development work in this area. I look forward to exploring these and will respond in a later blog post. (I love the visuals in your slides!)


  2. Andrea Hall says:

    Hi Gabi,
    I think having groups is a breath of fresh air for MOOCs. When I found out that this Carpe Dieme was going to use groups and a socio-cultural design, I thought FINALLY, someone has a good pedagogical design! I was in one of those early CCK ones and in a moodle one, and I felt that the CCK one was based on masses of reading, and both these were all about posting to anyone, and don’t ever expect to be able to find a reply again- so I was chasing after random connections.

    Using groups where people are more committed and responsible to each other also opens the course up to people from other cultural backgrounds where social relationships form the backbone of their community, and where learning is through relationships (and thankfully a lot of learning theories now also support this idea!)

    However still a lot of people in every culture are more individualistic learners so it is nice to have that choice!



  3. mdvfunes says:

    Hi, Gabi. I am following this MOOC in our Meta-MOOC community in G+ and one of your colleagues posted this link for us. I am glad I took the time to come and read. I am looking into this for my own purposes and I too have recently written about the potential value of open space to this issue. You can find the post here: and today I wrote a post for DS106 where the course running online with George Mason University is being run in ‘comment groups’ similar to what you describe.

    I will be adding your post in my bibliography for some of our students. It seems the issues are very similar to what happens when you form groups without self selection offline. Nice to meet you and I am not following your blog so look forward to your future posts.

    Good luck with it all and come over to G+ if you want to reflect on the experience.


    • Many thanks Mariana – I’m very excited to see that someone else is looking at applying ideas from ‘open space technology’ (which is only open in a very restricted sense, and does not include any technology as we think of it today, so it’s a bit of a misnomer!) for MOOC design. I will follow those links you’ve given and will come back to this – I look forward to continuing the conversation.



  4. willtstewart says:

    Some interesting thoughts here, Gabi. Another way to consider your question “Should MOOC students be grouped?”, is to be completely up front about how your particular MOOC has been designed. So, if your MOOC has been designed within a particular platform, is structured in a particular way, has expectations of how participants will interact and engage, uses specific technologies…etc, then, as long as participants know this before they start then they shouldn’t be too surprised about what they find when they start the MOOC. Signing up for a MOOC where you knew that you would be allocated to a group and that you would be expected to work collaboratively with in that group would, hopefully, attract individuals who were inclined to learning in this way.
    Anyway, sounds like an interesting course.



    • mdvfunes says:

      Absolutely, Will. So glad you raise this as an important point. Far too many vents online are not clear about the contract with their students upfront. And this matters hugely from an ethical and pedagogical viewpoint. Gabi’s post is an example of exploring the consequences both desired and unexpected of a learning design.


  5. Gilly says:

    Thanks for illuminating your experience , you picked up the intention of the Mooc …


    • mdvfunes says:

      Thanks, Gilly. I have been following your course through those in my PLN who are involved and the experience is mixed. Some are appreciating the group work, some are saying that so much depends on who is in their group, and some have chosen to leave as it was not for them. I am comfortable with the idea of choosing groups ahead of time – I often tell my own students that when we are at work we often do not get to choose who we work with and we have to develop the skills to make it work with who we got! There is learning in that and sometimes we need to complete projects but will never be best friends with our team members. That is real life. I wish that my commitment elsewhere was less, and I would have wanted to be more involved which you all.


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