Art of e-learning

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:


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

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:

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.