Art of e-learning

Making massive learning social – the next big challenge for MOOCs?


Yesterday I attended the University of London’s annual RIDE conference. One of the keynote speakers was Mike Sharples, Academic Lead for the OU-owned FutureLearn. He mentioned that the design of the FutureLearn platform was based on principles from Laurillard and Pask’s Conversational Framework. One of the ideas behind the platform is that the interface should seamlessly integrate the content and the conversations around the content, so that learners can interact with one another effortlessly about each piece of content provided.

By way of example, he described the Forensic Science MOOC by the University of Strathclyde, which is based upon a reconstruction of an actual murder case. Each week, learners are given a bit more information about the murder via videos and text, and also another forensic technique to help them solve the mystery. There are no discussion forums; however, next to each video is a rolling comments feed, where learners will see the most recent comments from other learners and can add replies or new comments. In this comments feed, learners share their ideas in order to collaboratively solve the mystery. Because of the large number of learners on the course, it would be impossible for anyone to scroll through and read all of the comments (in one case, in a different MOOC,  17,000 comments were recorded next to one video!) and so there is a certain degree of serendipity at play as to whether the learner happens to see anything that catches their interest in the moment that they look at the comments. FutureLearn helps learners filter comments by means of three tabs at the top of the screen: “Following” (listing comments from other learners whom they have chosen to follow), “Most popular” (comments with the most “Likes” from other learners) and “My comments” (previous comments made by the learner).

My question to Mike in the Q&A session was whether feedback from learners indicated that there was a desire to be able to learn in small groups, and whether that would be technically possible to set up on FutureLearn. This question was predicated on a hypothesis I have that social learning is more effective in small groups where ties between learners are relatively strong, rather than in a massive global pool of learners where they might never interact with the same person twice. A recent study at Oxford University (described in “What are the limitations of learning at scale? Investigating information diffusion and network vulnerability in MOOCs“) addresses the issue from a networked learning perspective, based on an investigation into learner participation in the discussion forums on two Coursera MOOCs, and concludes that:

[…] when it comes to significant communication between learners, there are simply too many discussion topics and too much heterogeneity […] to result in truly global-scale discussion. Instead, most information exchange, and by extension, any knowledge construction in the discussion forums occurs in small, short-lived groups […]

So, when faced with the opportunity to interact with thousands of other learners, the learners in this study tried to interact in small groups. The fact that these small groups were short-lived might have been because the MOOCs did not provide a convenient way for learners to repeatedly interact with others in the same small groups throughout the course.

Back to the Q&A: Mike replied that the idea of enabling group work on FutureLearn is under active consideration. The barrier seems to be technical. I can see why FutureLearn abandoned threaded discussion forums – traditional forums might not be the best way to enable group interaction at scale. (I have previously commented on Gilly Salmon’s successful use of group-based discussion forums in the Carpe Diem MOOC, but I’m not sure how scalable that would be in a MOOC running into the tens or hundreds of thousands.) So, within the framework of FutureLearn’s approach, I’m wondering whether the solution would be to add another tab at the top of the rolling comments section, which might be called something like “Study Group”. This tab would show comments made by a relatively small group of learners, which would be generated by an algorithm based on information provided by learners in their profiles (a bit like the algorithms used in online dating sites, where members are matched with others who have ticked the same boxes as them) plus a randomly generated code. Codes would only be given to those participants who had taken the trouble to complete their profiles, as this is a sign of commitment to at least starting the MOOC, and each code would be allocated to a maximum of say, 40 participants, thus effectively creating a group of 40 learners. By clicking on the “Study group” tab, every learner would then be able to tap into the comments of only those 40 learners with the same code as them. Assuming that 25-50% of those learners who created their profile actually completed the course, we could predict that between 10 and 20 people of the initial 40 in each group would complete the course together. The actual maximum number of learners per group and predicted number of completers would need to be derived from participation statistics from previous iterations of the course.

Speaking personally as a learner who dropped out of a FutureLearn course last year because of the lack of a sense of coherent community, this would be a strong motivator for me to complete the next FutureLearn MOOC!