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.

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Scaling higher education – the teacher presence conundrum

Terry Anderson refers to a recent study by Tomkin and Charlevoix  into whether teacher presence makes any difference to students on a MOOC.  The findings are, at first glance, encouraging to those of us who are keen to see higher education being made more accessible to learners on a global scale: according to the abstract, ‘instructor intervention had no statistically significant impact on overall completion rates, overall badge acquisition rates, student participation rates, or satisfaction with the course…’

This is indeed good news, since it is the costliness of teacher presence that precludes traditional university offerings from being significantly scaled up. However, without a profile of the students who provided the data for this study, I think it’s difficult to draw conclusions from it. The paper is sadly neither open access nor available through my university library, and so I was only able to read the abstract. However, what we know from the evidence on MOOCs to date is that most participants already have undergraduate degrees and live in relatively well-resourced regions. These beneficiaries of the MOOC movement are not the masses in developing countries who would not ordinarily have access to higher education – they are, in global terms, a privileged audience. What we don’t know yet is whether the same findings would be replicated in a study where the participants are drawn from those estimated hundred million potential undergraduates in developing countries, who are likely to have less experience of formal education and lower levels of digital and academic literacies – not to mention higher expectations of teacher presence based on their previous experience of education.

Ironically, these findings are therefore more valuable to universities offering online postgraduate degree courses to fee-paying students than to institutions aiming to widen participation to a more diverse, less well-off student body. As I have one foot in each of these camps, my takeaway from this research is therefore in relation to the ‘traditional’ online courses I am involved in. (I tutor on an online MA programme and I support academics in a range of disciplines to design and deliver online learning.) One of the most frequently expressed concerns in the learning design workshops I run for academics revolves around the posited additional time required by tutors in giving feedback to students when you give students more opportunities to interact online, for example through discussion forum or blogging tasks. (In fact this is often used as a reason not to give students interactive tasks: ‘Who is going to manage/ monitor/ provide feedback on all that interaction?’) What these findings suggest is that students would not necessarily gain any additional benefit from teacher input in these forums, as long as they were given a well-designed learning environment with well-structured tasks, opportunities for peer interaction, and access to good materials.

So far so good for traditional distance education. As for those learners in developing countries, I’m still not sure whether we’re any the wiser.
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