Reading: Learner engagement in MOOCs

After attending a FutureLearn partners webinar about designing online courses, the age-old issue of encouraging and engaging learners in online communication came up. It made me reflect on my past posts about online learning, specifically this one: MOOCs – 9 points on what I like, and what I don’t. If you want to go and read it before carrying on, be my guest.

Hurry back!

Glad you came back. What annoys me about MOOCs, and some people who design online courses in general, is the assumption that everything you build will be used, and be used the way you want it to be used. VLEs are somewhat to blame for the apathy or lack of engagement in online activities, especially discursive or forums or comment sections – you’re locked into one specific tool for engagement. But this is not the whole reason the activity will fail. Sometimes the forum or comment or discussion board is the wrong tool for the intended learning / communication. Sometimes  it is the right tool that’s just been abused and not supported.

From my above post Carolyn from MoocLab commented about one of her articles, and I admit to being remiss and not reading it until now – Why MOOC forums fail to deliver. So much of this rings true for me today, notably the following sections:

“Forum management and content are key. Successful forums have active forum administrators and moderators whose job it is to encourage discussion, moderate and organise the content, carefully plan and add meaningful content themselves.”

How do you monitor or manage upwards of 10,000 comments? This is not a conversation that has 10,000 contributions, it’s an area online where people can leave comments (like FaceBook), some meaningful, some banal. Do I, as a learner or course manager, have to trawl through 1,000s of versions of “I agree” or “Yes” to find one or two entries where actual learning has taken place? Even a dedicated course owner or manager or mentor is not going to do that, so don’t expect a time-strapped learner to do so.

My experience of a forum is that there are threads and discussions on each thread (normally). I do not know of any MOOC platforms that have a forum like this, do they? There are threaded discussions, which are often very large. Or there are comments as you’d find on FaceBook. But, like on FaceBook, once the comment section gets’ beyond about 20 comments it’s impossible to follow, and even worse if there is some kind of conversation going on as it will often be interrupted by other unrelated comments.

“Currently, most MOOC platforms offer designated forums once a student has enrolled on a course. These forums have little meaningful content and lack “leaders” to encourage participation. In short, they have no community spirit.”

As I said, I don’t see any platforms with forums. I see different types of areas where learners can engage and converse, but not in a meaningful manner. I know I used to complain about the old BlackBoard forum design and implementation, but at least it could be used for conversations?

MOOC platforms that pertain to be cMOOC (i.e. “learners are expected to make an active contribution via different digital platforms” seem to do this “active contribution” element so badly. How come? Is it volume of learners & associated engagements that is the limiting factor or the platform?

MOOCs – what do I want?
Why limit the learner to the one platform? Why can they only make their contribution on the one step where comments or discussions are permitted or recommended? Why not open this up to bring content in from outside the platform, from G+, Twitter, etc … actually use the online areas where the learner wants to engage? if you want to engage learners in social activities, make sure they can use their own preferred  social platforms?

Perhaps the limiting factor on engagement is not actually technology related, perhaps it’s just the volume of comments or replies that exist? Instead of having a MOOC that runs twice a year with 10,000 learners each cohort, would it be better suited to run every week with 2-300 learners each week? The learners would progress with those other learners who started in the same time frame as them, therefore building more meaningful relationships with their fellow learners. Obviously the courses will need to be designed so there is minimal academic engagement or monitoring, but is this a stumbling block or just a different type of course emerging?

 Image source: anroir (CC BY-NC 2.0)