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)

  • wiltwhatman

    I’m a little confused towards the end of the article. You mention MOOCs that pertain ti be cMOOCs doing the platform thing badly, and then suggest that Twitter, Google+ etc be used as they are the platforms the online learner wants to use.

    But that’s exactly what cMOOCs do. It’s an explicict part of the c part of cMOOC. They primarily transpire over Social Media. Some of the original ones in 2008 did use a VLE, some still do but the theory and practice tends to emphasise open platfroms, weak connections and importing expertise from outside over social media. So I’m not sure what you mean…

    cMOOC core participation runs at about 3% of registrants, as in about that percentage seem to become active participants who post to social media opn course topics with any regularity. So, for that kind of MOOC, a class of 300 is probably going to yield a participat rate that will never hit critical mass – though there are exceptions.

    I;d argue that tje problems cMOOCs encounter in terms of following the conversation are severalfold. Participants sometimes complain about the variety of platforms, and how the course tends to be chaotically distributed. Some complain of having to play catchup with the tech – difficult to do while simultaneiusly engaging with the course.

    Re VLE platforms. Students in traditional contexts tend to value them if they are used well by their instructors. And noit value them if they aren’t. Utility seems to be key. How useful is the forum – and a part of that is it’s clarity. We can put up with interfaces that look dated, as long as the interface, and the content allow us to clearly see the utility in engaging. This is an issue cMOOCs sometimes seem to have. Especially to thow new to social media, the utility of using SM is not always clear.

    • I too am confused based on what you say here – I agree that cMOOC platform should be bringing the social engagement (and further platforms or tools) in to the arena. My complaint is that the platform in question (which is proudly based on cMOOC principles) does not do this, but merely present social networks as an alternative source … but nothing more.In this we agree? Adding further conversation streams will indeed dilute and confuse the learner and their engagement but which is worse, 1,000s of irrelevant posts and one or two nuggets of quality learning o 100s of conversations that are easier to browse and engage in, but on different platforms? The question surely is not what we would prefer to design in, but how would the learner prefer to learn and engage?

      Thanks, David

      • wiltwhatman

        Huuray. We’re both confused.

        And we both work in education. There’s an irony there.

        My confusion stems from a misreading – I had thought you were making a more general point about cMOOCs, hence my reply (that’s what they say on the tin) – rather than about one specific MOOC that doesn’s come up to scratch on the Social Media as a platform idea.

        Re the other points. The central confused forum versus diffuse potentially confusing social media platforms. I don’t think the preference is as straightforward as that. cMOOCs haven’t done a great job of tracking why participants drop out or don’t engage. There’s not much literature or info on it, apart from speculation. So it;s difficult to state with certainty whether the diffuse, non curriculum, student centred, self directed and social media angle does actually work better than the monolithic, badly designed ( or not designed) massive forum idea.

        The first question is, probably, who are we designing for, and both how they want to engage, and how they can engage. Lot’s of participants are potentially going to be enthusiastic about engaging on social media, but, if they are inexperienced, that enthusiasm may vanish in a puff of disillusion. Or, as lots of research is indicating, even where students are experienced in using social media personally, they may be unwilling to use those accounts for any form of institutional learning, or any context where employers or institutions become privy to their social existence on those accounts. SAdditionally, there;s lots and lots of evidence to indicate that students who are social media literate in their personal lives are not managing to transfer those literacies over to educational contexts, and are making basic errors, using bad judgement, and generally wating significant effort at times getting nowhere – a lot here probably depends on how laissez faire and hands off the insytructor and course relationship is with student usage of SM.

        I guess what I’m saying is this. cMOOCs are unproven, and the data on them hugely lacking, and the preferences of course participants are not necessarily going to be the best indicator of how to design. Even if you do accept those design preferences, you are still possibly going to have to underpin your design with supports to enable your participants to engage, and then supports designed to help them engage critically and effectively and, even if they engage, given that the pedagogical model underpinning cMOOCs is largely unproven, and hugely lacking data, there’s no certainty that the path you design for is one that’s going to be particularly efficient.

        It might also be the case that the second thing we look at – what;s being taught – is going to have a major effect on the fpormats we choose. If we’re teaching a foundation course in chemistry for participants who are playing catchup, and have little domain knolwedge, then a more closed context is possibly going to be beneficial. If we are teaching a professional development course for tech curious educators, then SM are a good choice.

        I’d suggest we’re not looking at two choices. We’re looking at a broad continuum of choices, and both options show and offer some utility when correctly designed.

  • Great article, David, touching on a very topical issue. And thanks for the mention!