Feeling swamped – MOOC perspectives

We’ve been posed some very interesting scenarios this week on the topic of ‘constructing community’, and it’s been fascinating to read the different takes from fellow students on these on the forums.

I was particularly intrigued by some of the points raised about the sense of feeling ‘swamped’ in a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) environment, and thought it would be worthwhile diving into this a little deeper.

In the example provided, there seemed to a variety of factors contributing to this feeling:

  • the sheer volume of students on the course
  • the volume of content created by the students on the course
  • engaging with content outside of the main environment (e.g. additional reading)

It got me thinking about the nature of MOOCs, and strategies that could be put in place to help manage these challenges.

(Before looking at this, I think it’s important to note from the outset that this could be seen as a ‘nice’ problem to have! The fact that the MOOC has attracted successfully attracted thousands of students obviously taps into a subject that people are keen to develop their understanding in!).

Assessment

Although the example doesn’t give details, I’ve found several MOOCs I’ve participated in to use ‘engagement’ as a metric, or contributor of success.

The majority of MOOCs I’ve come across have primarily been a) free of charge and b) require no prior knowledge or experience. While this is one of the fantastic aspects of MOOCs – being able to provide a learning experience for anyone, anywhere. But this could be a double-edged sword, with a bigger and more diverse audience, perhaps that sense of community and connection is more difficult to bring together, simply because there may be more that makes people different, than similar.

Therefore it’s difficult to base success of a MOOC simply based on an end assessment. Given a person could potentially complete an assessment without actually touching the course content or interacting with other users, how to do you evaluate success this way?

(And given many MOOCs are used as a brand awareness activity by universities, and could be considered a ‘marketing’ activity, engagement (however this is defined) is probably a better metric internally within an institution).

Given engagement is a key driver then, perhaps it creates an onus on students to contribute, even if it offers little value (to themselves, or the other students). As the example itself states:

“What was the point of adding another blog post when there were so many floating around already?”

Perhaps then a strategy for the course designers is to think carefully about the metrics related to the course, both from an academic, student and institutional perspective. As ultimately what may be quite subtle measurements could extrapolate to fairly profound impact on the overall course experience. (I think of Ken Robinson’s quote here, “If you design a system to do something specific, don’t be surprised if it does it”.)

Group size

I wonder if there was a way the course tutors on the MOOC in the example could have split the group size into smaller cohorts. It seems there has been plenty of discussion over ideal group sizes within MOOCs elsewhere, with understandably little agreement (given the nature of MOOCs are quite diverse).

One interesting question to pose is how to create cohorts, and what to base the cohort decision on. Registration date is the obvious one, simply batching them based on chronological enrolment. But could geographic location but one option, and perhaps levels of engagement itself? Ultimately this would need some consideration and piloting to make the MOOC experience for students more enjoyable, without losing any of the diversity and breadth of opinion that could occur outside of the student’s specific cohort.

Managing expectations

On further reflection, I wonder if the feelings expressed by the MOOC student were representative of the wider group. It strikes me that this student could be trying to view everything created by the course and its students, which in this scenario seems unrealistic.

Hajira Khan, a fellow student on this IDEL course, suggested moderators have a key part to play in this process too:

“The tutor for the course should be an active moderator so that discussions are moderated and are kept relevant and concise.”

That role of tutor could be key to keeping the discussion on track, but also managed what is expected.

The feelings are obviously genuine and not to be dismissed, but changes should be considered for future MOOCs in line with wider feedback too, this student’s experience could be an outlier.

One consideration for tutors is to ensure there is the facility to capture feedback like this early on, and where possible have the flexibility to adapt the MOOC where possible to get it back on track.

Slightly off-piste I know, but I also wondered if that feeling of being swamped had been cited as one of the reasons for the notorious MOOC drop-off rates that occur. After looking at several sources, it isn’t named explicity (although it could contribute to the wider tag of ‘bad experience’).

Daniel Onah, of Warwick University, discusses the following contributors to MOOC drop-off rates here:

  • No real intention to complete
  • Lack of time
  • Course difficulty and lack of support
  • Lack of digital skills or learning skills
  • Bad experiences
  • Expectations
  • Starting late
  • Peer review

So while feeling swamped could be a contributor, it seems the reasons for drop-off could be quite wide-ranging!