MOOCs’ massive class sizes can breed a sense of isolation, but they also offer unique opportunities for student interaction and collaboration.
By Robert McGuire
Most teachers hope to encourage a sense of community in their classes, believing that rich student interaction is an indication of deep learning. When students can reformulate the class material to support and challenge one another, they are more likely to retain and apply those lessons in the future.
Can that sense of community scale up to encompass massive numbers of students? Denise Comer, an assistant professor at Duke University (NC), saw unique possibilities in having 81,000 students in her English Composition I class last spring. “One of the big draws for me,” she says, “was an incredible opportunity for cross-cultural conversations about writing. That’s something that doesn’t happen as much in a 12-person seminar.” Huge numbers of students can mean more interaction among them, partly compensating for the limited one-on-one attention students receive from the instructor in a MOOC environment.
But more students can also mean more isolation within the crowd. “Online classes can be really lonely places for students if they don’t feel like there’s a community,” notes Maria Andersen, director of learning and research at Instructure, which runs Canvas Network, an open repository where participating schools can deliver their own MOOCs.
Discussion Forums Fall Short
Ironically, the biggest obstacle preventing MOOC students from forming relationships is the feature most relied on to encourage them. Discussion forums are the number one complaint by readers and contributors of MOOC News and Reviews, an online publication devoted to critiquing individual MOOC courses and the evolving MOOC landscape. Most MOOC discussion forums have dozens of indistinguishable threads and offer no way to link between related topics or to other discussions outside the platform. Often, they can’t easily be sorted by topic, keyword, or author. As a result, conversations have little chance of picking up steam, and community is more often stifled than encouraged.
[ Full article available at Campus Technology: http://campustechnology.com/articles/2013/09/03/building-a-sense-of-community-in-moocs.aspx ]