Millions of students around are world are enrolling in free online courses through massive open online course (MOOC) providers including Udacity, edX and Coursera. And to help make the most of a large, diverse population of students, teachers are increasingly focusing on developing a sense of community in their classes.
According to one online teaching professional, massive class sizes offer unique opportunities for student interaction and collaboration and rich student interaction is an indication of deep learning, writes Robert McGuire of Campus Technology.
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.
Experts say that 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,” said Maria Andersen, director of learning and research at Instructure, which runs Canvas Network, an open repository through which participating schools can deliver their own MOOCs.
MOOC teachers are looking to for ways to help students work with one another both within the forums and elsewhere. “MOOC discussion forums are not the best platform as most discussion forums have dozens of indistinguishable threads and offer no way to link between related topics or to other discussions outside the platform.”
“You have to remember that this is something that people are doing on their own time because they want to,” says Christina Blanch, a doctoral student at Ball State University (IN) who taught her first MOOC last spring. “They’re not getting credit or anything. So you really have to work to make them want to be there, and I think a lot of that has to do with the community. I’m one of those people who believe you have to have discussion to really learn instead of just having things go in one ear and out the other.”
Last spring, Blanch taught a ‘Gender Through Comic Books’ online class enrolling 2,500 comic enthusiasts. She found that discussion forums could not accommodate her student population, so Blanch created a Facebook page that became active before the class even started — and people continued to join the page two months after the class ended.
Holding live meetings is another common method for building community. Many successful MOOCs have webinar-style events where the teacher interacts with a limited number of students.
Building community can be more difficult for MOOCs that cover more technical subjects because students are more likely to turn to the instructor for help than to peers.
Program director Anne Greene, who taught the introductory course ‘So You Want to Work in the Pharmaceutical Industry’ offered by the Dublin Institute of Technology (Ireland) on Blackboard’s CourseSites platform, has offered live sessions in the form of weekly Q&As with invited experts. But in the first week, the instructors found that the questions weren’t as complex as they had hoped. Greene attributes that to students being hesitant to participate.
Greene and her colleagues then adopted a new method that allowed students to post questions in the forums. “The second week, we ran a question-and-answer session with topics we had prepared,” she explains, “formed by what was coming up on the [forum] thread.”
Overall, both Greene and Comer felt they succeeded in helping students connect.