To Discuss or Not Discuss

Massive conversations are the big question.

January 20, 2015

I used to think all instructors thought about the learning environment they were creating for their students, regardless of the class being in person or online. A logical reasoning, given that instructors are educators, right?

After designing a research project to investigate the how instructors intentionally invites students into online learning communities, I now question this reasoning.

To begin, I identified nearly thirty MOOC course providers, nineteen of which were offering active courses for free. Completely at random, I enrolled in one course from each MOOC provider’s platform (full list of courses are listed at the end of this blog) and completed the first course session of all nineteen courses.

My goal was to observe what types of mechanisms were created, either from the course design and/or from the instructor’s language, to foster a productive online community. The results were surprising.

Of the first class sessions from the nineteen courses, only three were successful at fostering an online community. Three others made modest attempts towards building an online community. The remaining thirteen courses, found on nearly every platform (Academic Earth, edX, Coursera, Marginal Revolution University, Iversity, Open Learning, Udemy, 10genEducation, P2PU, saylor.org, Stanford Online, Eliademy, and Kahn Academy) did not make any visible attempt to build a learning community during the first class session. In comparing the three successful courses (Coaching Digital Learning on MOOC-Ed, Introduction to Cyber Security on Future Learn, and Unlocking the Immunity to Change on edX) with the other sixteen courses, a few community-building qualities emerged.

For starters, these three classes made numerous mentions, from seven to fourteen mentions within the first session alone, of both the discussion forums and the value of peer to peer learning. Additionally, the Coaching Digital Learning and Unlocking the Immunity to Change courses introduced and encouraged the use of conversation forums away from the course platform, utilizing such social media tools as Facebook groups and Twitter chats. Throughout all mentions of community discussion forums, all three courses seemed to foster and encourage peer to peer dialogue in any way that best suited the individual learner.

A second trend among these three courses was the quality of language each course chose to use when discussing community-building forums. The language was a balance of being directive and engaging, and consistently used terminology that invited the entire class, regardless of size, to participate. This type of language seemingly promoted the type of norm-building that would contribute to fostering a productive community discussion forum.

For example, the Coaching Digital Learning class consistently used “we” statements: “We invite you to…”, or “we ask that you…” (MOOC-Ed). The Introduction to Cyber Security course used language that invited learners to notice different elements of their potential contribution opportunities by using statements such as “you’ll probably get replies from other learners…”, or “you’ll be able to make comments…”, and “you’ll also notice discussion points…” (FutureLearn). The Unlocking the Immunity to Change course directly maps out norms for the course participants.

An enrolled learner is guided to the “Discussion Forum Norms and Etiquette” section (found within the “courseware” section), and detailed on this page are twelve specific points for all participants to consider prior to engaging with peers in online communities. Through the deliberate construction of instructional language of MOOC classes, each course has established an environment which encourages participation among the learners, seemingly with the intent of building class participation into a group norm.

After experiencing the tremendous variations within the nineteen MOOC courses, I would like to propose five recommendations that all instructors consider when developing a course for massive online distribution.

1. Define goals for your learners.

What do you hope they learn, from you and from their peers? While this research was conducted from the point of view of the learner with no insight into the instructor’s design and planning, the range of communication about course learning outcomes was extremely diverse. When considering these learning objectives, course instructors should consider what learning objectives could be achieved through discussion forums. In some instances, those outcomes might be minimal, or not even warrant utilizing a discussion forum. In many cases, fostering community discussion group norms yields a benefit greater than the reach of a single instructor.

2. What types of coursework can you create to promote online dialogue?

By asking learners to continually engage in conversation around the course materials, this action can continue to foster, grow, and strengthen an online community throughout the duration of a course. However, instructors should critically think about the types of responses they ask learners to contribute.  Writing an answer just for the purpose of completing a homework assignment will not foster a meaningful discussion among learners. The trends from the successful online communities demonstrated that coursework prompted the most fruitful online discussions when questions and assignments were structured to elicit dialogue, reflection, and discussion.

3. How can you construct online forums to be user-friendly, allowing for unique threads for individual topic discussions?

The importance of this is best exemplified in the differences of conversation quality between the GSE1x and GSE1.1x versions of Unlocking the Immunity to Change. During the first iteration, the conversation threads were overflowing with posts from student learners, and the staff responded by “pinning” or “unpinning” topics relevant to each session’s course material. During the second iteration, the discussion forums had been constructed into different “categories” of conversation threads to preemptively guide the assimilation of community discussion posts. Regardless of the technological allowances of the MOOC platform, an instructor should carefully consider what types of structured forums would best support quality interactions among a community of learners.

4. Will you (or a co-collaborator) be an active participant to instigate and/or moderate dialogue in the forums?

Each MOOC is designed with a different support structure, ranging from a full team of staff to manage the course to one single person responsible for everything from the content development to production to online forum moderation, and everything in between. Regardless of the level of support, fostering an online community is always possible. Deliberately considering the management strategies of the online forums, ranging in variety from being an active participant to only instigating discussion topics through homework assignments, will only enhance the learning experience of all students.

5. What value do you see (or anticipate) in the online forum? Share this early and often with your learners!

The successful classes found language reflective of their respective group norms and academic culture they hoped to achieve within their courses. Included in this was their articulation of the value that peer-to-peer learning would provide, not only as a practice to embody but also a way to ease the impossibility of the instructor responding individually to thousands of students. While an instructor may inherently know all of these values, one cannot assume that other learners will carry the same understanding. It is important to articulate these values continuously, and with an intended purpose, throughout the duration of the course.

This research is only a beginning attempt to better understand how online communities within MOOCs can be cultivated and best utilized for the learning objectives of all participants. The results have uncovered more questions than answers. While the world of MOOCs is still relatively new and developing each day, I now believe that a successful course is where all instructors think critically about and deliberately design the interactive components for their online communities.

Rachel Roberts is currently the Founder and Director of the Entrepreneurial Musicianship Department at New England Conservatory. She’s also a part-time Special Studies student in Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, focusing coursework on leadership and organizational development. Twitter: @robertsrachell


Courses in the Study

  • Coaching Digital Learning (MOOC-Ed)
  • Introduction to Cyber Security (Future Learn)
  • Unlocking the Immunity To Change (edX)
  • Moderately successful online communities:
  • Constructive Classroom Conversations (NovoEd)
  • Parenting in the Digital Age (Canvas)
  • PSYC211: Understanding Cognitive Predisposition in Human Development: Insights and Application (World Education University)
  • ACCT 615: Managerial Accounting (Academic Earth)
  • ANU-ASTRO3x: The Violent Universe (edX)
  • Developing Your Musicianship (Coursera)
  • Everyday Economics (Marginal Revolution University)
  • The Fascination of Crystals and Symmetry (Iversity)
  • Game Theory (Coursera / Stanford Online)
  • Introduction to Entrepreneurship (Open Learning)
  • Introduction to Networking for Complete Beginners (Udemy)
  • M101J: MONGODB for Java Developers (10genEducation)
  • Nourish(RX) (P2PU)
  • PRDV201: Accounting Principles 1 (Saylor.org)
  • Traveling Through History with Dr. Who (Eliademy)
  • The World of Math (Kahn Academy)


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