Designing MOOCs


My previous post describing initial findings from our SRL-MOOC study got a spike of views yesterday suggesting that someone pointed at it (thank you, whoever you are). One comment, from Felicia Sullivan asked me to expand on the following statement from the conclusion of that post:

“While I don’t advocate creating rigid structures, I do think there are some simple things that could be done to make sure MOOCs such as Change11 are accessible by the full range of prospective participants.”

I’d been reflecting on what our study has told us about the design of MOOCs and an observation that (in Change11) while some participants found and joined networks without problems, others didn’t seem to find their place in the MOOC community so easily.

There’s an implicit assumption in this: that you need to find a network to succeed in a cMOOC. In fact I don’t necessarily believe this – we found lurkers – who chose not to attempt to interact with others. These lurkers used the MOOC as a source of knowledge, contributing back at their own level, but not expecting any particular level of engagement with other learners.  The group of participants I am most worried about are those who wanted to find a community, but didn’t. They’d write blog posts and get frustrated that no one responded, or attempt to engage with fellow MOOCers through commenting on blog posts, but get no reply. After a few failed attempts to interact, these participants gave up trying: the weak ties of the MOOC were too weak At the extreme, were those who expected the organisers to facilitate far more actively*, and those who didn’t contribute themselves (through blog posts, comments, or even tweets) but who still expected to benefit from the contributions of others.

What was the difference between those who found and didn’t find networks?

That’s complex. As the name might suggest, our study hypothesised that an individual’s ability to self-regulate their learning might impact their participation in a MOOC. We found that while ability to self-regulate is a factor, a number of other factors are also at play:

  • previous experience of MOOCs: people learn how to learn in MOOCs. We certainly saw a ‘type’ of participant who knew what to expect from the course, knew what they wanted from the course,and knew how to make their participation a success. Given its size, Change11 probably wasn’t a good ‘first mooc’ for people to experience.
  • pre-existing networks: one key element that people who had taken previous MOOCs brought to Change 11 was their pre-existing networks. When these people blogged, they already had an audience for their views, because they were part of a network that had been developed through previous courses. These networks though weak (you might never have met the people who read you blog, and don’t communicate with them at all regularly), are resilient: you’ll read blog posts from people in your twitter network, because that content has already been ‘filtered’ for you – your network is trusted. There’s another interesting observation here: that your network doesn’t necessarily have to consist of people who are studying on your course. We saw different patterns of engagement from respondents who didn’t actively try to set up new networks, but let them grow organically through the course, as well as those who were focused on creating an internal network of fellow participants.Both approaches were successful.
  • expectation and motivation: even among those who had never studied in a MOOC before, there were those who knew what to expect, and who could self-motivate and engineer learning networks. This is partly to do with technology, and partly learner disposition. I suppose the great unanswered question of our study (we still hope to answer it) is the nature of the inter-relationship between between a learner’s ability to self-regulate (planning, self-motivating, managing and reflecting learning) and digital literacies (being able to leverage digital tools and network to support ones learning).

Going back to MOOC design: how can MOOC designers create environments to accommodate the diversity (in background, motivation, skills, expectations) of learners who participate in these massive open courses?

So how could you achieve this?

I think the cMOOC concept and philosophy is great, but my observation from a number of MOOCs is that by definition, Massive courses bring in learners with a range of backgrounds, previous experience and skill levels, and it is therefore incumbent on the organisers to design a learning experience that accommodates these diverse learner profiles. I think this is particularly critical at the start of the course (in fact I would say that if you get the start right, then the cMOOC model should work once initial networks have established). The start of a MOOC is a big scary place, and providing some hooks for participants to hold onto might be all that is necessary. Here are a few suggestions.

  • cater for different interest groups: even in our relatively small sample (it was primarily a qualitative study, and we interviewed 29 participants) we saw strong evidence of people looking for people like themselves. This was particularly the case with different types of educators: on the whole, the HE participants tended to have the loudest voices (more used to blogging etc), and we saw evidence of k-12 educators becoming disillusioned with what they perceived as ‘noise’ on the network – they couldn’t find peple to identofy with, because their voices were drowned out by ‘confident’ participants form different domains. Creating spaces where people can find others they can identify with would be a really simple step – it might only be a set of hashtags: #change11-k12, #change11-workplace etc … but it might make all the difference in helping people find other’s who speak their language – reducing the initial complexity of the MOOC space. Of course you need to guard against homophily – where the great benefit of learning in a Massive Course is not realised because everyone is talking to people who are just like them – it is important to have cross-fertilisation of ideas from k-12 to higher education and vice versa, but this can come later in the MOOC, once people have found their footing.
  • goals: going one step further, finding others who have the same expectations of the course as yourself is key to continued motivation. Some of our other work has explored the possibility of using shared goals as a mechanism bringing learners together and fostering peer-learning and peer-support. Although some of our study participants expressed some resistance to defining goals, there were clear goal types and patterns evident and these could be used to seed self-organising communities. Getting people to articulate their goals is key to allowing them to find each other.
  • orientation:  Clearly, many people participating in MOOCs still need to learn how to ‘participate in a MOOC’. The Change11 mooc did provide some orientation, and there are good resources out there (I’m thinking for instance of this excellent youtube video from Dave Cormier), but this wasn’t enough for some MOOC participants, and I think a different approach might be useful. Encouraging participants to seek out others with similar backgrounds or goals (as above) would be one way of doing this, another would be to engineer interaction by setting tasks which demand that participants contribute to the course and interact with others. While these tasks might feel a little artificial (akin to icebreakers at dinner parties) they are essential in helping participants realise the importance of connecting, creating and contributing, in addition to consuming, in a cMOOC.

Returning to Felicia Sullivan’s comment, she asks:

“How do well designed structure, processes and resources aid in self-organization and connectivity?”

Last week we had a colleague Hans de Zwart (Senior Innovation Advisor for Global HR Technologies at Shell) visiting the Caledonian Academy. Hans is interested in DIY Learning (including MOOCs) and one key principle he espouses is that we should put as much effort into designing ‘experiences’ as we do to designing content. Learning is so much more than the content, and it is vital that in MOOCs, organisers create an environment where learning can occur for all those who want to learn, not just for those who already have the skills and literacies at the outset.

I hope this answers the question (or at least takes the debate forward). I’m currently writing a paper on this aspect of our study, so writing up some of the themes and implications here was useful (cathartic!) for me.

* I think for Change 11 (though not necessarily for MOOCs in general) that there is something in this. By having different presenters each week, the course lacked coherence. A greater degree of facilitation by the organisers wouldn’t have gone amiss. 

nb: this was quickly written … and as a blog post rather than a journal article, so please forgive any looseness – particularly in my near interchangeable use of the terms community and networks.


Author: Colin Milligan

Learning researcher based at Glasgow Caledonian University, and living in beautiful West Stirlingshire.

3 thoughts on “Designing MOOCs”

  1. hi Colin,

    Thanks for posting updates on your study. I was wondering if any of this has already been published in a peer-reviewed journal or some other source that I could read and cite in my own writing? I’m also looking forward to learning more from your study. [I searched google scholar for your name but didn’t find anything on this topic published by you – but maybe it’s something in press?] Thanks

    1. We have had this work accepted (subject to minor amendments) for an upcoming issue of JOLT. I’ll write a post on this blog when/if it is finally approved. The paper will eventually show up in Google Scholar too.

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