Retaining learners on MOOCs – Part 2: Community

Online learning through MOOCs is great! It’s flexible, convenient, you can access good quality material – often for free, sometimes get a certificate to demonstrate your learning – so why do people drop out so easily? In the last post on the topic of retention, we spoke about the reality of having too little time to spend on the course. In this post, we look at what people have said through the discussions and email outreach, on the need for a social component to MOOC-learning – the importance of feeling part of a learning community.

Alone on a MOOC

The reality is that MOOCs can easily become an arduous task of consuming content from your computer screen – on your own! The social part of bricks-and-mortar classes is absent – the chats between class, conversations over lunch, cups of tea to discuss study or anything else. This is an important part of the learning experience, but how can it be replicated online? It’s great to have the study material, fantastic to have access to tutors, but how can we avoid delivering MOOCs that simply bore our learners?

Studying alone, together

Many contributors to the discussions agreed that a regular newsletter is a good idea as a way to feel part of a community.  From our experience on the Making MOOCs on a budget MOOC, we agree – it’s something that doesn’t take a huge amount of time or effort, but it offers an opportunity to highlight different activities on the course and even introduce an element of storytelling (featured learners, Q&A with course leaders etc.) which help to humanize the learning experience.

The newsletter is definitely a great communications tool on a MOOC – it’s a useful communications tool to stay engaged with people who may have registered but never made it to the course, or to encourage people who have fallen behind. However,  it should be noted that it is a one-to-many type of communication – something like the teacher talking to the entire class. Is this enough? Do students want to talk to each other to really feel the social connection? What can we do to create a virtual learning community that provides a satisfying social environment for learners who are essentially studying alone?

 Discussion forums

Many people who decide to do MOOCs, are confident using technology and social media, and may have shaken off any inhibitions about laying bare their views and opinions in an open discussion forum. But many are not so comfortable. One of the big fears people claim to have about participating in discussion forums is that they will be criticized or ridiculed for their comment. While clearly communicated user-guidelines could do much to help this, assuring people that disrespectful comments will be deleted, and other measures taken to ensure a positive and constructive learning environment is maintained – what else can be done to help people gain confidence to establish their online presence?

Building a learning community

One contributor[i] proposed to invite/urge students to ask questions, and to reward students when they answer questions of fellow student in a right way, maybe with bonus points for the module the question is about. This could achieve two things: it gives new MOOCers a relatively easy and low-risk option for participating in the discussion forum, from which point they have a greater chance of gaining confidence to eventually express themselves more freely. It also gives greater responsibility to the keener, more motivated learners, who take on the role of ‘peer facilitators’.  This could, in fact, result in greater overall engagement, as studies show that people feel more comfortable engaging with peers than with tutors. Would it be worth considering to establish a peer facilitator programme in the MOOC? Maybe not everyone enrolled on the course knows everything, but many are knowledgeable and experienced in one or more areas. Would this be a good way of sharing the knowledge, and as the contributor says, also relieving the pressure on tutors to answer every question? A contributor[ii] proposed to provide cases to discuss or expand on, relevant to the knowledge provided in the MOOC, saying that this may be a more easy engagement starter than just providing empty space.

Another contributor talks about using Wikis or Wikipedia which lets everyone contribute to the body of knowledge, also allowing students to have a real-world or authentic audience for their work. This could also build engagement if learners realize that they can go back and re-visit their thinking across the course, and can also feel less alone – being part of a collaborative, knowledge-building project.

A point was made [iii] on the importance of being able to connect directly with other people on the course – some platforms allow this while others don’t – is this something that could/should influence the choice of platform we use to run our course on?

All of the comments  are very much in line with research which suggests that when learners feel a sense of belonging in the course, they  report greater enjoyment, reduced anxiety and are less inclined to withdraw from the course. http://www.socialsciencespace.com/2014/09/even-in-a-mooc-students-want-to-belong/

Humanizing the learning experience

The question of ‘humanizing’ the learning experience is interesting – is this really important? How useful would it be to include a mandatory first assignment that requires people to fill in their profile page and upload a photo with some info on their interests etc. so that people can identify other learners with shared interests – possibly work on peer assessments with them – which could result in more authentic projects that solve their real-world problems?

In our first newsletter, we asked people to upload their profile pictures so that we could take a class photo! We had no uptake – was the timing wrong? Do people need more guidance on how to actually do this? Was it simply not a good idea?

Your thoughts welcome in comments section below, or on the MOOC through the ‘comment’ links in the post or you could also join a conversation on our linkedin group

This post is one of a series of three on the topic of learner retention – you can find the other posts here:
Part 1: Making time for MOOCs
Part 3: Content, assignments, and accreditation

Thanks to the contributors to this discussion – some named below – others who requested not to be named.

[i] @PeterKorevaar

[ii] @chrisjangelov

[iii] @John_Lawrence

 

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