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Building a Sense of Community in MOOCs

MOOCs' massive class sizes can breed a sense of isolation, but they also offer unique opportunities for student interaction and collaboration.

Building a Sense of Community in MOOCs

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.

This story appears in the August 2013 digital edition of Campus Technology. Click here for a free subscription to the magazine.

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.

Given these limitations, a MOOC teacher has to find other ways to help students work with one another, both within the forums and elsewhere. "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."

When Blanch's Gender Through Comic Books class went viral and ended up enrolling 2,500 comics enthusiasts, she quickly found that discussion forums could not accommodate her student population. "The discussion boards really weren't designed for this number of people," she says. "Some people said we felt like a small town, but to have little neighborhoods within the small town where we could all come together would be really nice."

Blanch found that neighborhood feel by creating a Facebook page, which became active before the class even started (and people continued to join the page two months after the class ended). Students also started forming groups on their own initiative, based on their location or a favorite comic book character.

"They had a GoodReads group," she says. "They had a Reddit. People would get together to have dinner and talk about it. There were even a few comic book shops that had all their customers taking the class, where they could go in and watch the lectures together."

Synchronous Meetings
Another common method for building community is to hold "live" meetings, which may seem counterintuitive given MOOCs' self-paced format and the impossibility of the instructor being able to interact with everyone. But many successful MOOCs have webinar-style events where the teacher interacts with a limited number of students.

Comer, for example, says her favorite part of her writing class was the workshops on individual papers conducted on Google Hangouts, sometimes led by faculty from other disciplines. In one workshop, an undergraduate tutor from the Duke writing center worked with a MOOC student while thousands of students around the world watched live. The intent was to model how to give feedback so students would be more likely to engage deeply with one another's work.

In a similar strategy, Blanch invited well-known comic book creators for live online interviews and created a separate Twitter hashtag for each, which allowed students to interact with one another's live commentary. They also sent in their own questions, so the "students were actually able to interview" famous writers and artists, says Blanch, "and that was pretty exciting for them. They really felt a part of the class that way."

A Hybrid Approach
For MOOCs that cover more technical subjects, building community can be more difficult because students are more likely to turn to the instructor for help than to peers. In teaching 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, program director Anne Greene found that student interaction in the discussion forum was limited.

"There was some good dialogue between a few [students] on the discussion boards," she says, but for the most part, they were much more comfortable asking teachers questions. "We would try not to constantly reply to every discussion so it wouldn't appear that we were the authorities [students] had to address, but my gut feeling is that they wanted to reach out to us rather than to each other. There is a natural leaning toward who they perceive to be the experts."

Her class also 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: "Many of them weren't comfortable engaging live during the question-and-answer session," she says, adding that the asynchronous discussion forums allowed students to come up with better questions on their own time.

So instead of trying to force a free-flowing conversation in the live session, Greene and her colleagues took advantage of students' eagerness to pose 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." The blend helped students feel like participants in the live session without being pressured to interact with the experts on the spot. "Many of them enjoyed watching back what was for them a prerecorded question-and-answer session," notes Greene.

Overall, both Greene and Comer felt they succeeded in helping students connect. "One of the students used the term MFF, playing on BFF--MOOC Friends Forever," Comer says. "She thought that, long after the course, she and this group of people she had formed a relationship with would share their writing with each other. I was struck by that possibility--that they wouldn't have otherwise met as writers."

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