The Curious World of MOOCs


Photo: RLHyde
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Say what you will about MOOCs, you can’t ignore them and everyone has an opinion about them.  What I find most interesting about this subject is one of the less publicized aspects of these courses: the student’s perspective.  While you often read quotes from instructors, deans, and MOOC experts within the frequent articles and blog posts about this subject, it is more difficult to find impressions from students who have participated in these courses.

There are a few first-hand accounts in which students describe feeling disconnected from the professor and other students. One student hoped that in-person Meetups would resolve those feelings of disconnection, but my informal survey of the MOOC-related meetup groups found few groups and few Meetup events.  The most successful Meetup groups were not strictly course takers, but people interested in talking about a particular subject (e.g. machine learning).

Facebook groups seem to be another approach to bridging the isolation gap described by MOOC course takers.  Several courses like Udacity CS101 and Coursera CS373, used Facebook groups as a way to interact in the course. In hope of getting some insight into how well these groups are addressing the issue of disconnectedness, I looked at one popular course with a Facebook group,  Udacity CS101. My observations involved student comments and “likes” on the course’s Facebook posts, and the students registered in the Udacity course. At the date of writing this post, the course has more than 130,000 enrolled students listed as its users, but most of them did not enroll in the course until after the session formally began.   Of the more than 1000 students registered for the course at its start, only a small fraction of students participated in the Facebook group.  The beginning of the course generated the most comments and “likes” with 227 individual students responding to post, but by the end of the course as few as 13 students were responding to posts.  In other words, a small fraction of the enrolled students participated in the course, and that participation waned by the end of the course.

This exercise generated more questions for me than answers:

Do students feel connected to their classmates when they take advantage of Facebook groups and Meetups?

What motivates the students to enroll, start, and persist in these courses?

Is the size of the course an important variable that influences persistence?

Are the students who complete the course able to meet the educational objectives of the course?

What types of pedagogy work best in this type of educational environment?

Like so many topics surrounding  MOOCs, the student perspective has yet to be deeply explored.  This is an exciting time for education, because MOOC courses draw a lot of students, which provides educators with a real sandbox for what make online learning effective.