MOOCs Can’t Build Student Community

One of the biggest challenges MOOCs face is facilitating community and conversations among students. The MOOC I’m taking, “Introduction to Sustainability,” has three main kinds of discussion forums where students can start conversation “threads” and respond to others: 1) one for general discussion in which people post about anything they think is relevant; 2) video lecture forums where students respond to each individual lecture; 3) forums devoted to each week, sorting comments by syllabus chronology rather than by recurring themes.

The comments range from self-interested (an advertisement for one student’s start-up wifi provider) to helpful (advice to Mac users whose operating systems can mess up some comment formatting) to inquisitive (does cap and trade reduce carbon emissions?). When I started a thread asking students if they thought environmental devotion was an ethical duty that trumped economic analysis, I found that the act of writing and citing sources made my question and its responses more thoughtful than either one might have been otherwise. But I also found that the anonymity of the Internet can make it easier for some to ignore civility. The three discussion “conduct standards” in the forum instructions remind students to be polite, be sensitive, and post appropriate content. (Nothing about a student’s duty to post true statements or logical arguments, incidentally.)

This week, Professor Tomkin is giving extra credit to those who post a recommendation for a particular environmental policy and who respond to other people’s recommendations. Usually, though, there’s no reward for commenting; to post or not to post is up to the student. This lack of incentive makes conversations worse than they might be in person, where professors’ expectations and the instinct to defend one’s opinions can drive students to participate. Online, everything depends on the student’s own initiative. But that laissez faire policy also creates better outcomes than in most online courses, where students complete trivial commenting exercises yet have little interest in their distant classmates. In the MOOC, students comment only when they have genuine questions. Thus there are fewer discussions, but the students who participate care more about them.

That can also mean, though, that more students are posting questions than are responding. Indeed, most of the posts have been viewed by about 30 students, according to the running counts shown next to the thread titles, and many have only one post, the original question, per thread. Several have two to five posts as a couple of students interact. The longest thread I’ve seen has 46, and the second longest, 30; that thread was titled “I’m finding the quizzes difficult. How about you?”

Professor Tomkin himself is beyond the students’ reach, though at the end of each week we get an email from him recapping that week’s content and summarizing what he considered the most interesting student exchanges. There are notices posted on the course page reminding us that “the instructor is not able to answer emails sent directly to his account” and “all questions should be posted to one of the above forums.” Instead, a number of “community TAs” from the University of Illinois monitor the forums and post occasional responses.

(This is Part 3 of Rachelle De Jong’s series on taking a MOOC. You can find Part 2 here and Part 1 here.)


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