Robert McGuire wrote an article for Campus Technology, Building a Sense of Community in MOOCs, that touches on an important topic - is the centralized discussion forum a barrier to student engagement?
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.
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.
There are several studies that appear to show that MOOC discussion forums have few students participating and that the forums are dominated by a small number of students.
However, we know that, on average, only 3% of all students participated in the discussion forum. Figure 10 below illustrates the small number of posts the vast majority of students actually made. But we know that certificate earners used the forum at a much higher rate than other students: 27.7% asked a question, 40.6% answered a question, and 36% made a comment. In total, 52% of the certificate earners were active on the forum. We are analyzing the number of comments individual students posted to see if it is predictive of that individual’s level of achievement or persistence.
More recently, there is a study from Stanford looking at discussion forum activity across 23 separate MOOCs on the Coursera platform. Across all registered students, no MOOC had more than 10% of students posting on a forum, and most were below 5%. Note that they measured students having only one forum post (typically the introduction forum) and those with more than one.
The team then excluded all students getting less than a 10% as a grade, which removed 86% of registered students. The rate of students posting to the forums rose significantly.
The Stanford study also found a reverse correlation between the course size and the percentage of students posting.
Several people whom we discussed this data with asked whether there might be an inverse relationship between the size of a class and the % of students who post. For instance, if students mainly use the forum to answer questions and check for existing answers before posting, they may find that in a larger class there’s less need to post, since their questions are already addressed.
Excluding two outlier classes, and looking again only at students who scored at least 10% in a class, and only at students who posted more than once (so that introductions are excluded), we see that there’s only a very small inverse correlation between size of class and % of posters (correlation value is -0.4):
A third source on the low engagement of MOOC students in discussion forums comes from the University of Edinburgh and their study of 6 MOOCs. Here we see that students are far less likely to engage in discussion forums than in videos or assessments.
What we are seeing here matches the lessons from the early cMOOCs, as described by Stephen Downes.
It's interesting that this article [a post based on the Campus Tech article] addresses a lesson we learned in the first few weeks of our MOOC in 2008 - the centralized discussion forum is not a good tool for a course of thousands of people.
Indeed, Robert McGuire also commented on this same post with similar conclusions:
I'm surprised at how many classes rely uncritically on discussion forums when ten minutes of experience reveals how inadequate they can be, at least without more thoughtful management of them.
While the emergence of MOOCs is still quite young, I think it is becoming quite clear that certain elements can scale quite effective (videos, quizzes), but that centralized discussion forums do not scale. For MOOCs to be more effective, we need to see different approaches to student engagement.
Outlier at Duke
I should mention that the Duke report on the Bioelectricity MOOC could be an outlier in the positive reviews of students on the discussion forums. This data is from a voluntary survey at the end of the course, so there is obviously a self-selection bias, but it is worth noting these results.
In addition to overall course satisfaction, students reported that they were satisfied with the forums and
the instructor (1=strongly disagree to 5 strongly agree):
• Forum discussions with my peers enhanced my understanding of the material (m=4.16)
• The forums were a safe, supportive place to post (m=4.19)
• The organization of the forum was conducive to communicating with my peers (m=4.07)
• The instructor enhanced my understanding of the material (m=4.38)
• I would take another course from this instructor (m=4.25)
Updates 9/17: Corrected Campus Technology reference.
Also, here is related information from Vanderbilt based on their MOOC reporting (this snippet from their first MOOC):
Of those 23,313 active students, 20,933 of them (90%) watched at least one lecture video, 5,702 (24%) took at least one quiz, 2,072 (9%) submitted at least one assignment for peer grading, and 942 (4%) posted at least once in the discussion forums. [snip]
Across their other three MOOCs, the forum participation of active students was 9%, 22% and 6%. Some relevant commentary from Derek Bruff:
Why so much participation in the LSIO forums [the one with 22%] compared with the other two courses? David Owens, LSIO instructor, encouraged forum participation, building it into the completion criteria and seeding the forums each week with a question that permitted multiple perspectives.