Facebook Schools MOOCs on Engagement

Opinion | MOOCs

Facebook Schools MOOCs on Engagement

By Jason Schmitt     May 19, 2016

Facebook Schools MOOCs on Engagement

If MOOCs want to build student engagement, they may want to take a lesson from Facebook.

That’s the takeaway from a recent study by researchers at Pennsylvania State University and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, who found students favor using Facebook groups over MOOC forums in part because they have more positive interactions on the social media site and feel a stronger sense of community there. Trust plays a role; on Facebook the students tended to use their “real” names and could see one another’s profiles.

Researchers at Pennsylvania State University and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory analyzed data on student use of forums for three MOOCs from Coursera and course-related Facebook groups, and interviewed instructors and a dozen students. The research was presented at the ACM conference on Learning at Scale.

The upshot: “Although there were more people enrolled and more posts shared in Coursera relative to the smaller group of people who joined the Facebook groups, when it comes to user engagement, Facebook was a more attractive place for them to stay actively and longer,” the authors report. Interviews with students suggested that Facebook groups were more convenient to use, fostered greater collaboration, and made them feel closer to their instructors.

On MOOC forums, “they feel they don’t get attention, don’t get replies,” says Saijing Zheng, lead researcher of the study and now a research scientist at Microsoft. Some students introduced themselves on the forums only to hit a wall of silence.

The lack of responses might not simply be driven by MOOC users neglecting one another, but by the difficulty they have finding the conversations in the first place. Students considered Facebook posts better organized.

“On the Coursera discussion forum, anyone can start a thread...The information overload is very severe, it is unorganized, and you can’t guaranty the quality,” Zheng says.

Not Your Parents’ MOOC

Why might MOOC forums lag in elements that foster engagement? Lou Pugliese, managing director of the Action Lab at Arizona State University (ASU) and the former CEO of Blackboard, points out that student retention and accountability weren’t MOOCs’ original mandate.

“The challenge with the MOOC environment was that it was highly experimental to see if it could disrupt a current system,” Pugliese says. “Coursera, edX and all the platforms were basically designed for a very one dimensional learning experience. ‘If you want to do this and complete this course it’s your choice’—and we designed it that way. So now what we have to do is insert these third-party web service applications and make it more than it is, which is a real problem because it is hard.”

Regardless of MOOCs’ original focus on education for education’s sake, we are seeing their infrastructure grow and mature, and, recently, raid the mainstream higher education markets in a classic case of disruption. The Global Freshman Academy, a partnership between MOOC-provider edX and ASU is bringing MOOC courses into an accredited pathway with credit available for first-year classes. OpenClassrooms, a French MOOC platform, offers degrees recognized by the French State, and Topica Edtech Group of Southeast Asia has partnered Coursera in a deal that will allow Vinh University in Vietnam to recognize credits from any of Coursera’s online courses.

“The credit cohort gets extra services that cost money,” says edX CEO Anant Agarwal. “What technology has done is it has given us education at virtually zero marginal cost… When something is nearly zero marginal cost you make that for free. But when something is not zero marginal cost, like mentorship, advising or hand grading, you provide them for those that are paying for it.”

Beyond the for-credit model, the MOOC curriculum in its broadest sense needs to evolve to include more effective student-to-student engagement. If MOOCs don’t evolve their social forums, it appears the status quo of Facebook will fill the void. But two platforms create holes, and holes lose information. It would be a shame to see great ideas continue to fall in the cracks between two separate platforms instead of fueling our cumulative growth.

Jason Schmitt (@jason_schmitt) is a writer, professor and regular contributor to the Huffington Post in the education technology space.

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