I don’t usually like to title a post with negative connotations, but there is no way to put a positive spin on my experience with the MOOC I’m enrolled in through Coursera, Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application. The course so far is a disaster—’a mess’ as numerous students have called it. Ironically, the learning outcome of the course is to create our own online course. To be fair, there are some good points to the course, but there are significant factors contributing to a frustrating course experience for students.
There are three key factors contributing to this course calamity and all link to the group assignment. The first, a ‘technical glitch’ was big enough to cause one of Google’s servers to crash. Another, causing considerable distress to students is the lack of instructions for the assignments and the group activity—there was no clarity provided on the objective or purpose of the groups. I’ll review here what went wrong, highlight students’ reactions to the problems. Though it’s too late to fix the situation now, I’ve also provided a suggestion to the course instructor, what to do for the next course to prevent a repeat of this scenario. And to help instructors or educators be more effective with their own instruction, with group activities in particular, I’ve outlined strategies and tips for the creation and facilitation of group learning activities.
The course started Monday, January 28, 2013 and problems began on day one when participants were instructed to ‘join a group’. As of today, Friday, February 1, the purpose of the groups is unclear, many students are still looking for a group, and if they are in one, aren’t sure what they are supposed to be doing.
How to Prevent Group Work from Going Haywire
Creating and facilitating group activities in small online classes, (under forty students) can be exceptionally effective in creating meaningful learning experiences, and supportive of the social dimension, which contributes to the building of a positive and effective online learning community. I’ve written several posts about facilitating group work, which are listed at the end of this post. In short, successful group activities in online courses need:
1) clear and detailed instructions.
2) a thorough description of the purpose of the assignment, explaining why a group project is required over an individual activity. Highlighting how the student will benefit is a tactic that can contribute to a higher level of motivation.
3) access to technical tools that effectively support group collaboration, i.e. a dedicated discussion venue for each group (numerous LMS platforms support dedicated group space).
What happens When Group Work Goes Haywire
1) Technical ‘Glitches': excerpts from the course instructor’s announcements in Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application.
Posted 10:33 am, January 28
Dear Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application Students,
Thank you for taking my class! With so much debate on online courses in general and Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) …. I also hope that you will enjoy this class and that you will have fun.
This course will be collaborative in nature. So the first thing I would like you to do is to join a group. You will be able to do this when you access the course site. You will be able to click on the Join A Group link in the left navigation bar. This will take you to a Google Spreadsheet.…..” [The Google server could not handle the traffic – it crashed]
Posted 12:18 PM, January 28
It has been an exciting few hours. The course has just started and some of you have managed to delete entire rows and columns in Join A Group Google spreadsheet…some of you removed people from their groups, crashed the Google server. To fix this…. [try logging on again] and If you get a “We’re sorry. Our servers are busy. Please wait a bit and try again” message, please wait and try again. This just means there are too many people trying to access the site…. [This still did not work].
Posted 2:24 PM, January 28
I apologize for the technical glitch that did not allow you to view the Week 1 tab. This caused a lot of confusion for a lot of people. Everything is laid out in order in Week 1 tab. Here is a summary of what you need to do for each assignment [Instructions for assignments were ‘missing’].
Posted 2:48 PM, January 30
I was hoping that the Google Spreadsheet would work after a day but it looks like it will not work at all for our purposes. So I have gone to Plan B. I have created a new Group Sign Up forum. To differentiate this from the groups on the Google Spreadsheet, the group names start with Group A and continues. ……[This method did not work, now they are on Plan ‘C’. Students don’t appear to know what group they are in, with hundreds of ‘threads’ for group discussions, it’s quite mess].
2) Lack of Clear Instructions and Guidelines: Instructions for the group work in this course are vague. It is not clear what the groups are for, or why one needs to join a group. This was not explained anywhere in the course description or instructional video, only instructions of how to join a group. All of this further confuses the technical issue, begging the question ‘why are we dong this’?
My guess is that the instructor is trying to manage the discussion format by providing a more intimate framework to discuss the questions for the given topic of the week. Below is a suggestion for the course instructor of the Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application. For the next course, I suggest the following strategy for the group work:
[Recommended] Instructions for this Discussion Assignment: There are three discussion questions for this week. They are 1) … 2) … 3) … To gain a deeper understanding and perspective on the topic, I recommend you participate in a discussion with several of your peers. Given the large group, we suggest students form smaller groups, [suggested maximum is twenty students per group] which will provide a more intimate and meaningful dialogue. You may use a platform of your choice, Google +, Facebook, Skype etc. [From my limited experience as a participant in MOOCs, some students form small groups spontaneously, without prompting].
Alternatively, you may choose not to join a small group in which case you can participate in the class discussion board dedicated to week one questions that is open to all participants. Since the discussion is open to the entire class, it will be impossible to read all of the responses. I suggest you post your response and engage with one or two students during the week by replying to students that respond to your post, and respond to those that engage with your initial post. This method can provide a focused and meaningful way to gain a different perspective on the topics of the week.
Group work can provide meaningful learning, in the right context with the support of a sound instructional strategy. The example here from the class, Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application demonstrates why a sound strategy is needed, and what happens when one is lacking. MOOCs require a unique instructional strategy, one that is different from small online courses. What exactly the strategy to follow is under discussion. It is through the courses, such as this one that institutions can learn what works and does not. I give the instructor credit for trying something new, and investing her time and energy, which I can appreciate.
I will be sticking with this course, though I’m not submitting assignments, but I’ll be using the examples, tools provided and experience to hone my own instructional design skills.
Note: I’m also enrolled in Coursera’s E-learning and Digital Cultures, with University of Edinburgh, which is so far excellent. What I wrote in this post is exclusive to the course Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application. I also completed Introduction to Sociology, through Coursera last year which was quite good.
Sunday, February 3, 2013, 12:23 PM PST: Apparently after the notice yesterday of suspending the course, Coursera has decided to re-open the class:
“Dear FOE students,
We were inspired to see the number of people who expressed an interest in seeing the class resume. There were some choices made in the initial design of the class that didn’t work out as well as we’d hoped. We are working to address these issues, and are reopening the discussion forums so that we can get feedback on how the class can be improved when it relaunches.Thank you for your patience as we work to provide you with a great learning experience in the next version.“
Saturday, February 2, 2013, 4:17 PM PST: “We want all students to have the highest quality learning experience. For this reason, we are temporarily suspending the “Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application” course in order to make improvements. We apologize for any inconvenience that this may cause. We will inform you when the course will be reoffered.”
Further Reading on Group Learning Activities in the Online Environment
- Strategies for Effective Group Work in Online Classes
- Why We Need Group Work in Online Learning
- The Good Bad and Ugly: Student Comments on Group Work in e-Learning
Follow-up Post: The MOOC Honeymoon is Over: Three Takeaways from the Coursera Calamity, Online Learning Insights
MOOC Development Advice from Instructors that Have-Been-There-Done-That, Online Learning Insights