Three (BIG) Barriers to Student Participation in xMOOCs

This post outlines three barriers that can deter, discourage and/or intimidate students from participating in xMOOCs (MOOCs offered on platforms associated with higher education institutions, i.e. Coursera, iVersity, edX, etc).

construction_barriers

“Construction Barriers”  Photo by Lyn Topinka

The xMOOC model that emerged in 2012 has not changed much in 2014, with completion rates and participation rates just as low as they were when concrete data on completion rates appeared in 2013 (Parr, 2013). Though there are a variety of factors that contribute to low completion rates, I suggest that three barriers, 1) technology, 2) poor usability & course design, and 3) anonymity contribute significantly to low student participation levels and completion—barriers that deter, discourage and in some cases intimidate students. Also, in some instances, barriers one and two are potential barriers in closed, online classes (as those offered as for-credit courses at public and private institutions).

To illustrate points one, technology and two, poor usability and course design, below is a selection of screenshots featuring actual student comments and questions (names obscured) taken from several MOOCs offered on Coursera. Comments below are representative of typical experiences and frustrations of students participating in MOOCs. In some instances, the examples included are similar to frustrations students experience in closed online courses, which I’ve encountered when working with faculty in online course design, and as a lead curriculum developer for online programs at a private university. I close by discussing the third barrier, anonymity in online learning, specifically in MOOCs.

1) Technology 
Examples below feature student challenges with accessing course content and engaging in events due to bandwidth and internet access limitations.

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File size is a common problem in MOOCs and small courses

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Connectivity issues are common due to bandwidth, and even limitations of the devices used

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Restricted access to certain sites in some countries

Examples below feature students’ frustrations with applications (discussion forums, etc) within the MOOC platform itself which put up barriers to student participation and engagement, for example, i) discussion forums (volume of student posts and organization), ii) synchronous events offered via Google Hangout or other platform which often fail due to technical glitches, or because of students’ lack of technical ability, etc.

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Discussion forums often become unwieldy; though more common in MOOCs it also happens in closed, small online courses

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Discussion forums in most MOOC platforms have options for ‘subscribing’, where participants receive alerts of new posts within that particular forum, though not all students are familiar with this settings and don’t know how to turn the notification emails off (or on). It’s helpful to provide participants with the instructions of how-to do so (among other features) in an orientation or introduction to the course

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The forums with large numbers of participants can be overwhelming to the point that there is little opportunity for reflection or deep discussions. In closed online classes it helps to have focused discussion questions per thread, and if more than 20 participants to break the class into smaller groups

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Google hangouts and other platforms used for synchronous events, are not immune to technological glitches. A practice run prior to the event helps (granted even still, problems occur),  and having a back-up plan is recommended

2) Poor Usability and Course Design
Usability refers to how effectively students can navigate, interact and engage with the course interface, find the content they need, determine what they need to do to engage, etc. How user-friendly the course is (or is not) is a function of how the course content and pages are organized, what is featured on the course home page for example, or where the course announcements show up, even how the course tabs appear in the navigation menu. Usability falls under the umbrella of course design; it is a component with its own principles and guidelines that impacts the students overall course experience and learning outcomes in online spaces. Usability adds another layer of complexity to designing learning experiences mostly due to the newness of online platforms as delivery mediums for education.

Course design is a broad and deep topic, which I can’t address at all adequately in this post, but below are some examples that are representative of issues that frustrate students, and can deter learning outcomes that have to do with how an assignment’s instructions are worded, presented to the student, or even designed in the first place.

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Instructions for student assignments or activities need to be written with exceptional clarity. This means expanding on details is necessary, including examples, and reinforcing instructions and expectations via course announcements or live sessions when the course is in session. Another issue is the use of  consistent terminology throughout the course.  In this above example ‘thread’ and ‘post’ were used interchangeably, when in fact they mean different things, thus confusing the students.

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Another example of student confusion when there is inconsistency or conflicting information in the course

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Frequently, it is student assignments that generate the most confusion among students in virtual formats, often due to unclear instructions, or those that require students to use technical applications (e.g. to create a digital artifact) that they are not familiar with

3) Anonymity
A view on participants posting anonymously within a MOOC from iVersity:

“MOOCs offer an environment that may engage introverts. Online anonymity can make students comfortable expressing themselves in forums…participating in course conversations online may give students confidence to contribute in traditional classrooms and work environments.” iVersity blog post on Anonymity

I disagree with iVersity’s position, and with Coursera and edX, which both allow anonymous posting within discussion forums. Anonymity does not contribute to effective online learning communities such as MOOCs; it’s counterintuitive to the premise of a learning within a community, where the idea is that learners actively engage, and learn with, and from each together. Several papers have identified the benefits of learning communities in distributed (online) learning environments (Dede, 2004), with some emphasizing the value of communities in MOOCs especially (Kop, Fournier & Mak, 2006). What is consistent in the research is the idea of trust and a set of common values or goals among learners.

The type of support structure that would engage learners in critical learning on an open network should be based on the creation of a place or community where people feel comfortable, trusted and valued, and where people can access and interact with resources and each other. (Kop, Fournier & Mak, 2006, p. 88)

Learning in a virtual community, where students go outside of their comfort zone, are challenged to consider alternative perspectives and build a personal learning network for example, requires a level of rapport, familiarity and trust between classmates and instructors. This sense of community can and does happen in small, closed learning environments, and in cMOOC learning communities, but experiencing a sense of community in xMOOCs is far more difficult to accomplish with many of variables making it so, anonymity is just one. With this learning approach (and others) assumed by MOOC platform providers, I see xMOOCs destined to be static resources posted on the web—open courseware such as MIT OCW.

Closing Thoughts
Learning in xMOOCs is far more complex than what the MOOC platforms seem to be able to address. Low completion rates are just one metric of how students’ views of MOOCs are at odds with what the expectations of the MOOC providers. The three barriers discussed here, technology, usability and anonymity are just one piece of a bigger problem that MOOC platform providers will need to address if they are interested in creating a communities of learning where students actively engage, contribute and learn.

Further reading:

4 thoughts on “Three (BIG) Barriers to Student Participation in xMOOCs

  1. Great post. I am experiencing all of the above at present. Fascinating. Large institutions with the most advanced pedagogy (so we are lead to believe) unable to deliver effective online learning environments. I think online learning has to be personalized, so the idea of week 1,2,3 doesn’t really work. It means students get left behind, lost and disengaged.

  2. I appreciate you bringing this topic up. It’s like MOOCs have begun, but now nobody seems to know what to do with them.

    I’d like to add to your anonymity discussion if I may. I realize you were approaching a different aspect of anonymity here. However, the term “anonymity” really struck a nerve for me. In having participated in a few MOOCs, I found that the sheer sizes of the courses made me feel quite anonymous, and unimportant to the class. While the instructors attempted to have a presence, the sheer sizes of the courses made interpersonal contact on any level impossible, with the exception of other students. Even then, the discussion boards were so overwhelming with the number of posts, that connection with anyone in the course was practically impossible. There is ample evidence that learning is somewhat of a social activity, even for introverts. If I had felt connected to anyone the least little bit in those MOOCs, I’m certain I would have made more of an effort to stick with it.

    • Hi Fran,

      Wow, this is an excellent point! Yes a different perspective, but so important to acknowledge. The concept of not feeling important within the MOOC describes exactly what is missing in xMOOCs–the idea of community, which is completely at odds with the format of xMOOCs, which still is very much teacher-centric, or at least content-centric. In a learning community, all participants have something of value to add to the learning, have a voice that counts. In the c-MOOCs I have participated in, I do feel this is the case. Students are encouraged to contribute to the course, either content (links, digital resources, blog posts, etc.), expertise in feedback or discussions, or within live, virtual meetings. In xMOOCs the knowledge flow is one-way, institution to student, so it’s no wonder students feel they don’t add value and lack importance.

      Thanks Fran for sharing your thoughts, and bringing an excellent point for discussion forward.

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