My previous post about the MOOC disaster at Coursera with the Fundamentals of Online Education [FOE] course generated constructive and worthy discussions among readers that focused on the value and purpose of the MOOC, the role of the instructor and student, and how learning happens within this type of course.
In this post I explore how collaborative learning works in two types of online courses—one in the all-familiar massive, open and online course, MOOCs, and the other a closed, fee-based course, COLC, which is the acronym I’m using to label a closed, online, for-credit learning, course. There are hundreds of COLCs available from virtually all higher education institutions within the U.S. Visit any higher education institution’s website (Ivy schools excluded) and search for online learning. Following are just a few examples of schools and the availability of COLCs—University of Central Florida, Arizona State University, Michigan State University, University of Delaware, and Penn State University.
Group Work: MOOC versus COLC
Collaborative learning [group work] is a component of COLCs and MOOCs, yet learning with peers occurs differently in each; one is prescribed, controlled and potentially used for assessment purposes, as in the COLC, while in a MOOC learning is often chaotic, student-driven, optional, and not controllable by course facilitators given its thousands of participants. In a COLC, group work is often a method chosen as part of the courses’ instructional strategy, and is part of students final grade. This contrasts to a MOOC where the instructor(s) must relinquish control of the teaching functions normally done in a COLC or a face-to-face class, including controlling how groups form and/or collaborate, grading, and giving feedback on assigned course work.
This topic of collaborative learning in an online space is intriguing and interesting, and I realize how the focus on online learning with MOOCs in recent months has challenged educators, myself included, to examine their previously held beliefs about teaching and learning, models of course design, even pedagogical approaches. This post is an attempt to separate online learning into two types [though there are more], with the goal of helping readers learn more about collaborative learning and instruction in each learning context.
The Same, but Different
It is the online aspect, the Web as the platform, that COLC and MOOCs share that make the two similar, yet this is where the similarities end, [granted each is called a course, but the word ‘course’ in itself can be a source of confusion]. It is the underlying purpose of each that draws the line between the two. The COLC is a course that mimics the traditional face-to-face classroom environment; it is controlled by the instructor, has specific objectives, and includes graded assignments of which group participation and a group project might be included in the mix. The COLC is for-credit, with a limited number of students [usually between 10 and 40], where group work is likely and is part of the overall course grading scheme. This contrasts MOOCs where groups are not a requirement and if formed, are spontaneous—as participants find and form groups on social platforms based on common interests.
Collaborative Learning in COLCs
In COLCs collaboration might consist of, small groups that work together on a presentation or case study, participation in threaded discussions, and/or groups that work together to act as ‘moderators’ for class discussion forums. Detailed rubrics are often needed to ‘grade’ quantity and quality of a participation, and with group projects even though each student receives the same grade, students often have the opportunity to grade their peers.
The reason for this effort in outlining the group work so laboriously is to support the deep learning that can happen within online environments through collaboration. Considerable research supports this thesis and I’ve included references to several papers at the end of this post to that end.
The course instructor’s role in creating, monitoring and grading collaborative learning is demanding and intensive. One paper, Creating Effective Collaborative Learning Groups in an Online Environment states,
Kearsley (nd) points to the importance of instructor skill in creating and managing interaction in online courses, particularly when collaborative learning is required. However, he also points out that most people have little formal training in how to successfully interact or work with others and that the social milieu of online activities is quite different from in-person interactions, thus requiring new skills and behaviors. (Brindley, Walti & Balschke, 2009)
In COLCs when group collaboration or participation is a part of the courses’ instructional strategy, the onus is on the instructor to provide detailed, clear instructions, objectives of the project and the purpose for the group work [how the work supports the goals of the course and student will benefit]. Doing so is necessary as many learners are resistant to the idea of group work, especially in an online environment. My experience suggests that group work is most successful when detailed guidelines are provided, with specific directions and instructions on how to use and access Web tools and applications for group collaboration and communication. Research supports this – often students have the will to participate but don’t have the necessary skills [including technical skills] to collaborate effectively online (Brindley et al, 2009).
Purpose and Value of Group Work in COLC
I’m convinced that group work in COLCs is necessary, for two reasons:
1) it allows students to learn needed skills, including how to collaborate and communicate effectively in an online environment, and
2) it creates a framework for constructing and/or sharing knowledge in a given subject area that may lead to deeper and more meaning learning. I say ‘may’ because this is not guaranteed, but this is where the instructor needs to guide and model learning.
I also suggest, COLCs can be the training ground for students to become lifelong learners, with the Web as classroom, yet under the guidance of a course instructor. Students in a COLC can learn how-to-learn in a massive, open and online course, one where the student assumes responsibility, but within a framework and under guidance.
Purpose and Value of Groups in a cMOOC
Collaborative learning and communication is needed and an essential dimension within cMOOCs. Participants learn by making connections, through communicating and collaborating with others. cMOOCs are based upon the theory of connectivism created by Downes and Siemens, which is the integration of principles explored by chaos, network, and complexity and self-organization theories (Siemens, 2004). The difference between a COLC and a MOOC is stark. Learning in cMOOCs it is not prescribed but self-organized. Participants drive the course, contribute to it, build it and add content, while facilitators provide the platforms (or meeting places), provide a loose structure with an outline of the course [at the outset at least].
Group Work in MOOCs
Coursera and edX MOOCs are called xMOOCs, so named by Downes to avoid confusion of the two [very different] concepts. As I’ve written about before in various comments on the post about FOE, it was the instructor’s prescriptive approach to group work that derailed the course. With all due respect to the instructor, she appeared to approach the class as a COLC. Instructors cannot control thousands of students on a Web-based platform, just as he or she cannot control plagiarism by posting an honor code on a xMOOC course home page.
However there is some common ground between cMOOCs and xMOOCs—they are massive, open and online, yet institutions such as some of those associated with Coursera and similar platforms are applying a COLC pedagogy to the MOOC format, though the MOOC itself, is conducive to a connectivist philosophy. A different pedagogy is required, yet this is the problem—what is the appropriate pedagogy?
What we do know is that instructors involved with massive courses, with thousands of students can’t control the outcomes of course, can’t direct the learning in a given direction, and can’t use an instructional strategy or methods that work for traditional courses. But the concept of the Web as a classroom, that can bring learning to thousands of individuals that are eager to learn, has tremendous potential for many reasons. Already we have heard of stories from numerous students who have completed one or more MOOCs—about the positive impact this open learning has had on their lives. What the next steps are for higher education institutions that are offering MOOCs, and how they will solve the cost and access concerns in higher ed is yet to be determined. Stay tuned!
Note: I wrote this post before I had heard of a professor quitting a Coursera MOOC halfway through, yet this post describes why this happened – the professor appeared to want to control the course –the level of students participation and, at times [according to a Twitter conversation], discouraged students from participating. The professor ‘dropped out’ …”Because of disagreements over how to best conduct this course, I’ve agreed to disengage from it, with regret,” Professor McKenzie. Read more here.
Further Reading and References
- It was this post, Are there failures in Connectivist approach towards learning? By Sui Fai John Mak that prompted me to consider and analyze my approach to instructional design and [prescriptive vs. spontaneous] group work and collaboration in online environments.
- And these posts by Neill Beag, The Misunderstanding in MOOCs, and If a MOOC isn’t a Course…?
- Curtis, D. & Lawson, M. (2006). Exploring Collaborative Online Learning, JALN, Volume 5, Issue 1
- Swan, K., J. Shen, & R. Hiltz. (2006). Assessment and Collaboration in Online Learning, JALN, Volume 10, Issue 1
- Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105
Photo Credits: Photos featured in this post are student contributions from the eLearning and Digital Cultures course offered through Coursera, for the optional assignment in week three. Posted to Flickr, and tagged #edcmooc.