How Collaborative Learning Works in Closed Online Courses vs. MOOCs

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.


‘The Happening’, by willaryerson, #edcmooc

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.


Network Analysis of #edcmooc Facebook group, by anando purutama

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.


Taxedo2, by cathleen_nardi, #edcmooc

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?

Closing Thoughts
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

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.

18 thoughts on “How Collaborative Learning Works in Closed Online Courses vs. MOOCs

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  8. Tracy Markss

    I have participated in three MOOCs that had collaborative learning – a group project. Every one was a disaster – at least for me and another person who with me did all the work. In every circumstance, in a group of between 5-12 people, 75% of the students never showed up to do their part and two or three of us ended up constantly sending messages to them trying to get a response, and then finally having to pull all-nighters to do their part of the work ourselves so that our group got an acceptable evaluation. And twice, I had to cancel a day’s worth of work which I couldn’t afford to do.

    This is the same experience I had with group work in elementary school and junior high – knowing I would be penalized unless I did the work of two or three people because of group grades that often counted at least as strong as individual grades.

    Also in two of the above situation, much time was lost having to learn a new technology – which wasn’t even related to the nature of the assignment (e.g. presenting a content-based project on Prezi). I didn’t learn anything in any of those situations except that I may avoid taking any class that involves this kind of group work again. It simply isn’t fair to hard-working, conscientious students.

    Collaborative work needs to be designed so that the hard-working students aren’t penalized for those who don’t follow through, and so that they don’t have to double the work load. Many of us work fulltime and simply don’t have the time to do the work of two or three people – that isn’t what we sign up for when we take an online course.

    This situation is likely to be especially acute with Moocs, since students aren’t paying to take courses, and many don’t show up or drop out. But even in courses where students pay and get credit, there is often a high drop out rate, which inevitably will affect the performance of a group.


    1. Debbie Morrison Post author


      Your experiences with group work describe all that can go wrong with group work, and in the case of learning a new technology (in this case Prezi) can even happen within individual assignments. What you describe highlights two critical factors:

      1) The MOOC format in many cases is not conducive to group work. In the context of this post, group work can be effective in small, courses that are for-credit with a faculty member guiding and monitoring the course closely. Also ideal group size is three to four students (max five).

      2) During the course design process factors that need to be considered – [in this case the learning activity]:
      i) purpose of the activity, format to best meet learning objectives etc.
      ii) learner contexts, i.e. skill level, (for example tech skills), time zones, access to technology & group members, etc.
      iii) access to support and feedback from an instructor to guide the activity

      Thank you for taking the time to comment and sharing your experience Tracy.



  9. PragTob

    Hi there,

    thank you very much for your insightful and well researched post!

    Minor thing: the “Exploring Collaborative Online Learning” paper and the associated journal seem to be from 2001 not from 2006.

    Cheers and thanks,


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  13. Niall Beag

    Thanks for linking. Now… talking of spontaneous vs planned groupwork….

    I’ve taken several online courses as credit-bearing university courses as well as starting on several xMOOCs (but to date I’ve never finished a single one).

    Notable was the language courses I studied with the Open University. There was lots of informal sharing going on — youtube links to songs, a small book group etc — and there was very little staff involvement. But there was still something missing, and it wasn’t just the lack of face-to-face contact. I felt the fact that the teaching staff could look in and could intervene subdued the conversation somewhat, as people were willing to say less (this is where my “common room” view emerged from). I started overstating my own negative arguments consciously, in an effort to try to free up others to speak their minds.

    I mean, if you’re unhappy, if you’re dissatisfied, and you don’t feel you can talk about it, who benefits? And it also makes you feel pretty crappy when you’re trying to have a whinge and you know that the person your whinging about can read it, and might be hurt.

    I’ve noticed that Coursera has the option to make comments anonymous, but only to other students — the staff can still see who said it. Isn’t that the wrong way round?

    Won’t all attempts to replicate face-to-face peer interaction fail as long as there is the possibility of an all-seeing course organiser looking down on us disapprovingly?


    1. Debbie Morrison Post author

      HI Niall,
      This is an interesting perspective on participating in discussions within online courses for credit. I’ve been on both sides, one as a participant and two as the course designer working with faculty on their online courses, I had access to all online class discussion boards.

      First as a student. I never really thought of it a negative that the professor could read the discussion board postings, nor did I view it as squelching participation. I’ve had professors that were involved in our forums, and those that didn’t get involved so much. I knew they could read the boards, but didn’t view it as negative at all. It is rather like being in a classroom, professor hear discussions. Also, I found professors would intervene within the discussion forums to draw out deeper discussions and try to promote rich dialogue. From my perspective, professors were trying to support and guide learning, so I never really thought about it as you have. Though I will say that I preferred when professors did get involved in discussions, but not too much, as if he or she took over the discussion, then it would often inhibit student participation and have the opposite desired effect.

      For the faculty I worked with, all of them appeared to view discussion boards as a vehicle for teaching and learning. It didn’t appear to be viewed as they were lurking. Most of the faculty encouraged discussion and would provide feedback on student’s participation levels, some faculty are very busy and unfortunately don’t spend much time reviewing the forums, but do spend time on giving feedback in assignments.

      As far as within a xMOOC, I find the students seem fairly uninhibited when making comments in discussion forums, as there are little consequences for negative feedback. Though I will say the tone is set by the instructor of the course. The course I took through Coursera, Introduction to Sociology was excellent, the professor was positive, warm and truly seemed interested in helping students learn, even as a large group. He conveyed this through his video lectures. Discussion boards overall generated excellent dialogue that focused on the content of the course. Again, I didn’t feel that participation was affected negatively by Coursera support staff or the professor reading over the boards.

      Though I do not think Coursera should allow anonymous participants to make comments. I am strongly against this. I feel that this encourages participants to post negative feedback knowing there name is not associated with it. In fact I had a reader of this blog criticize one of my posts, which is fine, but the name he or she used was ‘a professor’, and no identify whatsoever. I responded to him (or her) briefly, and stated that I wouldn’t engage in further discussion due to his or her anonymity. That is the last I heard of him or her, at least under that pseudonym.


  14. Pingback: How Collaborative Learning Works in Closed Online Courses vs. MOOCs | E-Learning and Online Teaching Today

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