Groups, Clay Shirky and Online Education

This post explores the significance of student groups in online learning courses—the value and influence on institutions in light of the principles outlined in Shirky’s book “Here Comes Everybody”.


I just finished reading Clay Shirky’s book Here Comes Everybody, The Power of Organizing Without the Organization. You may wonder how valuable such a read would be given the book was written in 2008, yet reading the book with five years of Internet advancements under our belt, was strangely thought-provoking.  More so when considering the influence and power that groups can, and have wielded in the realm of online education, specifically in courses attracting massive numbers. Here I’ll share the potential that groups hold for learning within online courses, the three principles needed for successful groups, and how student groups are subtly influencing the paradigm shift in education.

Clay Shirky: Author
Shirky is a professor, journalist, author; he studies and writes about the effects of the Internet on society from a cultural and economic viewpoint. Several recent articles written by Shirky have caused some educators to bristle. In a blog post from 2012, Napster, Udacity, and the Academy Shirky compares higher education to the music industry, suggesting that the MOOC model, or some version of it, will replace higher education as we know it. Yet my focus here is not on Shirkys’ views on education, but his insights on group formation which is particularly relevant in light of learning online in massive courses.

Three Principles of Effective Groups
Shirky discusses how society is transforming, with citizens newfound ability to form en masse with the advent of the Internet and the low barriers to group formation. Now, in 2013 there are even fewer barriers to group formation than at the time of Clay’s writing. Now groups can come together with a choice of platforms. Though all groups develop for different reasons, there are elements common to effective groups which Shirky outlines in his book (p 261):

  1. The Promise is what brings the group together, around a topic of interest with a basic desire to participate. Implied in the promise is that each member will participate and contribute.
  2. The Tool is the platform that will help people approach the problem/topic together. Usually a leader [organizer] emerges within a group, or soon-to-be group and chooses the platform for group communication and collaboration i.e. Facebook, Google + Community, etc. He or she will invite members, and/or approve members joining, etc.
  3. The Bargain is the guidelines or rules for participating. Group norms are established, i.e. what is acceptable for communication and not, contributions, etc. The organizer essentially established the tone, which influences the culture of the group. I have seen examples of this in virtually every large online group I have participated in; the organizer dictates through actions and tone, which influences the effectiveness of group collaboration and even participation.

Groups that Collaborate
To collaborate effectively groups need the three components as mentioned. Shirky uses Wikipedia as an example of a large group that demonstrates the three principles. With its tightly knit core group and a commitment to a promise, to create a database of free content maintained by a massive community of contributors, Wikipedia has control built-in by its group norms [the bargain]. An example of the bargain in action, is when one or more of the community of contributors overrides an article written by someone that tries to sabotage its integrity. Enough members care about Wikipedia, which is why it continues to thrive (p 140).

Groups, Learning and MOOCs
Here is where things get interesting. In small, online closed courses, group collaboration is under the control of the instructor—groups actions are structured, guided, even graded as part of a student’s final grade. Group work in this instance can be effective, as instructors can teach students how to participate and collaborate effectively.

But in MOOCs learning through group interactions is not within the instructors control, yet there is even greater potential for rich learning to happen with its large, diverse body of learners. Though MOOC organizers can guide participants and be catalysts for group formation by suggesting participants share, connect and collaborate outside of the MOOC platform. [It’s also helpful that instructors suggest tools to facilitate group work. Though this may seem obvious, the instructor cannot assume that everyone is familiar social tools as a vehicle for learning]. Still, learning within a group in this context is dependent upon the self-direction and motivation of its members.

The Power and Influence of Groups on the Institution
Yet for institutions that offer massive courses, there is a risk. When working with massive numbers of students, not only is group collaboration and learning not guaranteed, there is potential for groups to influence actions and decisions of instructors and institutions in ways that may not be expected, or even desired. Groups have the potential to sabotage the learning of others and the course over which the instructor has little control. Already we have seen the influence of groups within Coursera courses. For example with the Microeconomics course where groups of students were challenging the professor which prompted the professor to quit the course before it was over. Or the Fantasy-SciFi that was sabotaged by a group of students participating in the discussion forums that were working under anonymous profiles causing numerous to be vocal about their negative experience. And the Foundations of Online Education with the thousands of student complaints about the  structure and technology glitches, forced it to shut down.

We are just beginning to see the power of groups in online learning courses with massive numbers of students. There is great potential yet to be realized, for the development of new knowledge and problem solving with the collaborative efforts of students worldwide. The power of groups cannot by ignored, the influence they have is great, and the institutions that embrace it and acknowledge that they are no longer in control, will be better prepared to create conditions to harness its potential.


12 thoughts on “Groups, Clay Shirky and Online Education

  1. Great post. I really like how the five year old writings of Shirky remain relevant in 2013 MOOC contexts. I think that relevance speaks well of his insights.

    I am interested in your discussion of group sabotage in MOOCs, and the examples that you raised. I am cautiously optimistic that the sabotage issue will be dealt with from a technical and organizational perspective in future developments by coursera. I actually thought pulling the plug on the Foundations of Online Education was perhaps a smart move on the part of coursera as clearly, the instructors had not thought through, or were at least not prepared to deal with the logistics. I see in the course I am taking now on Leading Strategic Innovation in Organizations that the instructors are clearly building on the more pioneering MOOC experiences – though that pioneering is only one year ago!!

    I really liked Shirky’s book Cognitive Surplus, reviewed here:


    1. Hi Robert, Glad you enjoyed the post! I agree Shirky has some interesting perspectives that are worth considering, more so as education is transforming rapidly more recently with the MOOC phenomenon.

      The sabotage issue is interesting. Another example, which I didn’t include in this post, was a discussion I was part of on the Google+ platform with a three other educators. We were discussing MOOCs, the type of students, etc., and one educator was taking a Cousera course on AIDS. Apparently there was some very unruly and destructive comments by a group that was causing much distress to participants and even the instructor. It got to the point that she even gave out her email to students (all students), offering anyone (of the thousands!), to email her if with concerns, and if they were experiencing feelings of intimidation etc. It apparently was quite contentious. Contention is helpful in small class discussions, much learning can happen, and I believe this is where students can learn how to consider different perspectives – yet in small class settings where there is guidance by an instructor or moderator. In an massive class, with students able to participate anonymously, this is almost impossible (I don’t agree with Coursera’s policy in allowing anonymous participation either).

      Thanks for the reference and review to Shirky’s book Cognitive Surplus! Another one to add to my list.

      Thanks Robert as always for you insightful contributions. Debbie 🙂


      1. I agree completely on the anonymous postings on coursera. I had a back and forth with an anonymous person once re some rather offensive and inflamatory comments, where they wanted to defend their need for privacy, etc. etc. I mean pretty silly anyway as I can register as Mickey Mouse if I want. I personally dislike relegated these things to the great “they” of anonymity out there. I do hope that coursera will deal with this issue. I don’t get the utility.


        1. I agree – it is so frustrating and ridiculous that students hide behind hidden identities in Coursera. This almost allows students, so included to do so, to say what they want, aggravate and generally say things they may not if identities were known. Debbie 🙂


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