Need-to-Know News: Udacity’s New Nanodegree Plus with Money-Back Guarantee, Non-traditional Degree Programs Under Scrutiny & Khan Academy Seeks Patent for Teaching Methods

This ‘Need-to-Know’ blog post series features noteworthy stories that speak of need-to-know developments within higher education and K-12 that have the potential to influence, challenge and/or transform traditional education as we know it.

News1. Udacity’s Nanodegree Plus Program
Udacity launched “NanoDegree Plus” this week—an enhancement available with four of their Nanodegree programs. The ‘plus’ is a guarantee that students “get hired within 6 months of graduating or receive a 100% tuition refund”.  Sebastian Thrun, founder and CEO of Udacity states that Udacity’s guarantee is a “crisper” way for his institution to persuade students to attend. He also hopes his idea of guaranteeing results (a job) is something all college presidents will consider (Ruff, 2016).

The plus program includes robust features with services that include access to career coaches, interview resources including mock interview opportunities and dedicated placement team support—at a cost of $299/ month. The programs are self-paced and typically take between 6 and 8 months to complete. Udacity’s other Nanodegree programs are $200 per month and do not offer the same services as the plus program, but do offer an incentive “graduate within 12 months and receive a 50% refund on tuition“.

Screen Shot 2016-01-16 at 3.25.06 PM
Screen shot of Udacity’s web page promoting Nanodegree Plus

Insight: Udacity’s guarantee is bold; and not surprisingly is drawing criticism. One college president called it “gimmicky”, yet a fellow at Brookings Institute is positive, stating that guarantees like Udacity’s “are a market solution to temper the risk that students face when they choose to invest in higher education”. Though in defense of higher education programs, what Udacity offers is far different from undergraduate education. Udacity program’s are narrow in focus and vocational in nature. What is a positive of the plus programs are the support services offered. It’s these services that can make a difference—help students gain confidence, skills in how to market themselves, and be career-ready.

2. Non-Traditional Degree Programs Under Scrutiny
Non-traditional forms of higher education, including competency-based programs are under close scrutiny by the U.S. Department of Education (DOE). Institutions offering non-traditional degree programs may not be eligible for financial disbursements if they don’t meet the criteria of Title IV aid. The DOE’s Inspector General has conducted several audits, one  currently underway with Western Governor’s University (WGU), a non-profit who provides non-traditional education to over 64,000 enrolled students (Fain, 2016). Courses at WGU are not tied to the traditional credit-hour, but instead students take self-paced online courses, engage with mentors when help is needed, and complete assessments when confident they have mastered course material.

The investigation into these non-traditional programs’ eligibility is at odds with the current administration’s push to promote non-traditional degree pathways, apparent by the DOE’s website as well as recent grants to encourage higher education institutions to develop alternative pathways for degree-seeking students. Education leaders will be watching closely as many are developing alternative degree-programs as Purdue University is with its competency-based bachelor’s degree, or others that involve MOOCs such as ASU’s Global Freshman Academy.

Insight:  The discrepancy within the DOE demonstrates the gap between existing legislation for traditional education programs and new programs that reflect our open and digital culture. Education organizations need to implement systems that allow them to adapt more fluidly.

index3. Khan Academy Seeks Patent on its Instructional Methods
Khan academy is filing a patent application for its method of showing one of two explanatory videos based upon a student’s response to a question posed after the student watches an initial topic-specific, instructional video. Many experts are confused by Khan’s move, given Khan’s open strategy and their mission to “provide a free, world‑class education for anyone, anywhere”. Yet Khan claims it’s a defensive move, a strategy to avoid being sued in the future from potential  competitors—other online education providers who might try to sue Khan Academy claiming it is infringing on their propriety methods.

Wording from Khan’s patent application:

Systems and methods are provided for comparing different videos pertaining to a topic. Two different versions of an educational video may be compared using split comparison testing. A set of questions may be provided along with each video about the topic taught in the video. Users may view one of the videos and answer the questions. Data about the user responses may be aggregated and used to determine which video more effectively conveys information to the viewer based on the question responses. — United States Patent Application #20150310753

Insight: A prudent, strategic move.

Three Trends that Will Influence Learning and Teaching in 2016

Top-2016-Social-Trends-to-Watch-ForWhat will 2016 hold for education? There’s no shortage of articles and reports with predictions describing what to expect for the coming year. It’s tempting to be dismissive—scanning the headlines knowing that predictions are far from a sure bet. Yet for educators, considering trends across industries in conjunction with current developments in education is constructive, strategic and provides an edge; it gives insight, helps us prepare and be proactive. In this post I share my analysis of current trends and developments within higher ed and k-12 and outline what to expect in 2016.

There’s a spate of articles on the Web across all sectors: education, business, consumer and design, all describing what to watch for—micro-credentialing, wearable technology, mobile, augmented reality and a host of others. Yet how are these trends applicable or relevant to educators? I analyzed numerous sources, some specific to education and many not, to determine what will affect the education sector in 2016. I consulted New Media consortium’s collaborative Wiki for the 2016 NMC Horizon report, Mary Meeker’s annual Internet Trends report (2015), and Fast Company’s Future of Work Trend Report along with several articles and reports from this past year*.

I identified three themes: 1) Alternative credentialing, 2) Experimentation in new teaching models and learning spaces, and 3) Student-driven personalized learning. Two other themes are worth noting, Gamification and Augmented Reality. Yet I don’t see these as influencing education for the short or medium term given the challenges with implementation, and with augmented reality, the uncertainty of its effects on users’ health and cognitive state.

  1. Alternative Credentialing and Pathways to Higher Education

I don’t buy the argument that MOOCs haven’t disrupted higher education. MOOCs have led to significant discussions about alternative learning pathways and institutions have responded with education programs that not only provide a variety of learning options, but embody alternative credentialing. Alternative credentialing can be described as alternate methods of assessment for learning (with the traditional degree as the metric), and recognition of that learning in credentials other than a degree. Badges was one of the first alternatives. Now we have programs by MOOC providers such as Udacity with their Nano-degrees, Coursera with its Specializations, and edX’s Professional Certificates. What’s new this past year is the increase of alternative programs offered by higher education institutions, such as Bootcamp programs, MOOCs for credit, and mini degrees as in MIT’s MicroMasters.

Drivers of Alternative Credentialing

  • Student demand: With increased Web-connectivity, students have access to learning platforms, informal learning using social media platforms, and learning-specific apps. Access via mobile devices continues to grow; connectivity via smartphones has increased in the US from 18% in 2009 to 64% in 2014 (Meeker, 2015) and in other nations (Pew Research).
  • Increase in non-traditional students. A huge market exists—adults in the work force who are looking for opportunities to learn new skills to improve their career options.
  •  Employer Support: Employers within the technology and financial sector claim there is a skills shortage which explains why several have partnered with MOOC providers and education institutions to create programs, as AT&T did in support of Georgia Tech’s online Master’s degree in computer science.
  • Government support: Governments seek opportunities to lower costs of education and increase access which translates into funding for alternative education pathways. This quest often involves grants and funding programs for digital learning, flexible degree pathways that may involve recognition of work experience in competency-based programs.

Developments in Alternative Credentialing

2. Experimentation in New Teaching Models and Learning Spaces

There are claims that the education system is ‘broken’, a term that is not constructive or accurate. A more fitting description is one that outlines how the traditional education model is transforming in response to digital technology and culture. As a result there are a variety of new models; school models in the K-12 sector that aim to adapt to the changing culture and improve a system that is not serving students adequately, as well higher education institutions who are reinventing their learning spaces—a more subtle approach to changing the traditional learning model from one that is instructor-focused and passive to one that is student-centered and active.

Examples of new models: Sal Khan’s Lab School, a school to ‘investigate and explore new methods of learning and teaching’,  Mark Zuckerberg’s The Primary School geared to low-income children where health care and education are combined under one roof.  In higher education there’s Purdue University’s IMPACT program, which includes new classrooms and active learning spaces that support blended learning. Others, Vanderbilt University with their emphasis on creating new learning spaces, and University of Central Florida’s large-scale program that is increasing the number of students it serves while lowering costs by offering students F2F courses along with an ever-widening menu of online and blended courses.

Drivers of New Teaching Models and Learning Spaces

  • Under-performing K-12 schools and poor performances in international tests via OECD PISA testing
  • Pressure on higher education institutions to reduce costs, increase access to under-served groups, and improve performance
  • Our digital culture where students have 24/7 access to information, can learn anytime and anywhere, in conjunction with institutions that are struggling to leverage the culture shift
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Purdue University’s Active Learning Classroom http://www.lib.purdue.edu

Developments in New Teaching Models and Learning Spaces

3. Student-driven Personalized Learning

Personalized learning is one of the top buzzwords in education now; it suggests a host of different learning methods that are typically institution-driven. Yet I suggest that personalized learning is, and will continue to be learner-driven where learners control their learning and become not just consumers of content but active creators of content, building knowledge through collaboration and connectivity via smart phone apps.

Students will be in control not only of when they learn, but will demand that they contribute to their learning through discussions and collaboration, creating content while doing so. This student-driven phenomenon suggests that schools and higher education institutions will need to respond by creating learning programs that acknowledge that the learner is seeking this kind of personalized learning experience.

Drivers of Personalized Learning

  • Learners…because of their ownership of mobile devices with Web access
  • Learners…given the abundance of phone apps that allow them to create content and collaborate
  • Learners…communicating within messaging apps, which Meeker suggests will evolve into major communication hubs (slide #53)

Developments in Personalized Learning

Conclusion
Though we can’t predict exactly what will happen in 2016, we can make informed decisions and be strategic for the upcoming year. Nothing is certain in the future except change as the saying goes, yet being proactive rather than reactive will put educators in the best position for a successful 2016.

References *

Seven Must-Read Books About Education: The 2016 List

Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them.” ― Lemony Snicket

This is books scramble. Many books on white background.

Two thousand and fifteen was another great year for books. This is the third-annual post where I feature seven books must-read books for the up-coming year related to education, learning, and digital culture. My goal is to curate a list of books that provide thoughtful, unique perspectives on education and learning. The 2015 must-read list received over 11,000 views last year; I hope the readers who read one or more of my recommendations enjoyed the books as much as I did.

As last year, this year I’m aiming for thought-provoking reads, quality over quantity. I consulted numerous sources for the 2016 list—book reviews, best seller charts, education books lists from NPR, New York Times, The Guardian, Amazon, and education organizations. I also considered readers’ reviews and opinions shared on Goodreads, Amazon and via Twitter discussions. Collectively the books provide a breadth of perspectives on education; two titles fall outside of the education sector, but I’m hoping they provide insight and thoughtful perspectives that round out the list.

97811388320081. What Connected Educators Do Differently (2015), Todd Whitaker, Jeffrey Zoul & Jimmy Casas
A relevant topic for today’s educators—how to use social media to stay current, to learn from and connect with like-minded educators on a global scale. I chose this book mainly because of its publisher—Routledge. I’ve read several books under the Routledge label and not been disappointed. They’re current, concise with practical strategies and knowledge that can be applied to real-life contexts. “Connected educators” appears to follow suit with its eight key connector’ strategies that provide practical guidelines and specifics on how to use social media and digital platforms to build a personalized learning network. Cumulative reviews from Amazon readers put the book at a 5/5. A sure bet.

2. How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens (2014), Benedict Carey
How We Learn is more than a new approach to learning; it is a guide to making the most out of life. Who wouldn’t be interested in that?”—Scientific American

“How we Learn” is in the same category as “Make it Stick“, my top-rated education book from last year which covers the science researchers use to explain how we learn and subsequent strategies for improving learning.  Yet “How we Learn” takes a different perspective, ‘more practical’ as one Goodreads reviewer described. It focuses on specific methods for memorization, for improving retention and recall.  Will the author delve into the application of memorized content—how knowledge is applied and critical thinking engaged? I’ll be interested to find out as our education sector is at a crossroads in our knowledge economy, where information is accessible to anyone, anywhere and anytime with a web-enabled device. Stay tuned.

Joseph-R.-Corbeil_MOOD-E-Learning_Cover-11-Aug-2015-page-001-736x10243. The MOOC Case Book – Case Studies in MOOC Design, Development & Implementation (2015).
An instructive book featuring a collection of case studies about MOOCs in twenty-five chapters where each chapter describes a unique experience of e-learning practitioners, faculty, or students. Each case provides details and takeaways of the challenges faced in the design, development, implementation, or participation of a MOOC. The book is more or less a handbook geared to designers, developers, and instructional facilitators of MOOCs. A caveat, I’ve included this book as I’m a contributing author. I wrote about the pedagogy of MOOC design through the lens of Khan’s e-Learning framework  in chapter 3: “Pedagogy and MOOCs: A Practical Application of Khan’s E-Learning Framework”.

4. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2006), Carol Dweck
Carol Dweck, Stanford professor introduced the concept of growth mindset in her book “Mindset: The New Psycholgoy of Success”.  Though written in 2006, the concept is trending among educators evidenced in Twitter discussions via hashtag #growthmindset, numerous articles, and Web searches as Google’s trend chart reveals (peaking in September 2015). Dweck suggests that intelligence is not fixed or predetermined, but can develop and change over time with external influences. Dweck provides advice for parents and teachers to foster a growth mindset in children that doesn’t include methods such as overt praising of intelligence and accomplishments. I’m intrigued to learn more given our culture that’s focused on praise and recognition.

5. The Master Algorithm: How the Quest for the Ultimate Learning Machine Will Remake Our World (2015), Pedro Domingos
“All knowledge – past, present and future – can be derived from data by a single, universal learning algorithm” — Pedro Domingos.

“The Master Algorithm” was a bestseller in the ‘information theory’ category on Amazon, and after reading a review of “The Master Algorithm” in The Guardian I added the book to this year’s list. The book seems far from a dry read; according to The Guardian review, Domingos describes machine learning as a “continent divided into territories of five tribes – where the Master Algorithm is the capital city, standing in the center of the landscape where the lands of the five groups meet” (Gilbey). Wow.

97815946320516. The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere (2015), Kevin Carey
There are a handful of books with this prediction— that college as we know it is coming undone, or ‘unbundled‘—a term that emerged last year to describe how a traditional undergraduate college education is disrupted by options that allow students to compile an education from a variety of sources.  I chose “The End of College” written by education policy researcher and writer Kevin Carey, after reading a handful articles and interviews with Carey.  In an NPR interview Carey describes a future where “the idea of ‘admission’ to college will become an anachronism, because the University of Everywhere will be open to everyone” and “educational resources that have been scarce and expensive for centuries will be abundant and free” (nprED, 2015). This I have to read.

7. The smartest kids in the world: And how they got that way (2014), Amanda Ripley
Compelling . . . What is Poland doing right? And what is America doing wrong? Amanda Ripley, an American journalist, seeks to answer such questions in The Smartest Kids in the World, her fine new book about the schools that are working around the globe ….Ms. Ripley packs a startling amount of insight in this slim book.” (The Economist)

This book was a New York Best Times notable book of the year for 2014, has received numerous accolades from a variety of sources, and has 4.5/5 rating cumulative rating from 540 Amazon reviewers.  I deem it a must-read for anyone interested in education.

I look forward to another year of good company with some great books.  I track my book list and reviews on the Goodreads platform, with a virtual shelf dedicated to books on Education which you can view by clicking here if interested.  Happy New Year to all readers! Thank you for reading Online Learning Insights, providing the incentive for me to continue writing and sharing.

Related Posts

 

 

Need-to-Know News: 8 Cutting-edge Tech Trends, MOOCs in 2016, Engaging Sites Featuring Books-of-the-Year

This ‘Need-to-Know’ blog post series features noteworthy stories that speak of need-to-know developments within higher education and K-12 that have the potential to influence, challenge and/or transform traditional education as we know it.

MOOC-newsIf you are looking for some light reading over the holidays or ideas for some good reads for yourself or others, look no further. I’ve rounded up some articles of interest and a couple of good websites that feature books-of-the year in an interactive and creative format.

1. HBR Tech Review: Eight Trends to Watch
An article in this month’s Harvard Business Review “8 Tech Trends to Watch in 2016” written by CEO and founder of an international digital strategy firm, is not your average trends-to-watch for article. It’s cutting edge stuff. Of the eight tech trends only one, blockchain was somewhat familiar (used by Bitcoin, it’s a complex transaction system that enables buyers and sellers to engage in “trustless” transactions). The article describes up-and-coming technology such as drone lanes, glitches and algorithmic personality detection. Fascinating stuff.

Insight: The education sector isn’t always on the cutting edge of technology, as we’ve seen with MOOCs, e.g. an innovative delivery system delivering education via traditional methods, yet there is potential in some of the technologies mentioned for application to education. For instance algorithmic personality detection might be used for student services such as career planning and academic support, bots as personal tutors, and augmented knowledge also known as digital telepathy which may make us question ‘what is learning’?

2. MOOCs: (Not just) From a European Perspective
The open journal, International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning (IRRODL) features a special issue this November with it’s a collection of papers that explore the MOOC phenomenon from the perspective of the higher education community in Europe. Though the majority of papers focus on the European perspective, a handful address themes universal to the MOOC phenomenon such as open access and course design.

The paper “MOOCs and the claim of education for all: A disillusion by empirical data explores the controversial claim that MOOCs are vehicles that democratize education, which as we know now, hasn’t quite panned out. The excerpt below summarizes the paper:

Despite the hope for more equal access to education through MOOCs, the empirical data show (section 4) that MOOCs potentially reinforce inequality. In this article we will give a theoretical background to explain why MOOCs are mostly used by more highly educated people (section 2) and stimulate a discussion on if and how MOOCs can contribute to equal access to education promoted by Open Educational Resources. (Rohs & Ganz, 2015).

Another, “Dimensions of Openness: Beyond the Course as an Open Format in Online Education” argues that openness in education via MOOCs should not only be viewed as opening access to existing resources and courses for a broader audience, but as the removal of barriers for interaction and exchange (Dalsgarrd & Thestrup, 2015).

Another paper with universal applicability is “Theories and Applications of Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs): The Case for Hybrid Design“. This paper outlines a hybrid design model and discusses appropriate application as well the significant design challenges specific to MOOCs.

Insight: The term MOOCs now covers a breadth of education programs that are not always open, massive or meet the definition of a course (with a start and end date). The articles in this special issue are a good representation of the current themes. Though I go further and suggest that 2016 will be the year of the MOOC reckoning, as alluded to in a recent post on the Ed Techie blog, “2016 – The year of MOOC hard questions”.

3. Nifty Sites featuring Books-of-the-Year
I came across a couple of engaging, interactive sites by NPR, The Guardian and The Globe and Mail featuring best books of 2015 in various categories. These sites go beyond the traditional, static webpage; they invite the user to engage with the content.  We’ll likely be seeing more of this interactive home page format in 2016, as according to Fast Company this is the new look of webpages.

Screen Shot 2015-12-16 at 2.08.47 PM
NPR’s Book Concierge features an interactive site where you can filter by genre, read highlights, and look at NPR’s Best-Book lists for each year starting in 2008

Closing Thoughts
Speaking of books, I’ll be publishing “Seven Must-Read Education Books for 2016” by the end of the year. Stay tuned. Following that I’ll also share my views in a post on the ed tech trends that will affect education in 2016.

Happy Holidays to all and thanks for reading and making Online Learning Insights happen by your continued reading and sharing!

 

 

MOOC Quality Comes Down To This: Effective Course Design

“Design brings forth what would not come naturally”
                                —Klaus Krippendorff, Professor of Cybernetics, Language,and Culture

designThere’s little data to go on to determine the quality of learning outcomes in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Traditional education measures the quality of learning with a variety of assessment methods against a set of established criteria or objectives. But MOOCs don’t fit into the traditional education mold and given it’s usually unclear what the intended outcomes are for MOOCs, assessment is challenging (Gaebel, 2013). If the objective is to deliver quality learning there’s little to go on except for low completion rates and even smaller percentages of student rankings of their perceptions of learning (via end-of-MOOC surveys). A recent study attempts to address MOOC quality by assessing instructional quality of 76 MOOCs—50 xMOOCs offered on dedicated MOOC platforms and 26 cMOOCs or connectivist MOOCs (Margaryan, Bianco & Littlejohn, 2015). My aim in this post is to share results of the study and outline the framework used to evaluate the MOOCs in an effort to highlight how a course design framework is critical to developing quality learning experiences within MOOCs.

Factors Affecting Quality Course Design
Course design is a critical to delivering quality learning through online courses and MOOCs, yet it’s rarely mentioned in literature and articles discussing MOOC and online course outcomes. This study fills a gap. It determined that while most MOOCs were well-packaged, design quality was low. Out of a possible 72 points that each MOOC could score, not one MOOC scored above 28 points (p. 82).  Reasons vary, but I see it as absence of one or a combination of: skill set of course designer(s), time, and/or a structured process that includes a course design framework.

My view is that an online course takes on a persona of the instructor where the course guides and promotes part of the learning process as an instructor would. This thinking requires a different design approach—a different mindset than one used for traditional courses. A well-designed course also provides a learning path that students can follow and influence. A path that includes: quality, varied and curated resources, methods that encourage active learning whether individually or within self-selected groups, places for students to engage and share where they also act as contributors to the course. The latter is key—students should be able to shape the course through application of course concepts using their existing knowledge and experience.

Overview of the Study & “First Principles of Instruction”
The study analyzed quality through the lens of the Merrill+ model, a framework based on the “First Principles of Instruction” framework of David Merill (2002). Merill’s model is remarkably thorough, detailed and thoughtful in its inclusion and application of learning theories and approaches incorporating components of R. Gagné and H. Gardner’s theories as well as models of instructional design. First Principles also aligns closely with Malcolm Knowles’ adult learning theory andragogy, which I’ve discussed in previous posts. There’s significant research in support of Merrill’s theory suggesting it’s a credible, perspective tool to evaluate curriculum design of traditional, online courses and MOOCs (Frick et al. 2007; Margaryan et al., 2015).

Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 11.15.33 AM
Merrill’s’ model is grounded in the practical as shown by figure 1 which describes how his five principles focus on problem-focused learning (Merrill, 2002).

Ten Principles of the Merrill+ Model
Margaryan and Collins added five additional principles to Merill’s First Principles to create Merrill+ Model which builds on Merrill’s philosophy and synthesizes contemporary instructional theories and practices (2014). The 10 principles of Merrill+ Model:

Learning is promoted…

  1. Problem Centered Learning: …when learners are engaged in solving real-world problems
  2. Activation: …when learners activate existing knowledge, experience or a skill set as a foundation for creating new knowledge and/or skills.
  3. Demonstration: …when learners observe a demonstration [that includes learning of new knowledge via a primary resource] of the skill [knowledge] to be learned.
  4. Application: …when learners apply their new knowledge or skill through discussion, written work, or creation of an artifact to solve a problem.
  5. Integration: …when new knowledge is integrated and into the learner’s context
  6. Collective knowledge: …when learners contribute to the collective knowledge of a subject or topic
  7. Collaboration: …when learners collaborate with others to expand knowledge of individuals and a community of practice
  8. Differentiation: …when learners are provided with different avenues of learning, according to their need, e.g. scaffolding
  9. Authentic resources: …when quality learning resources are curated from and applicable to real world problems
  10. Feedback: …when learners are given expert feedback on their performance

Closing Thoughts
There are other course design frameworks that can be used as alternatives to the Merrill+ Model, Khan’s e-Learning Framework (I’ll be writing about Khan’s Framework next month) and the Dick and Carey model for instance. Some institutions develop their own course design model as Purdue University did with its IMPACT model. The key to MOOC quality is selecting, then following a framework grounded in learning theory that supports an effective course design process that delivers quality learning experiences.

References

  • Frick, T., Chadha, R., Watson, C., Wang, Y., & Green, P. (2007). Theory-based course evaluation: Nine Scales for measuring teaching and learning quality. Retrieved from  http://www.indiana.edu/~tedfrick/TALQ.pdf
  • Gaeleb, D. (2013). MOOCs: Massive open online courses. (Tech.). European University Association. Retrieved from http://www.eua.be/Libraries/publication/EUA_Occasional_papers_MOOCs
  • Margaryan, A., Bianco, M., & Littlejohn, A. (2014). Instructional quality of massive open online courses (MOOCs). Computers & Education. 80. 77–83. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2014.08.005
  • Merrill, D. M. (2002). First principles of instruction. Educational Technology Research and Development, 50(3), 43-59. doi:10.1057/9781137394644.0012

What is the Optimal Size for Online Groups within MOOCs?

Is there an optimal size for groups working within a MOOC?

Multiethnic Group of Business People with Speech BubblesI received this question from a reader of this blog about optimal group size for individuals who meet online and are collaborating on a project or participating in a study group as in a MOOC. I share here our discussion via email, and resources specific to online groups that readers may find helpful.

Reader’s Question:
“I was wondering whether or not there is an optimal size for online collaborative groups. I’m referring to collections of individuals who “know” and “meet” each other only via web interactions but who interact with each other (one on one and one on many) to accomplish a goal? Do you have an instinct as to whether there is an optimal size for a student collaborative study group in a MOOC and, if so, is it 5, 15, or even more?  Anything very large would more resemble a bulletin board for postings and replies.”

My Response:
This is an interesting area of study. I’ve done a fair bit of research in this area along with practical application and my observations are consistent with the research which finds that online collaboration in an academic context where a group project is part of a grade for a fully online course, requires involvement and guidance of a moderator (instructor) for best results. Not to say that students’ won’t participate without an instructor’s guidance but that participation by group members is higher with an instructor’s influence (Peck, 2003). Also optimal size for this type of group collaboration—online in a course where students do not interact outside of the the online context, is three to five. This is consistent with my experience where I’ve seen best results when groups are this size. Five is almost too big in an online context: it’s more challenging to coordinate and a group member that is by nature lazier, will find it easier to shirk responsibility in a group of five. In smaller groups there is more responsibility and pressure for each group member to perform. I’ve found the ideal size to be three or four.

However, in a MOOC context group collaboration whether for an online study group or project varies greatly. There are several factors that influence the group collaboration dynamic and outcomes.

First is motivation of participants which is different from in online, for-credit courses; each [student] is taking the MOOC for different reasons many who are not interested in taking the course for a grade which is the case for smaller, closed online courses for credit.  This alone implies that group work or collaboration must be entirely voluntary and not directed by the instructor.

Second is the structure of the MOOC. Due to the massive number of participants, it is technically impossible for an instructor to be involved in the group formation and moderation for a formal group assignment, from a manpower perspective, and from a technical perspective in terms of providing the ‘space’ for groups to form and interact.

However there are instances where informal online study groups can happen as well as smaller discussions, that can be guided by course facilitators. Below are some instances where this can work:

  • Participants can be encouraged to form their own groups; which I’ve seen participants do where they reach out to others in the general discussion forum and form their own groups on Facebook or other platform. I’ve seen this happen in MOOCs on several occasions. Groups may be formed by interest in a specific aspect of the topic, or by geography.  Groups are then run independently of the course with no involvement from the course leaders
  • I’ve also seen success with breaking discussion groups into smaller groups which allows for more manageable and intimate conversations. For a specific discussion question related to a given topic (module), three or four discussion forums are created and participants asked to contribute based on the first letter of their last name, e.g. for last names beginning in A to G, respond here,  from H to M respond here, etc. This can be very effective as it overcomes the challenge of the cumbersome discussion boards with massive numbers of participants, granted the numbers can still be large.

Formats for what’s described above can be the discussion forum within the LMS, or there are also digital bulletin boards that can be used, which I’ve seen used for smaller groups with tools such as Padlet (though I’ve not seen Padlet used for groups over 30, so not sure of the technical implications).  I like Padlet because users do not need to sign up and create an account, once a board is created (by course facilitator) it can be open for anyone to contribute to who has the link. There are other applications, but many require creating an account and updated versions of Java etc. which some students may not have.

Some MOOC platforms and structures are based on the small group concept and require participation, Stanford’s open courses I believe work on this concept of ‘mandatory’ participation by students who sign up. I believe the groups are fairly large, up to fifteen or twenty. I have not taken a course on this platform, but have heard from practitioners in my network who have.

Hope that helps.  Below are a few resources you may find helpful.

Resources