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.

Need-to-Know News: The Making of a MOOC, College Scorecard and Syllabus Builder Tool

In this ‘Need-to-Know’ blog post series I aim to share noteworthy stories with readers that speak of developments within higher education and K-12 that have potential to influence, challenge and/or transform the traditional model of education.

MP900405500Much interesting news this week in the world of education including two enlightening reports on the making of a MOOC, first, a comprehensive report on a course offered through Coursera, by Duke University, and the other from a professor describing the experience in making the first MOOC for the University of Amsterdam. Another development, the launch of the new College Scorecard from the U.S. Department of Education which is creating much buzz in education communities within the United States. I also include a dynamic tool readers might find helpful, the Syllabus Builder, developed by an instructional designer at Utah State University.

1) The Making of a MOOC
MOOCs are new, they are big, and [potentially] chaotic. The behind-the-scenes work that needs to be done before a MOOC goes ‘live’ includes hundreds of hours of planning and development, technical expertise and… what else?  What is required when developing a xMOOC for thousands, a course that is loosely based on a face-to-face course offered through Coursera or similar platform? We now have something to go on. Duke University published a comprehensive report on the development strategy for the recently completed course Bioelectricity: A Quantatative Approach, and it includes insightful data on student participation patterns, demographics and completion rates. Highlights: development time included over 600 hours [completed in 3 months], of 11,000 students enrolled 72% had a Bachelor’s degree or higher, 313 students earned a certificate, and students created numerous study groups and connections through a variety of social platforms. One caveat, the student data reported, though telling, is based upon a very small sample size.

uvalogoThe second report comes from the University of Amsterdam, the week before the planned start date of its first MOOC, Introduction to Communication Science. One of the creators of the course Arie K. den Boon, shares his experience in a guest blog post on GlobalHigherEd.  den Boon is frank about the experience, initially thinking that creating a MOOC could not be ‘that difficult’, yet he goes on to say, “making a MOOC is like moving a mountain” (den Boon, 2013). After more than eight months of development time, a team that went from two to more than ten, and the search for a platform, the course will open February 20, 2013. The university is looking to join Coursera, but in the meantime is using Sakai as a platform. Registration is open, click here for details.

More News:

2) The College Scorecard from the U.S. Department of Education
The College Scorecard was launched this past Wednesday, and is part of the College Transparency and Affordability Center. First impressions—I think the tool has great potential for students and parents; it provides a snapshot of a college’s cost, graduation rate, loan default rate of graduated students, median borrowing, and soon will include employment data. The website is user-friendly, and visually appealing, making it effective for the user to find and focus on key information.

Screen Shot 2013-02-14 at 10.09.42 PM
Image showing two of the indicators on the Scorecard. This example is for Northwestern University in Illinois

There are numerous criticisms of the tool. One significant one, the number of years used to calculate graduation rate is six years, not four. This has raised many concerns and questions. Is this the ‘new normal’, students requiring six years of study for a four-year degree?  Another criticism coming from a vice president of enrollment at a college in Illinois, “The criteria the scorecards rank colleges on, it dismisses some of the reasons students go to college in the first place, some of the reasons we exist.” I see where this educator is coming from, higher education is not just about getting a job, however as a parent of three, with education costing thousands of dollars this data is valuable and necessary for parents. The employment data will be another useful indicator when that becomes available, though there is already discussion about the validity of the data that will be used for this benchmark.

More News:

3) The Syllabus Builder Tool, Utah State University
This is a user-friendly and helpful for tool for any course instructor wanting to create an accessible and standardized syllabus for an online course. It’s created as an open-source tool by George Joeckel from Utah State University through the Center for Innovative Design & Instruction. What I particularly like about this tool is feature that allows the user to select action verbs when creating objectives for courses, as per Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy.  This free tool is available through a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.

This four-minute video provides a concise overview of how to use the tool, as well as the link to access the document.

More News:

That is it for this week. Wishing everyone a great weekend.

Can We Transform Education with Sal Khan’s One World Schoolhouse?

As our world grows smaller and the people in it more inextricably connected, the world itself comes to resemble one vast, inclusive schoolhouse”  Sal Khan.

globe_mouseI am a big fan of Khan Academy. I turned my youngest two teenagers onto Khan’s videos when they were struggling with their Calculus homework, which they shared with their friends, then their classmates and finally their teachers. That is when I knew Khan Academy was going to be big—when an online platform that I thought was useful and ‘cool’, was good enough to be endorsed by my kids.

Which is why I read the book The One World School House: Education Reimagined written by the founder himself, Sal Khan. Khan shares how Khan Academy came to be by tutoring his niece, and how he eventually quit his job as hedge fund analyst to launch Khan Academy and filmed hundreds of videos in his closet. What comes through the pages is the passion Khan has for education, his drive to transform, and provide “a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere” (Khan, p 4).  In this post I’ll provide a brief overview of the book, but I focus on Khan’s vision for classrooms of the future, for an education system that is almost a utopian one, featuring the ‘ideal’ where students learn and grow at their own pace, at no cost, anywhere in the world.

I’ll outline Khan’s vision for K-12 and higher education, which is based on the Khan Academy philosophy, and I’ll examine why it is a worthwhile to consider his vision, even if unrealistic. A utopian view, which assumes that digital technology [in this case the Internet], can provide a near perfect, or ideal education scenario for K-12 and college students, happens to be this week’s topic in, e-Learning and Digital Cultures, at Coursera’s #edcmooc. In the course we are examining technology and its impact on cultures, societies and communities, and specifically what education looks like from a utopian (creating highly desirable social, educational, or cultural effects) and dystopian (creating extremely negative effects for society, education or culture) viewpoint. Khan does present a utopian vision which has come under criticism, (Coulson, 2012), (Wan, 2012), and though I agree that Khan’s strategy is far-fetched, there is value in considering what ‘perfect’ conditions look like in a classroom.

Screen Shot 2013-02-09 at 4.23.40 PMSnapshot of the One World Schoolhouse
Before I analyze Khan’s vision of the one world schoolhouse, I’ll review Khan’s journey to the Academy. What Sal Khan is promoting is more than a library of videos, which at this point holds 3,900 lessons on subjects of math, science, economics, computer science and the humanities; Sal is promoting a pedagogy where  the learner is self-directed, in the center of the learning paradigm, and teachers, act as mentors and guides rather than directors of learning (p 242).  Sal also believes that students can be inherently motivated when the conditions of learning are right, where they can work at their own pace, experience success and are not grouped by ability or age.

Classrooms of the Future: Utopia?
One cannot help but get caught up in the enthusiasm of Khan’s vision of education. Students of all ages combined in class, spending only one or two hours on lessons, and spending the rest of the school day with hands-on learning and projects. Standardized tests would be few, and transcripts a thing of the past.

In Khan’s vision of a K-12 classroom, learning is active. Students progress at their own pace, only moving ahead when they have mastered the concepts. In this model, older students assume more responsibility, mentor and help younger students. This idea has considerable merits, as teaching others a concept helps to reinforce one’s own learning. It removes the focus from self to others, in this case older to younger students, which can foster leadership and confidence.

The classes are large, with 100 students, yet there are five teachers that mentor and support, guide and provide feedback to small groups of students. Other characteristics of Khan’s classroom:

  • No transcripts, or letter grades but instead “two things: a running, multi-year narrative not only of what a student has learned by how she learned it, and a portfolio of a student’s work” (p 137).
  • At any given time in the school day: 1/5 of students doing computer-based lessons, 1/5 of students playing games that reinforce concepts, 1/5 students building robots, or constructing structures with Lego, (making something), 1/5 art or creative writing, and 1/5 on music.

Vision for Higher Education
Khan’s vision of higher education is grounded not in grades and transcripts, but in work experience, hands-on experience with lengthy internships of five or six months where students work in meaningful positions where skills are learned and applied alongside experts in the field. These are not summer, make-work projects, but paid positions. Between internships, students don’t attend lectures but study, learn, and collaborate, yet take rigorous assessments to show that they can go deep in certain academic areas (p 152).

“End”, by mrjoro, on Flickr.

Utopia and Dystopia Explored in Education
Are these utopian vision of education? Impossible ideals, where technology is not the focus, but the vehicle for bringing education to everyone, yet still with face-to-face interaction? I refer to utopia here in the context of perfect K-12 and higher education systems, in contrast to dystopia, which some would say is where education systems in the US are heading. Clay Shirky, a writer and journalist who writes frequently about the effects of the Internet on society and culture, calls the current higher education system “broken, expensive, (he calls it a ‘cost disease’), elitist and ineffective in developing an intellectual community” (Shirky, 2012), which does lean towards a dystopian view. Dystopia, according to the definition provided Hand & Sandywell’s paper, is one that includes anti-democratic properties, is corrupt, and would be controlled for purposes other than providing a sound and comprehensive education for students (Hand & Sandywell, 2002). However, it is the concept of utopia that might be exactly what we need when aiming to transform education—what could it be? How can technology enhance education for all? What if there were no constraints, how would we create a new system with the technology we have?

Why we Need a Utopian View
Which is why I support the vision—the ideal, such as the one that Khan proposes, because we need creative solutions and thinkers to construct new models for education–visions that inspire and make us think differently. It is the bold thinkers; the ones with seemingly crazy ideas, that most say will never work, that do create change and provide solutions. I think of William Murdoch and his prototype for a locomotive steam engine in 1784, and the Wright brothers with their flying machines. These visionaries had utopian-like views of people moving around the country in matter of hours rather than weeks or months. Crazy ideas? At the time yes.

Closing Thoughts
While Khan’s views may be considered impossible, radical, or completely unrealistic, I believe we need these visionaries. Though realistically we know utopia is a fictitious concept we create, but it helps build a new and fresh perspective on problems that need solving. It is visionaries like Khan that can help get us there. I’ll leave you with two other visions, the first an advertisement on YouTube video, created by Corning, A Day Made of Glass. This is a must see for the ‘vision’ of education (5 minute video below).

The second is an open, online class called Designing a New Learning Environment, led last year by Stanford professor, Dr. Paul Kim is Chief Technology Officer and Assistant Dean for Stanford University School of Education, “The ultimate goal of this project-based course is to promote systematic design thinking that will cause a paradigm shift in the learning environments of today and tomorrow.”  Click here to go to the web page and view the completed [and inspiring] video projects created by participants.

View Corning’s video for a glimpse of the Future of Education


  • Hand, M. and B. Sandywell. 2002. E-topia as cosmopolis or citadel: On the democratizing and de-democratizing logics of the Internet, or, toward a critique of the new technological fetishism. Theory, Culture & Society 19, no. 1-2: 197-225. (p.205-6)
  • Designing a New Learning Environment 2012, Open, Online Course, Stanford University, Dr. Kim
  • Napster, Udacity, and the Academy, (2012),  Blog post: Clay Shirky

The MOOC Honeymoon is Over: Three Takeaways from the Coursera Calamity

New year 2013The honeymoon with MOOCs is over. The reality check has finally arrived which was inevitable. MOOCs will not solve all the woes of higher education. It is unfortunate it had to be a class on how to design an online course; it was the Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application [FOE] offered through Coursera that brought things to a screeching halt. But this experience can provide an opportunity for institutions to re-focus—identify the role and purpose of MOOCs and move forward with a thoughtful, purposeful strategy.

In my last post I discussed the MOOC disaster with Fundamentals of Online Education, which generated a rich dialogue on the purpose and role of MOOCs. The course was suspended on the third day due to the confusion around group work which created a significant technical glitch. In this post I’ll share three takeaways from this experience; principles that higher education institutions and educators might want to consider when offering MOOCs or online learning courses of a smaller-scale. I’m using the challenges within the FOE course to illustrate the struggles within higher education institutions as technology and economics are disrupting the model of traditional higher education and MOOCs are viewed as a panacea.

It was not technical issues that derailed this course (which was a symptom) it was the underlying philosophy that many institutions still holdthat a MOOC is similar to, or the same as a course in a traditional face-to-face classroom. And it can be successful using the same structure, same content and similar instructional methods. MOOC courses offered through Coursera and similar platforms often appear modified to ‘fit’ into a course experience on the Web, albeit with thousands of students.

The Three Takeaways
Below I’ve outlined the key takeaways from the FOE experienceMany ideas presented here are based upon the concepts and principles of Stephen Downes, George Siemens and Dave Cormier, founders of the original MOOC concept.

1) The instructional model is shifting to be student-centric, away from an institution or instructor-focused model.
In a massive, open and online course with thousands of students, the instructor must relinquish control of the student learning process. The instructor-focused model is counter intuitive to the idea of a MOOC; in the MOOC model the student directs and drives his or her learning. The pedagogy used for traditional courses is not applicable to a course on a massive scale. With the Web as the classroom platform, students learn by making connections with various ‘nodes’ of content [not all provided by the instructor] on the Web, they aggregate content, and create knowledge that is assessed not by the instructor, but by peers or self. This pedagogy builds upon the constructivist theory and more recently a theory developed by Downes and Siemens—the connectivist learning model.

This new paradigm highlights an existing tension where the control is moving away from the instructor. Below are two comments from readers that were part of the dialogue from the previous post:

“Her [referring to another educator] critique was that an individual[s] with years of experience and knowledge was reduced to a moderator and facilitator. I tend to think it is more of moving the instructor into a coach, guide and mentor role pointing the way. So I guess that argument between control and openness is at the heart of many of these tensions”. Felicia M. Sullivan

“Other than that I have always had the impression that some teachers want so much certain “desirable” features that they try to force what otherwise is spontaneous and diverse in nature, like class participation, group formation, …. That can’t be done. All we can do as teachers is encourage and motivate but if we force that will be counterproductive”. Leonel Morales

2)  Sound instructional design is the key to supporting self-directed learning experiences.
Online courses that adhere to a sound instructional design plan allow students to navigate the course as self-directed learners: access content from a variety of sources, connect with like-minded individuals, and create a learning experience and environment that fits with their objectives. The technology should be not be the focus, but should facilitate the learning. I often have stated that when one has created a sound instructional design plan, the technology becomes invisible.

Creating a solid instructional design strategy for an online course requires considerable work and planning upfront. Stephen Downes posted a presentation on his site called Facilitating a Massive Open Online Course (2012). His Slideshare gives an overview of the planning required to facilitate a MOOC, and highlights the unique strategy required when offering a course onlineit does not mimic the traditional classroom experience.

Dick, Carey and Carey Instructional Design Model
Dick, Carey and Carey Instructional Design Model: A model I use for designing online courses

My experience with developing online undergraduate courses is somewhat similar to Downes, but from a different perspective. I usually begin with an existing college course and work with faculty and course instructors to transition their face-to-face courses to the online environment. The instructional design and approach is radically different from what is used for face-to-face, and I use a formal model to guide the process, the Dick, Carey and Carey instructional design model which is systematic approach to developing a course. This model is based upon Robert Gagné‘s nine events of instruction, all which work towards supporting conditions for learning. This model has several phases, and one that is most relevant and necessary is the analysis of the learners (#3). It is in this step that the learning context is considered, where and how the learners will learn the skills and/or knowledge, which in this instance is on the Web. The characteristics of the learner are considered as well, which in the context of MOOCs is necessary given the diversity of learners (Dick, Carey and Carey, 2009).  

Young woman pointing with pen to laptop in library3) Prepare students for the Learning Experience.
Another theme emerged within the discussions around the FOE course, how much responsibility should the learner assume in a MOOC? Does the responsibility not fall upon the student for the success of a course? These questions were posted, and my answer is yes…however, there is an onus on the course facilitators and designers to prepare students for learning by providing some sort of orientation. The instructors need to support conditions for learning, which prepares students to learn on their own, create their own experiences, knowledge, and potentially a personalized learning community.

Preparing students includes orienting the student to the technical tools that will be used in the course, guiding them to the applications (a blog platform for instance), and providing instruction for the tools to be used as needed. This is most important for students that might be new to technical applications. What I appreciate about Downes, Siemens and Cormier is the thorough preparation and guidance offered to students at the beginning of a MOOC they facilitated, Instructions were detailed within the course home pages on How This Course Works. In addition, helpful instructional videos What is a MOOC, and Success in a MOOC, were available (Cormier, 2011). In the online program I worked with at a four-year university, we created a comprehensive orientation for all courses, that included a set of activities culminating with a quiz that reinforced technical details. This program has proved to be quite successful in reducing significantly, the number of questions by students within the first two-week period of the online course session.

Closing Thoughts
There is much to digest here, yet it is these three principles that are required to support students in massive, open and online courses. Learning has changed, the student is in the center, yet he or she still requires support and guidance upfront through an effective course design that creates a seamless user experience, and through instructors that offer guidance; supporting students in their efforts to become successful and connected lifelong learners.


Further Reading on MOOCs and thoughts about the Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application course:

How NOT to Design a MOOC: The Disaster at Coursera and How to Fix it

I don’t usually like to title a post with negative connotations, but there is no way to put a positive spin on my experience with the MOOC I’m enrolled in through Coursera, Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application. The course so far is a disaster—’a mess’ as numerous students have called it. Ironically, the learning outcome of the course is to create our own online course. To be fair, there are some good points to the course, but there are significant factors contributing to a frustrating course experience for students.

Chaos Ahead Traffic SignGroup Chaos
There are three key factors contributing to this course calamity and all link to the group assignment. The first, a ‘technical glitch’ was big enough to cause one of Google’s servers to crash. Another, causing considerable distress to students is the lack of instructions for the assignments and the group activity—there was no clarity provided on the objective or purpose of the groups. I’ll review here what went wrong, highlight students’ reactions to the problems. Though it’s too late to fix the situation now, I’ve also provided a suggestion to the course instructor, what to do for the next course to prevent a repeat of this scenario. And to help instructors or educators be more effective with their own instruction, with group activities in particular, I’ve outlined strategies and tips for the creation and facilitation of group learning activities.

The course started Monday, January 28, 2013 and problems began on day one when participants were instructed to ‘join a group’.  As of today, Friday, February 1, the purpose of the groups is unclear, many students are still looking for a group, and if they are in one, aren’t sure what they are supposed to be doing.

Screen Shot 2013-01-31 at 3.09.28 PM
One comment from student in a threaded discussion titled ‘This is a mess’ which was started by another student.  So far, there are over 1,000 discussion threads, many with similar sentiments.

How to Prevent Group Work from Going Haywire 
Creating and facilitating group activities in small online classes, (under forty students) can be exceptionally effective in creating meaningful learning experiences, and supportive of the social dimension, which contributes to the building of a positive and effective online learning community.  I’ve written several posts about facilitating group work, which are listed at the end of this post. In short, successful group activities in online courses need:

1) clear and detailed instructions.
2)  a thorough description of the purpose of the assignment, explaining why a group project is required over an individual activity. Highlighting how the student will benefit is a tactic that can contribute to a higher level of motivation.
3)  access to technical tools that effectively support group collaboration, i.e. a dedicated discussion venue for each group (numerous LMS platforms support dedicated group space).

What happens When Group Work Goes Haywire

1) Technical ‘Glitches’: excerpts from the course instructor’s announcements in Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application.

Posted 10:33 am, January 28
Dear Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application Students,
Thank you for taking my class! With so much debate on online courses in general and Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) …. I also hope that you will enjoy this class and that you will have fun.

This course will be collaborative in nature. So the first thing I would like you to do is to join a group. You will be able to do this when you access the course site. You will be able to click on the Join A Group link in the left navigation bar. This will take you to a Google Spreadsheet.…..” [The Google server could not handle the traffic – it crashed]

Posted 12:18 PM, January 28
Hi Everyone,
It has been an exciting few hours. The course has just started and some of you have managed to delete entire rows and columns in Join A Group Google spreadsheet…some of you removed people from their groups, crashed the Google server.  To fix this…. [try logging on again] and If you get a “We’re sorry. Our servers are busy. Please wait a bit and try again” message, please wait and try again. This just means there are too many people trying to access the site…. [This still did not work].

Posted  2:24 PM, January 28
I apologize for the technical glitch that did not allow you to view the Week 1 tab. This caused a lot of confusion for a lot of people. Everything is laid out in order in Week 1 tab. Here is a summary of what you need to do for each assignment [Instructions for assignments were ‘missing’].

Posted  2:48 PM, January 30
I was hoping that the Google Spreadsheet would work after a day but it looks like it will not work at all for our purposes. So I have gone to Plan B. I have created a new Group Sign Up forum. To differentiate this from the groups on the Google Spreadsheet, the group names start with Group A and continues. ……[This method did not work, now they are on Plan ‘C’. Students don’t appear to know what group they are in, with hundreds of ‘threads’ for group discussions, it’s quite mess].

Screen Shot 2013-01-31 at 11.30.48 AM
Numerous students appear confused (as the two comments show here). Though in fairness, it is the first week the course; students are trying to assimilate to the environment and determine expectations. This does highlight the need for instructions that are detailed and clear. Some instructors have found using a video or audio clip to explain an assignment helpful for students.

2) Lack of Clear Instructions and Guidelines: Instructions for the group work in this  course are vague. It is not clear what the groups are for, or why one needs to join a group. This was not explained anywhere in the course description or instructional video, only instructions of how to join a group.  All of this further confuses the technical issue, begging the question ‘why are we dong this’?

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A student question about the group work which is representative of many other student comments.

My guess is that the instructor is trying to manage the discussion format by providing a more intimate framework to discuss the questions for the given topic of the week. Below is a suggestion for the course instructor of the Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application. For the next course, I suggest the following strategy for the group work:

[Recommended] Instructions for this Discussion Assignment: There are three discussion questions for this week. They are 1) …   2) … 3) …  To gain a deeper understanding and perspective on the topic, I recommend you participate in a discussion with several of your peers. Given the large group, we suggest students form smaller groups, [suggested maximum is twenty students per group] which will provide a more intimate and meaningful dialogue. You may use a platform of your choice, Google +, Facebook, Skype etc. [From my limited experience as a participant in MOOCs, some students form small groups spontaneously, without prompting].

Alternatively, you may choose not to join a small group in which case you can participate in the class discussion board dedicated to week one questions that is open to all participants. Since the discussion is open to the entire class, it will be impossible to read all of the responses. I suggest you post your response and engage with one or two students during the week by replying to students that respond to your post, and respond to those that engage with your initial post. This method can provide a focused and meaningful way to gain a different perspective on the topics of the week.

Closing Thoughts
Group work can provide meaningful learning, in the right context with the support of a sound instructional strategy. The example here from the class, Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application demonstrates why a sound strategy is needed, and what happens when one is lacking. MOOCs require a unique instructional strategy, one that is different from small online courses. What exactly the strategy to follow is under discussion. It is through the courses, such as this one that institutions can learn what works and does not. I give the instructor credit for trying something new, and investing her time and energy, which I can appreciate.

I will be sticking with this course, though I’m not submitting assignments, but I’ll be using the examples, tools provided and experience to hone my own instructional design skills.

Note: I’m also enrolled in Coursera’s E-learning and Digital Cultures, with University of Edinburgh, which is so far excellent.  What I wrote in this post is exclusive to the course Fundamentals  of Online Education: Planning and ApplicationI also completed Introduction to Sociology, through Coursera last year which was quite good.

Sunday, February 3, 2013, 12:23 PM PST:  Apparently after the notice yesterday of suspending the course, Coursera has decided to re-open the class:
“Dear FOE students,
We were inspired to see the number of people who expressed an interest in seeing the class resume. There were some choices made in the initial design of the class that didn’t work out as well as we’d hoped. We are working to address these issues, and are reopening the discussion forums so that we can get feedback on how the class can be improved when it relaunches.Thank you for your patience as we work to provide you with a great learning experience in the next version.

Saturday, February 2, 2013, 4:17 PM PST:  “We want all students to have the highest quality learning experience. For this reason, we are temporarily suspending the “Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application” course in order to make improvements. We apologize for any inconvenience that this may cause. We will inform you when the course will be reoffered.”

Further Reading on Group Learning Activities in the Online Environment

Follow-up Post: The MOOC Honeymoon is Over: Three Takeaways from the Coursera Calamity, Online Learning Insights

MOOC Development Advice from Instructors that Have-Been-There-Done-That, Online Learning Insights

Need-to-Know News of the Week: The ‘Student Cliff’, Coursera’s Signature Track and More

In this ‘Need-to-Know’ blog post series, I aim to share noteworthy stories with readers that speak of developments within higher education and K-12 that have potential to influence, challenge and/or transform the traditional model of education.

The year has started off with a bang, barely half-way through January, we’ve got three significant developments in higher education that will likely set the tone for 2013. On Tuesday, Coursera presented its money-making proposition, soon after two reports were released with news of declining enrollment numbers, one dubbed the ‘student cliff’, and there was this meeting of numerous education minds to discuss California’s crisis in public higher education.

Coursera’s Verified Certificate,

1) Coursera: Wants to Make Money in 2013
Coursera has been coy about how it plans to make money; co-founders Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng have not shared a business strategy despite the $22 million invested by venture capitalists (Empson, TechCrunch). This changed on Tuesday; the model starts to take shape.  Coursera revealed Signature Track, a program that will offer Verified Certificates to interested students for a fee [between $30 and $100 per course]. The Signature Track program is a novel concept, outlined in detail on Coursera’s Blog. Here’s an excerpt.

Today, we’re excited to announce Signature Track, a new option that will give students in select classes the opportunity to earn a Verified Certificate for completing their Coursera course. Signature Track securely links your coursework to your identity, allowing you to confidently show the world what you’ve achieved on Coursera.

Signature Track offers:

  • Identity Verification. Create a special profile to link your coursework to your real identity using your photo ID and unique typing pattern.
  • Verified Certificates. Earn official recognition from Universities and Coursera for your accomplishment with a verifiable electronic certificate.
  • Sharable Course Records. Share your electronic course records with employers, educational institutions, or anyone else through a unique, secure URL. 

I find the point about ‘sharable records’ most significant. It appears the student will be able to develop a portfolio of the work completed. This appears similar to the idea of competency-based education models.  Not all Courersa’s university partners have signed up for the program, so far only, Georgia Tech, UCSF, Duke University and University of Illinois.

Further Reading: Coursera and Universities to Offer ‘Verified Certificates’ to Extend Credential Options for Students, Marketwire, Paying for Proof, by Paul Fain, Inside Higher Ed and Would You Pay $100 for a Free Online Course, by Bill Oremus, Slate.

2)  The Student Cliff
Move over fiscal cliff, we’ve got another big problem, fewer college bound students, less tuition dollars which leads us to the ‘student cliff’ (Kiley, Inside Higher Ed).  According to the report released Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education, there is a demographic shift, fewer students within the demographic group that have traditionally gone to college is declining. This change “will force states and institutions to rethink how they do business, putting a greater emphasis on recruitment, retention, and serving new segments of the population”. Click here for article which includes a link to the report.

The U.S. Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics released “Projections of Education Statistics Through 2021 on Wednesday which shared different projections, but does tell a similar story. Post secondary enrolments will grow by 15 percent between 2010 and 2021, but this is far lower than the 46 percent increase that occurred between 1996 and 2010.  This will lead to more pressure on institutions in light of the increasing number of options for degree seeking students. More competition, putting pressure on schools to specialize, show value, and focus on strengths.

3) California Higher Ed Needs a Re:Boot:
California is in crisis mode, at least the Cal State higher education public universities are. The problem is money [at least that appears to be the problem], students can’t get classes to graduate, there is less money from public funds, all causing much angst among students, academic leaders and politicians. This week there was a day long event, a panel discussion, Rebooting California Higher Education sponsored by the Twenty Million Minds Foundation. The purpose of the event was “to raise the awareness and discuss key issues regarding the potential for online education to lower the costs for higher education in California.”

Twenty+Million+Minds+FoundationThe problem is complex, which was apparent by the panel discussion at re:boot event. Though consensus was not the goal, there appears to have been much discussion that was unproductive, as values and ideas about the purpose of education differed greatly. Audrey Watters gives a good overview of the event. Other good reading about the event, Re-booting CA Higher Education: My First Thoughts, Michael Feldstein, e-literate, and Re:Booting California Higher Education – Transcript of Darrell Steinberg Introduction, Phil Hill, e-literate. One of the biggest problems with this issue as I see it, is that online education appears to be the quick fix to the cost problem, and seems to be viewed as a compromise. What is the real problem with higher ed in California? Does anyone really know? It doesn’t seem so.

We will no doubt be hearing more about these developments and stories over the next few weeks – stay tuned!