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

Five Essential Skills Instructors Need to Facilitate Online Group Work & Collaboration

five_bayLeaves_istockThis is the second post in a three-part series featuring strategies and skill development for instructors wanting to create, facilitate and encourage collaboration among students working in groups. The strategies discussed in this series are specific to closed, small, online, for-credit courses, though the principles discussed regarding student needs’ and barriers to group work online are universal to almost all formats of online learning experiences.

“Specific strategies are needed to effectively implement online group projects. These included such things as how to help the students get to know one another, form groups, assign grades, explain group functions, use online tools to maximize interaction, and how to deal with non-participation of group members…”  Facilitation of Online Group Projects: Insights from Experienced Faculty Members (2012)

Facilitating group collaboration in an online course is no doubt the most challenging facet of teaching in an online space; the skills required go way beyond teaching and sharing one’s area of expertise. In the last post I wrote about the elements needed to create a foundation for effective group collaboration online—in this post I outline five core skills online instructors need to be effective leaders of group learning assignments.

My aim with this post is to outline for readers the skills instructors need to facilitate online collaboration in small, closed classes, and to provide specifics on how to implement and develop the skill set through examples, instructions and resources. This post delves into the elements of group collaboration and expands on the instructor’s role by fleshing out the core skills—not just as a subject matter expert, but as a leader of learning.

I’ve listed a number of open resources specific to each of the five skills below, and there is one resource that I’ve drawn upon frequently, Best Practices in Online Teaching by Larry Raglan from Penn State World Campus. It’s an open resource on the Connexions platform, and I highly recommend it for instructors wanting to develop their online teaching skills further. Post three of this series will focus on student needs’, their perceptions of online group work, and a list of resources and tools to set students up for success.

“Faculty members perceive group work as an essential tool for students’ future professional lives.Exemplar quote:  “Even though it [group projects] can be painful for students and painful for faculty, I’m absolutely sold on the benefit of it. I think it fosters time management skills …They may find themselves having to collaborate with peers in another facility in town. They may be in another state to present something locally [or] nationally. I just think those skills are absolutely essential in today’s technology, we don’t just communicate via phone or face-to-face….”  (Williams et al., 2012)

Getting Started: The paper I’ve quoted frequently in this series, and which the above quote is drawn from, Facilitation of Online Group Projects: Insights from Experienced Faculty Members provides sound advice for educators starting out with group projects in their online course:

“Our recommendation is that faculty members ask themselves the following questions before undertaking group projects:

  • What is the desired learning objective?
  • Will the groups be assigned or will students choose their group members?
  • How will students get to know each other and develop trust?
  • Will students receive direct experiences/assignments to help them learn group processes, or will they discover those during their projects?
  • How will students be graded?”

The Five Vital Skills for Online Course Instructors

Model_online_courses
Online Learning by giulia.forsythe (cc)

1. Create a Social and Active Learning Community
Effective teamwork in any setting requires a level of trust among team members, which highlights the need for online leaners to get to know one another, to build familiarity. In a virtual learning space, creating activities and a sense of community where students can establish social presence and feel ‘safe’ to be themselves, and be real is up to the course instructor to create, model and encourage (Rourke, L., Anderson, T. Garrison, D. R., & Archer, W., 2001).

“It is always important to remember that in the online environment, we present ourselves in text. Because it is a flat medium, we need to make an extra effort to humanize the environment. In the face-to-face classroom, students have the opportunity to get to know one another as people–before or after class, during classroom discussions, and in other campus locations such as the student lounge. In the online environment, we need to create these opportunities more purposefully” (Palloff & Pratt, 2001, p. 32).

I usually encourage course instructors to create a short welcome video (or audio) clip, no longer than two or three minutes to post at the beginning of the online course that welcomes the students to the class, tells the students about him or herself, both professionally and personally. I find this format sets a positive tone—makes the instructor appear approachable. Dr. Curtis Bonk, professor and champion of online learning says this, “Social actions might include instructor empathy, interpersonal outreach (welcoming statements, invitations, and apologies), discussion of one’s own online experiences and humor” (Bonk et al., 2001, p. 80).

2. Demonstrate Leadership: The online instructor is more than a subject matter expert he or she is a learning leader, a champion of students’ learning. In the online learning space demonstrating leadership takes a variety of forms including:

1. Being a role model for communicating effectively (see examples outlined in resources by Larry Ragan)
2. Showing presence by posting messages on the course site about the class’s progress and participation
3. Giving feedback on participation [or non-participation] to individual students using email, online chat or online calling using Skype
4. Clearly outlining expectations for group collaboration, following-up with students that are not meeting expectations and discussing with group members
5. Posting strategies for effective team work, outlining how groups work effectively in online spaces, and encourage groups to assign a group leader

“Instructor involvement and engagement in online learning is crucial. Online learning requires instructors to take on active roles in facilitating students’ learning. As well as peer support, instructor presence in supporting and guiding students’ learning and engagement are important for enabling active learning” (Vonderwell & Turner, 2005, p.82)

3. [Over] Communicate: I once worked for a boss who gave me the best leadership advice I ever received —”if you think you are over-communicating, you are communicating just about enough“.  I learned early on that consistent, and plentiful communication is central to helping people be successful. In an online environment, communication takes on new meaning given the barriers of text communication as mentioned in the above quote.

It’s helpful to learn to use other modes of communication—for instance how to use audio to give feedback to students, or record a video or audio clip that outlines instructions about an assignment, or how to use synchronous communication tools such as Skype, Google Hangouts or online chat.  The hardest part to using modalities other than text is the initial learning curve associated with a new technology, but the rewards are great. Often it saves time in the long run, and students appreciate the personal touch.

4. Deal with Conflict: When a conflict surfaces, welcome it and view it as a sign that a group is developing(Palloff & Pratt, 2001).  No one likes conflict, most of us avoid it at all costs. But conflict is part of team work, no one is learning if everyone is agreeing, or ‘giving in’ to get the project over with. It’s helpful to share with students resources on how teams work, and emphasize that conflict and disagreement is a by-product of teamwork— it’s not a sign of dysfunction, but a sign of learning and growth.  Below is a summary of excellent strategies shared by online instructors:

  • Outline in the instructions on the course site, steps to resolve team conflict, ie. 1) address the problem early on… 2) contact and discuss with the team leader …. 3) contact the course instructor…
  • Include a regular mechanism for peer evaluation for group projects so students can communicate to you about the group’s functioning (refer to example 2 in ‘Deal with Conflicts Promptly’)
  • If needed, schedule a group meeting where you act as moderator to help the team get back on track. Use Skype or Google hangouts
  • Research suggests that allowing online groups to create their own teams is an effective method for reducing potential for conflict (Borg, 2011), though a cautionary note: this method requires building time into the course schedule to allow for the group formation, ideally a full course week, and usually works best when at least some of the students have been together in previous courses
  • For serious student problems that go beyond these efforts, contact your institution for support

5.  Monitor Student Progress and Provide FeedbackThe course instructor facilitates the process behind the scenes by: reviewing the individual group discussion forums to see who is participating, who is not and following up as needed, posting a feedback message to students on group assignment progress (see screen shot below) and responding to student concerns and questions promptly

Screen Shot 2014-02-17 at 12.09.57 PM
Example of an email to students of an online course that demonstrates instructor feedback provided collectively on a class assignment [‘Providing Support and Feedback’ Larry Ragan]
Include small benchmarks of assignment due dates that lead up to the final assignment submission, for example the outline for the final project might be due date #1, draft of final assignment, due date #2, etc. This strategy builds in opportunities for instructor to provide feedback and support during the group process of the collaboration, sharing and knowledge building.

Further Reading

References