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

Are You Ready to Learn Online? Five Need-to-Have Skills for Online Students

This post outlines five of the most essential skills students need to be successful with online course work, 1) basic computer skills, 2) digital communication, 3) Web search, 4) time management, and 5) collaboration skills, AND includes excellent resources for learning more about each. 

Success ahead sign

1) Computer Skills—The Basics
Why you need it:  At the very least you’ll need basic set of computer skills to function effectively in an online course. You’ll be communicating with the instructor and classmates either through discussion forums, email and video conference or chat platforms. You’ll also be uploading assignments, converting documents to PDF files, navigating within the course site, conducting searches, installing and updating software.

Applications/tools you’ll need: Access to a computer or laptop equipped with a webcam and microphone, an email address, as well as access to a reliable, high-speed internet connection (more so if accessing streamed lecture videos). If access to high-speed internet is a barrier, alternatives to view video content include: viewing in low definition setting, downloading video file to computer for later viewing, or reading lecture transcripts.

Access to word processing software such as Microsoft’s Word or Apple’s Pages. Some courses require use of Excel and/or presentation software such as PowerPoint. You’ll need to be able to convert a document to a PDF file format, and have up-to-date plug-ins, such as Flash, to engage with web content. The main gateway into an online course is through the course management system, also known as the learning management system (LMS)—you’ll need to be familiar with the features of the LMS specific to your course.

Resources:

2) Digital Communication
Why you need it:  As an online student you’ll be communicating and collaborating with your instructors and classmates in a variety of ways, most frequently through writing. Communication is either delayed, (asynchronous) where students post messages on discussion board for instance (similar to Facebook), or in real-time, (synchronous) during a video conferencing session, interactive classroom within the LMS, or a chat session.

What you’ll need to do:  To engage within discussion forums, which is a typical method to interact with your classmates and apply course concepts through dialogue. You’ll need to use netiquette skills when communicating online. Netiquette skills include for example, using full sentences, avoiding sarcasm, and using emoticons. These skills also apply to email communication, where you’ll want to be clear and succinct. Your instructor or institution may provide a list of netiquette skills for your class.

Tip: To make the most of learning with discussion forums, you’ll want to provide thoughtful responses that include deeper insights and/or resources (e.g. links to external content sources) that build on course concepts. Students can add value to online discussions by encouraging fellow classmates to expand on their ideas by posing thoughtful ideas and questions that will challenge classmates (and yourself) to think and reflect further about concepts.

Resources:

globe_mouse3) Web Search
Why you need it:  Knowing how to conduct searches on the Web is a skill set needed in today’s digital culture, yet students learning online need advanced Web search skills that go beyond ‘Googling it’.  We live in an age of information abundance, yet information is not knowledge. You’ll be sourcing relevant information for your studies—finding resources to share within discussion forums, references for papers and projects. Also searching for sources to learn background information within the course subject area you aren’t familiar with.

What you’ll need to do:  Use a variety of search tools to find scholarly articles, search databases, discern credible sources, locate primary and secondary sources.

Resources:  If you are studying with an institution, check with library services for online tutorials in using library databases, search skills, etc. Often local public libraries have instructional resources for conducting scholarly research—all you require is a library card.

4) Time Management
Why you need it:  Life can get in the way of studying online, more so for students taking online courses that have full-time or part-time jobs, are juggling family responsibilities, or already have a full course load at a traditional institution, all of which suggest that time management skills are critical to student success. 

What you’ll need to do: Take charge of your learning from the beginning of the course; allow no time for procrastination to set in. Research suggests that habits of successful online students include consistent and specific times set aside each week for their online studies. Other recommendations:

  • Log on to your course at least three or four times per week. For discussion forum activities, you’ll need to post an initial response to a discussion question early in the week, then log onto the course site throughout the week to read and respond to classmates’ comments and elaborate on your own.
  • Read the syllabus on the first day of the course; print off a hard copy or keep a digital copy on your mobile device to refer to throughout the course.
  • Record all dates for assignments, exams, tests for the entire course in your calendar, and add reminders.

Resources:

5)  Collaboration
Why you need it: You’ll be collaborating with your classmates for group projects and assignments. Numerous online courses require some form of interaction among students, and frequently students question the value of group work, especially in online courses. Yet it is beneficial for students. Working in small teams, in face-to-face and online classwork is a method that promotes application of core concepts, builds knowledge and provides learners with skills that allow them to view problems and situations from different perspectives.

Developing good collaboration skills will be an asset beyond the online classroom. Employers regardless of sector, seek people who are team players, can communicate across digital platforms with co-workers or clients on projects and/or research. Given the global and digital nature of current culture, digital collaboration is a competency considered an essential skill for all.

What you’ll need to do: There are three key aspects to collaborating successfully with other students online: 1) familiarity with the platforms and applications the group will use for communication, 2) effective communication skills, and 3) an understanding of factors that influence positive outcomes for team work in online settings. Below are suggestions for each aspect, with additional resources below.

  1. Determine which applications your group will use to collaborate and communicate— become familiar with how to use each. There may be more than one, e.g. a virtual meeting place specific to your group within the LMS, a real-time meeting platform, such as Google Hangouts or Appear.in.  Groups usually use a collaboration platform to work on the project, such as Google Docs, WeVideo for creating videos, or other sharing platforms. If you are not familiar with a tool or application, seek out tutorial videos to learn it, or ask for help.
  2. Communicate with group members—be present, be involved, be vocal. Don’t be that group member that doesn’t respond to group communication, shows up at the last-minute, or doesn’t pull his of her weight.  
  3. Know the dynamics of team work in an online environment  • Different time zones can pose a challenge but are workable when acknowledged up-front • Set up a schedule with deadlines  • Getting the project started is the most challenging—brainstorming sessions work well to share ideas—synchronously or asynchronously • A team leader is critical to group effectiveness—suggest early that a group member assume the role • Get to know each other as people; being social builds relationships and trust  • If a group member is not contributing, team lead should contact him or her; if non-participation persists, notify instructor asap.

Resources

Other Resources for Online Students: