MOOC - More Options or Catastrophe. Turn on the discussion!

Created by Puffin study group @ ITDD, Aarhus University: Heidi Brønsbjerg, Casper Albertsen, Lis Zacho and Bjarke Lindsø Andersen

Context, process and vision

In January our study group studying IT-didactical design was presented with the assignment for this semester: Participate in a MOOC with the purpose of suggesting a redesign based on your experiences. Our group consists of four members: One who had previously participated in a MOOC, and three who hadn’t. We felt it was an excellent starting point, because it gave us the opportunity to rely on previous experiences while staying open to the immediate experience.

The MOOC we were participating in was in Blended Learning provided by - a private company that has been offering MOOCs since September 2013.

We immediately committed to the MOOC, and looked forward to five weeks of reflected learning. Obviously we stayed open and constructive in our criticism of the platform in order to identify a challenge it would make sense for us to meet.

Even though we joined the MOOC with a special agenda (suggestion a design proposal), and therefore should be particularly committed to complete the course and participate in all the assignments, it soon became clear to us, that this MOOC was not what we expected.

it soon became clear to us, that this MOOC was not what we expected.

We had anticipated and imagined a community of learning, where the MOOCers were provided the opportunity to discuss matters with each other, and where the professional dialogue was paramount. We saw something else.

Early on we saw that the communication between MOOCers was sparse. As our research data shows, there are only a few examples of professional inputs being seized by MOOCers and discussed. Mainly it’s solo-inputs that are either “liked”, or replied to with comments like “I agree”, or the likes of it.

The amount of comments over the course’s five weeks tells us, that the active participation drops significantly. Within the members of our group this also meant that some of us didn’t finish the course despite our honorable intentions.

This was the challenge we decided to rise to: We wanted to suggest a redesign that could support the professional dialogue in order to maintain the attention, and active participation of the MOOCers.

We discussed many different ideas: maybe we could change the current opportunities for participating in networks when MOOCers first join the course on Maybe we could create different chat rooms divided in categories like geography, language or level of education? To specify the problem to ourselves we conducted two workshops trying out two different ways of MOOCing.

Workshop 1 was a remake of the MOOC we had been participating in at The MOOCers took the classes separately, and had to reflect on their own answers and learning.

Workshop 2 had the same assignments as Workshop 1, but this time we forced the MOOCers to take part in a video conference where they could reflect with other learners, and discuss the assignments together.

After the workshops the participants explained that they had the most benefit from Workshop 2. More interesting though, is the fact that in spite of the participants’ general feeling of benefitting the most from workshop 2, they still preferred the ways of workshop 1 if they had to chose between the two ways of MOOCing.

In other words theres is a discrepancy between what MOOCers want, and what they seem to need.

The result of all this was our redesign which we will describe in this blog post. Because MOOCers participate voluntarily, we have designed our suggestion as an opportunity that MOOCers can choose when signing up for a course, that is the opportunity to collaborate with others in an online study group.

In its simplest, our vision is to enhance the opportunities for discussion for those who want to.

Before and after: Video pitch

Below, we present our design in two ways. First in a video that shows a before and after scenario from the perspective of the MOOC participants. Secondly we do a walkthrough with pictures of the concrete design interface changes, which focuses on how the online experience has changed.

A walkthrough of our design

In the following we will walk you through what our final design proposal look like, when our fictive persona, Anaba, is about to join and participate in the same MOOC after it has been re-designed. Along the way we will argue theoretically and empirically for our design proposal.

Joining the course

Picture one (above) reflects the original FutureLearn site as it looks when our persona, Anaba, is about to join the course. Our final design proposal is an intervention in the beginning of the course, because this is where people are the most eager, active and engaged. This both research (Jiang et al. 2014) and our own empirical data tell us (see previous blogposts).

Selecting mode

This is where our first moderation of FutureLearn appears. Once Anaba has clicked join, she is asked to choose her preferred way of engaging. This is our main design intervention. Firstly, our informants and other empirical research in MOOCs describe the initial experience in a MOOC as “overwhelming” and as if one “drowns” (Knox 2014: 168). This causes a feeling of not belonging to anywhere and no way of finding each other in the course. By dividing participants into either “browsers” or “groupers” we increase the opportunity for people to engage with the course in a way that suit their preference to social interaction. This is both informed by our informants, who've said that the extend they would like to engage with others in a MOOC highly depends on the particular course, and that they would like the flexibility to choose themselves. Similar distinctions between different kinds of “MOOCers” are also found in the literature (Koller et al. 2013).

Preferred tool for communication

Anaba now sees a screen, where she has to decide how she wants to communicate. There are many variables and techniques that could be taken into account when dividing people into groups. However, the research shows that a main parameter for learner success is that they’ve chosen whether they want to be in a group or not themselves (Dunn et al. 1990), and that the composition of members is secondary. We’ve chosen to let the regard to kind of social media be the determining variable for group constellations. This is solely because our informants (in workshop, interviews and surveys) have unequivocally expressed that they hesitate each time they’re exposed to a new system they have to learn to use. In addition to that, recent research (Zheng et al. 2016) into the use of social media (more particularly Facebook) in MOOCs shows that the activity in these platforms may well be more than double (in terms of number of comments), compared to the integrated options for engagement on FutureLearn.

We've added a "My group" tab in the interface, so that Anaba can easily find her group page wherever she is in the course.

Entering the group

Anaba choses Facebook, because she’s used to that. Once she’s clicked on Facebook, she enters a group that already has 11 peers with pictures to enlarge the sense of intimacy which, according to our existing research (Paulin & Haythornthwaite 2016), is a key aspect for motivation of students She’s is presented to the EducatorBot, who is the technological extension of Neil and Diana who teaches the course. This bot is entirely based on algorithms. This also means that the group is depended on its members’ initiative and engagement. Another group member (Bjarke) has already started the conversation and created a Facebook group.

Fast forward: What the second week looks like

The first week has passed, and a new task has been given to the group in the shape of a work sheet by the EducatorBot. This is what makes the learning experience of groupers different from browsers. Once Anaba clicks the link “Work sheet week two” a window opens.

A week's tasks for the group

Now, Anaba sees what she and her relatively new MOOC group is supposed to do. The way the task is formulated - dividing Anaba and her peers into groups representing different perspectives - is based on the principles of what it takes to have a meaningful learning discussion, as outlined by Diana Laurillard (2013: 140ff). This is a didactical conversion of an already existing task in the course. In addition to our new interface layout, the text in blue is our re-work is our conversion.

Week two's group disucssion

Anaba looks at the exercise and turns to a new browser tab, where she enters the Facebook group that Bjarke created in the beginning of the course. Here she writes that a new task is up and propose a way to solve it. The rest of the course is played out this way. As a relation between the course content (video, texts which is what the browsers get access to), the group tab, where the EducatorBot distributes exercises and the social platform that the group is managing themselves.

Final remarks on re-design

In our proposal we've been focusing on stratifying the options for participation, and what happens once you opt for a group. To judge from the general participation pattern in our MOOC, we would estimate that about 10% would choose the group option, and the remaining 90% would just browse the ressource as if the MOOC was another webpage with text, images and videos.

For us, the important aspect is what happens when you choose a group. Not how many who do.

Poster: Our design "to go"


Dunn, R., Giannitti, M. C., Murray, J. B., Rossi, I., Geisert, G., & Quinn, P. (1990). Grouping students for instruction: Effects of learning style on achievement and attitudes. The Journal of social psychology, 130(4), 485-494.

Jiang, S., Warschauer, M., Williams, A. E., O’Dowd, D., & Schenke, K. (2014, July). Predicting MOOC performance with week 1 behavior. In Proceedings of the 7th International Conference on Educational Data Mining (pp. 273-275).

Knox, J. (2014). Digital culture clash:“massive” education in the E-learning and Digital Cultures MOOC. Distance Education, 35(2), 164-177.

Koller, D., Ng, A., Do, C., & Chen, Z. (2013). Retention and Intention in Massive Open Online Courses: In Depth (EDUCAUSE Review). Retrieved Jan.

Laurillard, D. (2013). Teaching as a design science: Building pedagogical patterns for learning and technology. Routledge.

Paulin, D., & Haythornthwaite, C. (2016). Crowdsourcing the curriculum: Redefining e-learning practices through peer-generated approaches. The Information Society, 32(2), 130-142.

Zheng, S., Han, K., Rosson, M. B., & Carroll, J. M. (2016, April). The Role of Social Media in MOOCs: How to Use Social Media to Enhance Student Retention. In Proceedings of the Third (2016) ACM Conference on Learning@ Scale (pp. 419-428). ACM.

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