Designing spaces for commitment in Massive Open Online Courses thoughts on identifying a potential and finding a way to realise it (milestone #4)

Vision and values

Our vision: To make MOOCs a place you can commit yourself to

Completion rates are often highlighted as the problem of MOOCs. Too many people drop out, and for that reason the courses must – when bringing matters to a head - either be radically re-thought or definitely discarded.

When we two months ago enrolled into the MOOC “Blended Learning Essentials: Getting started” on FutureLearn, our expectations to the course and design ambitions were highly colored by the “completion rate”-discourse. We kept discussing how we can improve the completion rate? However, as we progressed with simultaneously cayrring out:

ethnographically inspired online study within the MOOC,
readings on state of the art research on MOOCs and online learning and
discussing the relation between our own experience and the readings.

We came to realize that the completion rate is not the “disease” itself, but rather symptom. Something more fundamental is lacking; the sense of a community, where you know someone banks on your participation, and where you want to further purpose of the course yourself. For that reason, our final design vision is to:

Enhance the sense of commitment among participants in MOOCs.

We’ve been discussing several concept in order to grasp what we’ve identified as missing. Among others have been ‘interaction’, ‘dialogue’, ‘community’, ‘affinity’ and ‘intimacy’. Our reason for picking commitment as the key concept is because, when we asked ourselves, what was the one factor that made us continue following the MOOC for five weeks, even though we several times felt like dropping out, we answered: We are committed to this, because we are doing it together as group. You simply don’t bail on people who counts on you.

In its simplest form, our aim is to enhance the feeling of commitment and belonging as they are at the core of learning as a collaborative enterprise in MOOCs. This also points in the direction of our learning theoreitical stand point, namely that of situated learning.We believe learning is conditioned by participation, and that technology can support this, if designed and used properly. As Hoadley (2012) notes:

"Community of practice” is not the name of a particular software genre (p. 298).

The point that we have made on behalf of our empirical investigations, is supported by the most recent research within the field of online education. Pauline (2016) writes:

“A general understanding of group processes indicates that learning collectives develop by stages, choosing and negotiating their interaction practices, commitment to goals, and commitments to others.” (Pauline 2016, p. 134).

And, on belonging to an affinity space in MOOCs, Jones et al. write:

“In sum, once students experienced a connected and intimate course environment where their participation was valued, they felt they belonged to a community.” (2016, p. 110).

Our value: Online is real, too.

This leads to our own design values, which started out reflecting our own pedagogical key issues: Progression, curiosity, creativity and collaboration. We don’t discard those values, however, we’ve found one aspect to be fundamental in relation to designing MOOCs:

Online can be the privileged mode

We remind ourselves of this, because we – and others – intuitively tend to benchmark and compare what happens online in relation to face-to-face interaction. Studies of community of practices were carried out among people doing material hand labour (midwfies, tailors etc.). What happens online always ends up as inferior to “the real thing”. We believe that online education contains potentials that are different, not inferior, to traditional bricks and motar-education. Those potentials have to be nurtured through design. This is what we seek to do, while remind ourselves: "Online is real, too."

"I didn't make any active decisions like "From today, I will stop in this MOOC." It was just like it slipped out of my memory, because I didn't have any obligations in there." (MOOC participant)

Where do we go from here?

We have our empirical data and theoretical readings. Our task is now to synthesize this into a meaningful design proposal that will enhance the sense of commitment. We will do this through a process that consists of the following steps:

  1. Formulating "the well" as design idea
  2. Iteration 1: Conduct Future Workshop 1 brainstorm with ourselves as participants, where we challenge the idea of the well on behalf of a critique and fantasy phase (30th April)
  3. Develop two prototypes that that are manifestations of 'the well' as design idea (1st May)
  4. Iteration 2: Conduct Future Workshop 2 with other ITDD group as participants, where we focus on the implementation phase of the two prototypes. What will happen in practice? (3rd May)
  5. Arrive at one single prototype and unfold the process as a coherent design argument with attention to how empirical data, educational theory and design methods have guided our design process and final product (7-8 May).
  6. Make cognitive walkthrough together with bypassers at Internet Week Denmark (11-12 May)

At several points - especially those regarding involving participants - give rise to criticism. How can you say that you involve participants, when you keep using your self as guinea pigs. This is not because we don't want to talk to MOOC'ers, but because they are impossible to get in touch with. Why we do as we do, we will explain in the following.

How to involve participants who scarcely participated?

The fact that there’s a lack of commitment among participants in MOOCs became evident for us affectively throughout the five week’s run of the course. We became gradually de-motivated, and in fact some of us have yet to complete the MOOC. We believe that there’s a mood in the MOOC that is contagious: You simply, more or less reflected, feel that others don’t participate. In the last week it felt like a haunted, abandoned castle. This feeling we can back up with hard evidence, as the graph below shows the gradual decrease in comments on the activities.

In the first week, about 500 of the 6000 enrollees were active. In the last week, it was about 50.

But the lack of commitment has turned out to be critical in other ways than "just" for the MOOC it self. It has also turned out to influence our design method in unexpected ways. As written earlier, we’ve opted for a human-centred design approach, which means we have immersed ourselves in the context we’re designing for, in order to ensure the design is meaningful for those who will engage with it. For the same reasons, we intended to conduct two online facilitated workshops with selected participants from the MOOC inspired by the future workshop method.

However, after sending about 100 personal invites to participate in a workshop, no one has gotten back. Afterwards we tried with a short survey, just to see if any would respond to this. 8 answered our questions, 7 of them were people who finished the course. In other words, the very few people who did give a sign of life would not be representative for the participants of the MOOC, because we would like to also talk to those, who didn't commit themselves.

This poses a methodological challenge:

How can we give voice to participants who remain silent?

Re-considering what a participant is within a Future Workshop

For that reason, we’ve been obliged to rethink one of the basic principles of the future workshop, namely that you include the participants and make sure that everyone gets their voice heard. One of the elements in the first phase of human-centred design, is that you "borrow" ethnographic methods such as participant-observations, and thereby get to feel what it is like to be the human, you've centrered yourself. This is also what we've done, and therefore we argue that - in lack of other participants - we can use ourselves as such in our workshop. Because we know what it is like to a part of the MOOC which we are designing for. We all actively participated in the MOOC equally with those, we otherwise invited for the workshop.

We’ve chosen to do two iterations of the future workshop. In the first one, one of us will be the facilitator, the three others will act as MOOC participants (and not take on their design hat).

The workshop will consist of three phases:

  • The preparation phase
  • The critique phase
  • The fantasy phase.

The one who facilitates the future workshop will prepare the workshop with attention to the possibilities and limitation of online meetings (make use of Hangout, Padlet etc.). The facilitator will draw on concrete workshop techniques from the Participatory Pattern Workshop’s support toolkit (Mor 2012: 166). E.g. ”draw and tell” and ”three hats”:

As we regularly have discussed our empirical data and readings in the group, this workshop is intended to be a ”design culmination” of our work so far. The workshop will end up with two-three concrete design ideas or solutions, to the patterns and narratives which has been discussed in the critique and fantasy phase.

Those concrete ideas will be the point of departure for the second future workshop, where we invite the participants from the other ITTD MOOC group. We will ask them to critique our prototypes from the perspective of being a participant in a MOOC.

On behalf of this, we will end up with one prototype which we will try to make as “living” as possible, so that we can bring it with us to Internet Week Denmark, and make séances of cognitive walkthroughs together with by passers.

'The Well' as preliminary design idea and its first iteration

The well is a metaphor for our work-in-progress design idea, which eventually will be introduced for participants through the workshops, which we will discuss in the next session. In earlier times, it was common for people to meet around the well when they went for gathering water. Several stories within the bible takes place around the bible. Around the well, they had a break, a cup of water and chat with others from around the town or area. As such, the well was a technology that caused casual but nonetheless often determining conversations.

When designing for commitment within MOOCs we want to re-introduce aspects of the well: A unformalized space that you come by because you need something crucial - e.g. watching a lecture video -, but you will eventually get into conversation with someone. It’s a hang around space for MOOCs. When we call ‘the well’ a design ideas, is it because it is not yet manifested as a prototype.

Iteration: Introducing the water cooler design pattern

Through a work shop in design patterns, we re-iterated our well idea into a design pattern, and renamed it "the water cooler", which denotes a reference to the role of the water cooler within organizations a a place where people meet for informal interaction. This as also been scrutinized within organizational studies.

Have a look at the design pattern here:

We belive that the ehancement of commitment to MOOCs can be undertaken through design interventions such as the water cooler.

To move from idea to prototypes

In order to determine the role of prototypes in our design process, we have to define, what we mean by it. Our immediate impression of the concept is that it is the product in a not yet finished state. However, this common sense definition doesn’t leave us with an explanation of its role in the further process or how to produce a prototype. With inspiration from Y.K. Lim et al. (2008) we understand prototypes as a simultaneous manifestation and externalisation of design ideas. Giving birth to and materialize an idea that is apparently coherent for us as designers isn’t a straight forward process, because

externalisation of thought gives rise to new perceptual and cognitive operations that allow for reflection, critique, and iteration. (7:9).

A manifestation is not an identicial representation of our thoughts, but in itself a transformation it as such. We expect ‘the well’ to change shape through our workshops to such an extend that it probably won’t resemble any of what we have described above. This is not something we will try to advoid, but to embrace.

With attention to interaction in MOOCs, an obvious place to start is the spaces of the interface that are inherent on the platform. This is primarily the commentary field, wherefore we focus on this and ask ourselves of how can we improve the commentary field.

As point of departure for developing the space for interaction in MOOCs, we are inspired by Arthur Koestlers concept of bisocation which basically means combining elements from two distinct areas of life and ask, how can they relate to each or be fusioned?

M1 is the one variable and M2 the other. Often we tend to tend rigidly within M1, but when we combine it with something different, M2, we may find points of creative potential. This is L. For us, the commentary field above is M1. The Well be point L.

We narrow it in by making the interaction for commitment in MOOCs invariable and other different forms for interface-mediated engagement the other variable, like dating apps, dicussion fora, video conferencing etc. Can we adopt elements from, Tinder dating app, Adobe Connect or Chat Roulette? The Future Workshops will help us answer those questions and assess what effects it will produce. Will it be too complicated or time consuming? Will it interfere too much with what we do on other platforms? Will it be too inflexible?

Future scenario

... is still work in progress, and will be adjusted in relation to our workshops and our latest work on storyboards, which currently consists of two narratives on what the design experience look like from the perspective of our persona once she has completed the MOOC with our interventions (the big picture) and a zoomed in story on her first hand experience with it.

The big picture

Our persona Anaba joined the MOOC about Blended Learning on FutureLearn four months ago. She stopped visiting the website after three weeks, but nonetheless she considers it a success. She particularly remembers the affectively intense situation, in which she joined a FishBowl session which other participants watched live. Afterwards a couple of participants wrote to her that they learned a lot from her sharing her experiences. The crowd bonding activity put her in a group where none of the other participants showed up, and it made her demotivated. However, through the water cooler she got to know Frank from U.K. with whom she regularly speaks to after the MOOC, because they have a common interest in integration politics.

The zoomed in picture

Confused? This drawing depicts the journey we've been travelling so far, and how we plan to continue on from here.

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