See you in class! Creating student communities in edX

One criticism I have heard of MOOCs is that they lack the social community that one would find in a face-to-face classroom. This sense of community is no doubt an important aspect of residential education. When you’re in a physical classroom full of your fellow students, it makes it easier to exchange ideas, work through tough concepts, and create study groups. Many MOOC platforms seek to recreate this social experience with their learners. In fact, in its introductory demo course, edX suggests that students engage in the social aspects of the  platform to increase their likelihood of finishing a course. Clearly, a sense of community is an important factor for a learner, but is it possible to recreate the community feel of a face-to-face classroom within a MOOC? In my experience, the answer is yes (with some variations).

In the six MOOCs BU has run so far on edX, we have not only seen student collaboration similar to what would occur in a face-to-face classroom, but we have also seen several unique kinds of communities appear within each of the courses. One of my daily tasks here at the DEI is to read the discussion forums, mostly to ensure our students are not having any technical difficulties in the courses. In each course, I see a sense of camaraderie amongst many of the active students as they ask for help on the homework or work through particularly challenging aspects of a course’s content. But I also see a unique set of personalities coming through in each course.

In the case of our first MOOC on Sabermetrics, we had a community of passionate students who were eager to learn more about the sport they loved and ways in which they could establish a career within it. The students were always positive and upbeat, and often worked together through the course material. The interesting thing about this community was that it built on a pre-existing one that existed primarily on Twitter. This created another means for both the students and the instructor, Andy Andres, to continue their conversations from the forums, and allowed for them to create new connections and contacts in the world of baseball analytics. Similar to how having a friend in a class would encourage a residential student to continue attending, the community on Twitter helped drive some of these students back to our MOOC each day.

Within another one of our courses, The Art of Poetry, we had a different set of factors driving students to engage in the forums. While many of these students were familiar with the work of the instructor, Robert Pinsky, and many of the other poets featured in the course, not all of them had had the opportunity to interact with other fellow poets and poetry enthusiasts. Our MOOC created a place for students to share their thoughts about poems in the content, but also gave them to the ability to introduce new poets and works to fellow students. Many of these students never previously had such an opportunity, and were excited to finally have a space in which they could engage with each other. Some students even commented in our closing survey that it was these exchanges that kept them engaged with the course.

In our current Differential Equations MOOC, we have so far seen several students introduce themselves who seem to already know each other forming a group within the forum. We at the DEI like to imagine that this is a group of students who have potentially taken other math MOOCs before and have gotten to know each other over time, similar to how a math major at a university would eventually meet and get to know other math majors. We have definitely seen certain individual edX users pop up over time in several similarly-themed courses, but this is the first time that we have seen several of them recognize and acknowledge each other within one of our forums. This could point to an exciting new trend of students putting together their own MOOC curriculum and taking these courses together.

Obviously, it’s possible for online students to create their own sense of community within a MOOC. Can this be replicated in a residential course, to the point where all of the interaction takes place online? Not exactly. It’s been found that courses that use MOOC platforms to flip their residential classes see minimal student use of the forums. This is most likely because these students see each other on a regular basis, and have other means of communicating and interacting with each other and the instructor. While a discussion forum could never replace a residential student’s ability to turn to the student next to her and start a conversation, it does provide the opportunity for an online student to interact with others. In the case of a MOOC, students are learning asynchronously across many different cities, countries and continents, and really only have these online tools at their disposal. This truly adds to their importance.

Do you agree that discussion forums and social media help foster communities within MOOCs? Are you a MOOC builder or instructor who has had similar findings, or has had the opposite experience in your course? Please let us know in the comments!

Vanessa Ruano is a Platform Administrator at Boston University’s Digital Learning Initiative.

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