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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Social Learning in Massive Open Online Courses: An Analysis of Pedagogical Implications and Students' Learning Experiences

  • Author(s): Hill, Andrew Jefferson
  • Advisor(s): Rhoads, Robert A
  • et al.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are a relatively new form of online education which allow a single instructor to teach tens of thousands of enrolled students from around the world; ostensibly offering free university-level education to anyone connected to the internet. A growing number of MOOC hosts have formed to create digital platforms allowing instructors to design and teach their courses; each offering a different set of tools to convey content, assess student learning, and allow communication in massive virtual classrooms. A new environment suggests that some educators might need to alter pedagogy to address the problem of how to teach a massive virtual population of student learners. Critics often cite a few well-publicized failures and a trend of high rates of attrition as evidence of failure, but educators continue to experiment with the MOOC model of instruction.

Teaching a MOOC is not only different from traditional university teaching, but also different from earlier attempts to teach at a distance. Perhaps most notably, the massiveness of the MOOC model appears to prevent instructors from addressing individual needs of some learners. MOOCs have provided ways for students to communicate with each other, typically through discussion forums, allowing some to rely on peers to reinforce larger scale instruction. Some students find the sheer volume of information on forums problematic, even with search and sorting tools provided by MOOC platforms.

Some MOOC educators have made use of other pedagogical methods which appear to be designed to encourage students to interact with and learn from peers, apparently finding value in social learning. If educators had a better understanding of different pedagogies used to promote social learning, and how students might react to these teaching methods, perhaps MOOC instructors could rely on students to address individualized instruction needs of their peers. Social learning methods seem a perfect fit for MOOCs, offering a way of teaching online students which would not require educators to add resources as enrollment numbers scale into the tens or hundreds of thousands. I engaged in this research project to provide more information to educators about the nature of social learning methods available to MOOC educators, as well as to provide a look into student experiences. To answer the following research questions, I engaged in a two-phase research project:

1. What are the different methods employed in massive open online courses to promote student social learning and peer interaction?

2. What do students report about their experiences with social learning and peer interaction methods used in MOOCs?

a. To what extent does student motivation to take a course influence students’ reported experiences?

3. What learning outcomes or course-related benefits do students attribute to social learning experiences in MOOC environments?

The first phase of the research project addressed the first question. I enrolled in 267 MOOCs from eleven hosts; representing every course I could find and enroll in over a six-month research window. Enrolling in these courses granted me access to course data about how instructors attempted to use social learning methods in their courses. I examined pedagogy and attempted to explain the intentions of educators based on information from course websites. Through this phase of data collection, it became clear that platforms offered a variety of tools, which instructor sometimes used for social learning. I combined tools with how educators appeared to use the tools to define seven categories of social learning methods (Forums, Peer Assessments, Groups, Face-to-Face Meetings, Synchronous Communication, Social Media, and Social Presence).

I then placed methods from each category along a spectrum of social learning. Methods on the lowest end of the spectrum seemed to be less likely or less intent on promoting social learning; these methods represented the bulk of social learning findings from phase one. Social learning methods on the highest end of the spectrum were those which educators explicitly used to encourage or even necessitate student interaction to complete course activities. The data from phase one not only illustrated a broad view of social learning methods offered in MOOCs, the findings also guided my selection of sites and interview candidates in the second phase.

In the second phase of the research project, I selected courses which appeared to be most intent on promoting social learning. I selected four courses, each on a different platform (Coursera, edX, FutureLearn, and NovoEd); each offered different social learning methods, though many used methods in overlapping categories. After briefly studying the first few weeks of content, I selected three or four students from each course who I felt likely to have the most experience with social learning methods: students appeared actively engaged in social learning methods and were nearly finished with their courses. Over the next month, I conducted virtual interviews (via Skype, Google Hangouts, or the phone) with thirteen students about their experiences. I asked questions specifically about how they experienced social learning methods and how different activities influenced their learning or other course-related outcomes. I based questions on specific conjectures of social constructivist learning.

Some findings from the second phase of the research project were surprising, most notably the interplay between motivation and social learning methods. I had expected students to report having strong reasons for taking the course, perhaps partially explaining why they would be active and nearly finished with their courses. I did not expect six of the thirteen students to report finding motivation from social connections they felt with other students in the course. Most frequently, students reported experiencing closeness from relationships made with other students working in small groups, which sometimes used synchronous communication and face-to-face meetings. Students tended to cite smaller scale and more synchronous communication as the source of social connections, but at least one student felt a kind of connection with the class through large discussion forums, perhaps because of the course content.

Forums, which most tended to describe as large and less personal than other social learning methods, did not appear to result in personal social connections. Students did report forums to be a useful means of communication and experienced improved learning outcomes, even without an available search tool. While forums appeared to be a viable means of exchanging information, students tended to report richer experiences when using smaller scale social learning methods; with the exception of anonymous peer assessments.

The other methods discussed by students at a smaller scale (groups, synchronous communication, and face-to-face meetings) appeared to be much more likely to affect students’ ability to connect with peers socially and often led to notable increases in student learning. Learning itself appeared to be difficult for some students explain. Students tended to describe positive outcomes from social learning experiences in terms of understanding other students’ experiences or opinions. Yet, most did not define these experiences as learning; a word that most reserved for formal course materials, even from students who described finding value in social learning and peer interaction. The apparent absence of some students’ ability to recognize social learning outcomes, together with a lack of explanation of many social learning methods by educators, suggested a few ways educators might improve social learning in MOOCs.

The findings suggest that even students stating an awareness of the value of social learning may lack an understanding of what outcomes they can expect. There may be many students who would benefit from an increased understanding of social learning: how to use different methods, and what benefits they might find. Additionally, while all MOOC platforms appeared to offer tools which instructors could offer to promote social learning, and many educators used them, few offered explanations or models of how students might learn from peers in their courses.

A good first step, and something relatively easy to accomplish, might be to increase student awareness of social learning, and instruct students on how and why to use social learning methods in MOOCs. If such knowledge became widespread, we could increase the learning, and perhaps motivation, of millions of students worldwide over the next decade. If students and educators increase the understanding and use of social learning, we may witness a shift in the culture of MOOCs. A shifting culture among students and educators might also motivate instructors to design their courses around small groups, synchronous communication, and even face-to-face meetings. Though these methods might be difficult for some educators to incorporate into courses, the findings suggest that the benefits to learning might make these efforts worthwhile.

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