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The social side of MOOCs

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John Cochrane has written a nice exploration of the economics of MOOCs this week.  In it he discusses the very nature of MOOCs and the concept of the flipped classroom.

A lot of mooc is, in fact, a modern textbook — because the twitter generation does not read. Forcing my campus students  to watch the lecture videos and answer some simple quiz questions, covering the basic expository material, before coming to class — all checked and graded electronically — worked wonders to produce well prepared students and a brilliant level of discussion. Several students commented that the video lectures were better than the real thing, because they could stop and rewind as necessary. The “flipped classroom” model works.

To a large extent, that is where MOOCs are at the moment.  They are being branded as the mechanism whereby a whole lot of explicit knowledge can be communicated at next to no cost (other than time).  What most have failed to do thus far however is explore the softer, tacit side of participation.

A study from the Chinese University of Hong Kong has recently explored the role of emotions in MOOCs.  The study explored two main questions:

1. How is emotion afforded by the MOOC?
2. What kinds of non-achievement emotions can the MOOC afford?

Central to the study was an analysis of the discussions that occur alongside a MOOC on the course forums.  They found a rich portfolio of emotions that evolved as the course progressed and the students began engaging in more social learning.

To begin with, most of the posts were of a social nature as learners started to get to know their fellow students.  As the course progressed however the comments began to take a more technical slant, as learners sought help with assignments.  Unlike other online communities however, the study found that the vast majority of comments were positive, with any negative comments quickly swamped by positive ones.

It also emerged that students were strongly disposed towards helping one another via the forums, even though they didn’t gain anything from it themselves.  What’s more, this only increased as the course progressed, rapidly becoming a community norm.

The other interesting point was the diversity present, and the value that brings to social learning.  With so many students from around the world, the discussion forums offer a huge range of diverse opinions and perspectives, and these can be tremendously valuable to the learning process.

This communal, or social, learning is key to a meaningful learning experience.  It was pleasing therefore to speak with the UK MOOC FutureLearn this week and to hear that they are placing a strong emphasis on the social aspect of their courses.  Their initial student engagement stats are very encouraging, with 34% of all students participating in the discussion forums (via a comment – not just reading).

This research provides evidence that by fostering collaborative learning environments, MOOCs can engage learners’ emotions in highly positive ways. Investigations like these can inform instructors and MOOC providers as they work to design meaningful virtual learning experiences.

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