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Course connections: A new MOOC phase of student engagement

Ensuring that students are engaging in their distance learning coursework
University Business, January 2014

In an online seminar on the Greek rhetorician Isocrates offered at the University of Pittsburgh, 176 students listened to a live stream of a discussion among graduate students taking the on-campus version of the class and then asked questions or made comments via Twitter.

The eight graduate students in the brick-and-mortar class took turns recording lectures once a week for the online students during the course this past fall. And both the online and doctoral students could interact with one another on the discussion board on Blackboard’s CourseSites platform.

Welcome to the world of HOOCs—hybrid open online courses, an innovative teaching approach that may represent the next generation of the MOOC movement. Two years after the first MOOC was introduced in the United States, administrators, professors and online providers are creating new ways to engage students enrolled in massive open online courses, using features offered by the platforms themselves or by outside technology companies.

“In a classroom or a learning setting, people want to connect with others,” says Stanford Technology Ventures Program

Executive Director Tina Seelig, a professor of management science and engineering who has taught two MOOCs on creativity. “My big insight is not that they want to connect with the teacher. It’s that connecting with other students is equally important.”

Engaging through MOOC platforms

Those connections may be keys to raising completion rates in online courses. A study conducted last May by Katy Jordan, an Open University doctoral student, found that among the 29 MOOCs she studied, the average completion rate was 6.8 percent. The completion rate was defined as the number of students who earned a certificate for passing the course.

While those statistics have some educators concerned, others say low completion rates are normal.

“It seems like everybody is getting completion rates of under 10 percent,” says Jennifer Cowley, an associate dean for academic affairs and administration at The Ohio State University College of Engineering. “That may be perfectly OK if what we’re doing is providing education to audiences on a continuing education basis.”

Seelig compares MOOC students to “tourists” wanting to sample a variety of courses. “There are a lot of people who sign up for these courses who don’t intend on doing anything,” she says. When she taught her MOOC, “A Crash Course on Creativity,” for the second time last spring, 25,000 people registered. Of those who turned in the first assignment, 50 percent completed the entire course, which was offered through the online learning platform NovoEd.

Students listened to a weekly, three-minute lecture, worked in teams on video projects and participated in real-time discussions on Google+ Hangouts. To foster further interaction, Seelig assigned the students who were more active to become part of the teaching team and had them sift through and respond to the thousands of comments on the discussion board.

Another way MOOC students interact is in person. Last summer, 48,000 students enrolled in “Maps and the Geospatial Revolution,” offered by Anthony Robinson, a research associate in the geography department at The Pennsylvania State University. Students used the discussion board to form study groups in England, Poland, Saudi Arabia and Cambodia. Those who could not meet up with classmates organized virtual discussions using Skype or Facebook.

“There were groups all over the world—in every place that you can imagine,” Robinson says. “Those were created by the students. I didn’t do anything to make those happen.”

Four weeks into the MOOC, which ran on Coursera, there were 95,000 posts recorded on the message board on 13,000 different topics. To help students wade through the onslaught of information, Robinson created a weekly digest of the top 25 topics and posted them for students.

During the course, Robinson also launched an “Ask Me” series, a special forum for students to pose questions on any topic. The 500 questions that came in dealt with topics related to students’ personal lives, the experience of teaching MOOCs, and the actual content of the course—mapmaking.

“Coursera’s own advice is that it’s not possible to engage,” Robinson says, referring to a professor not being able to read and respond to posted comments that may well number in the thousands. “I read a ton of discussion posts, and I actually tried to see if I could beat that cliché.”

Enlisting help from third parties

Cowley, who also is a professor of city and regional planning at Ohio State, says she did not want to plow through an avalanche of discussion posts on the MOOC she taught, “Technicity,” which focused on how cities are using technology. So she partnered with MindMixer, an online engagement platform that was originally set up to create online town hall meetings.

In the collaboration with MindMixer, Cowley limited questions on the discussion board to topics about the course, which she co-taught last May through Coursera.

“Students can create a million different discussion topics,” she says. “You can’t follow 100 different discussion streams, and even if you have signed up for those, it can become overwhelming.”

MindMixer allowed Cowley to embed videos on the course platform and create galleries where students could post photos of technology being used in cities around the world. “They could quickly see a gallery of pictures by just scrolling down through 100 different images, rather than go through 100 different postings,” she says.

Another critical component of MindMixer was gamification, which enabled students to collect points for submitting ideas to the discussion board and commenting on posts. Rewards, such as books autographed by one of the class speakers, were offered to students who tallied the most points.

When Jeff Grabill, a professor of writing, rhetoric and American cultures at Michigan State University, co-taught a MOOC called “Thinking Like a Writer,” last summer, he used Eli Review, a peer feedback service he helped develop through Drawbridge, an educational technology company that is a spinoff from the university.

With 2,000 students enrolled in the MOOC, it would have been impossible for Grabill and his co-teacher to analyze the writing assignments submitted for the course. So they taught the students how to provide one another with useful feedback on their writing.

Eli Review, developed by Grabill and two other writing teachers at the university, creates a scaffolding that prompts students to use one of five review types to analyze a piece of writing. The software also allows students to embed comments in a writing assignment as they review it.

“Feedback is a real needle-mover,” Grabill says. “High-quality feedback can make a big difference. What the MOOC did was reduce it to its essentials and show what good feedback looks like.”

Sherrie Negrea is a writer based in Ithaca, N.Y.