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The Value of A Good Whinge — Do MOOC Forums Stifle P2P Learning?

Time, they say, heals all wounds. Personally, I don’t believe it. Time heals all treated wounds — an untreated wound can become infected, leading to greater harm in the long term. This holds in both the physical and emotional realm — a problem shared, after all, is a problem halved.

Having a good whinge MOOC forum

Pat David via Flickr

The problem for lone students is how to share their problems. When I took my first degree, on campus at a traditional university, problem-sharing was simply a matter of course. If somebody didn’t understand something, it always came up in conversation, and we could thrash out a solution together. If someone was unhappy with one of the teachers, their frustrations would be vented over a beer in the students’ union bar. Our metaphorical wounds were treated promptly, and for the most part forgotten. (The time we were given six long exams in four days still sticks in my throat a bit, but that really was an exceptional case.)

When I decided to change my career, I started studying with the Open University where the basic template, at that time, was home study using books and audio and video cassettes, backed up with regular face-to-face tutorials. Over time, a pattern started emerging in my tutorials: at the coffee break, one of us would tentatively raise a concern – either something they failed to understand, or just something they didn’t like about the course delivery or the choice of material. More often than not, this prompted a collective sigh of relief, as we all discovered we were encountering the same problems. “Thank God! I thought it was just me!” was a regular part of our conversations.

However, as I progressed through the system, the OU started making the move to the online delivery of courses with tutorials in a virtual classroom. In those cases, there was no direct social contact between students. Slowly people caught onto the idea that the online forums were there for that purpose, but I never felt it filled the gap. [pullquote position=”right”]For one thing, if you’re worried that you’re about to ask a stupid question, you’re not going to do it in a public forum populated by hundreds of faceless names; and of course it isn’t really easy to have a good whinge about the teacher in a forum moderated by the teaching staff.[/pullquote]

Without a non-threatening, informal release mechanism, people weren’t always venting their concerns or raising questions they were hesitant about. If someone did finally raise the subject, there would often be a sudden flurry of “it’s not just me!” messages, but the worrying thing was the level of frustration that was evident among my classmates – by the time the issue was raised, the wound had festered far too long.

But this wasn’t the end of it, because having finally complained, the wounded party would all too often find their classmates jumping to the defense of the course team. Most of what I’ve read on the subject of interactions focuses on trying to make up for the lack of student-teacher interactions, with the assumption that peer-to-peer (or P2P) interactions are essentially the same online as in a physical university – an incorrect assumption.

I see two problems here: one with group dynamics, and one in the nature of expertise.

Group dynamics in MOOC forums

Without genuine social interaction, the student body loses the sense of being a single “us”. If you’re interacting with the teachers, even if only through hearing their voices and seeing they’re faces on videos, you will align yourself much more closely with them than with a faceless name in a mass of forum posts. Instead of a student with a problem being “one of us”, the student is “one of them” who is seen as attempt to undermine the authority of “one of us,” and we do not feel as motivated to help as we would in a face-to-face situation.

Adam Heidebrink previously wrote on this site about the phenomenon of legitimate complaints being downvoted by peers in MOOC forums, and I’ve seen that happen too. That behavior serves only to make the initial complainant more and more defensive and argumentative. It’s divisive, it’s fractious; it’s us and them. Perhaps I’m being pessimistic, but I don’t think instruction on peer reviewing will do much to solve the underlying problem of a student body with no sense of shared identity.

The danger of expertise

Here’s the core of the problem: when we’re following a course, written by a recognized expert and followed by dozens or more successful learners, we’re liable to assume that any problems that we have originate within ourselves. If we are robbed of the confirmation that others are experiencing the very same difficulties as us, we become demotivated, because we end up thinking we’re just not good enough.

In a traditional university, weaknesses in teaching don’t adversely affect students’ confidence – as soon as you’re outside the lecture theatre, you confirm that everyone else is as lost as you, and you resign yourself to waiting for the week’s tutorial to get clarification. The wound is treated, and you move on.

[pullquote position=”right”]In a self-study environment, however, every error in the teaching is intensified 100-fold, because there is so little awareness of your classmates’ experience of the same thing. A MOOC, therefore, cannot afford to make any errors, and yet we launch MOOC after MOOC with no testing. [/pullquote]One MOOC organizer described the process of his first MOOC as a “shakedown cruise” (as previously reported here by Robert McGuire), but even that description is too generous, because it implies that the first run is itself a test, and in reality, it isn’t, because tests need results, and results mean measurements.

Imagine a ship is preparing for its shakedown cruise, and 1000 passengers and crew board it while in dock. At the end of the cruise, the count comes back “100 hands”. Is the captain worried? No, he says most of them “probably” got off before the ship left port. Oh, and some of them “probably” decided to go home in the lifeboats that had gone missing. Wait, there’s lifeboats missing? Yes, but they were “probably” taken by the people who had left. Was there enough space in the lifeboats for all the missing people? “Probably.” In the process of the shakedown cruise, we may have cast as many as 900 people into the sea without lifejackets, and several of our lifeboats may have broken free from their attachments, but we just don’t know, because we didn’t track that information.

MOOC dropout rates work the same way. We have people who didn’t even start the course, we have people who were pulled away by “real life” or “the day job” and we have people who just plain changed their mind. But we also have people who encountered difficulties, difficulties that demotivated and damaged them, difficulties that caused them to believe that they weren’t good enough; but we don’t know who they are, and we don’t know what those difficulties were.

There are two things we need to take on board from this:

  • MOOC organizers and participants in MOOC forums need to find ways of encouraging disagreement without resorting to argument, to allow people to air their concerns and difficulties without fear of repercussions.
  • It’s not only student/teacher interaction that is lost in the move from face-to-face to online teaching.

This second point cannot be overstressed – the sheer volume of P2P interaction via forums has led us to be uncritical of the nature and quality of that interaction. We cannot improve our provisions until we make an honest assessment of this.

Niall Tracey (2 Posts)

Niall is a language teacher and an occasional software developer. Having completed a Computer Science degree and spent several years in corporate IT, he decided that it wasn't the career for him and started distance study in order to retrain as a language teacher. He has studied at undergraduate level at three different universities, and has experienced on-campus, distance and online education at various levels. Now teaching English to speakers of other languages, Niall continues to study in order to remind himself of what his students are experiencing....


3 Comments

  1. I am; reading this as I am tweaking the prep to teach my first MOOC. It is a professional development course for educators and I am hoping that I have made it a safe and comfortable place for dialogues. The Canvas platform has a new “chat” feature that I had hardly thought about and after reading this I am going to make sure that students know about it and understand that they can talk to each other as they go through the course.

    • I’m not familiar with Canvas. Does it allow avatars? Avatars have their problems, but if used right they can add a bit of “personality” to posters, and in many ways I think it’s the personality that’s lacking in online interactions, rather than a face, which is perhaps just a mnemonic for a personality (similarly to a name, in msome sense).

    • Thanks, Liz. This is my first MOOC, so the P2P issue is real, but I’m looking forward to experiencing it in a positive way.