Community in a MOOC and Beyond

Building community and increasing student engagement within a MOOC can be studied in a variety of contexts. Joachim Griesbaum (2014) considered what students gain by acting as instructors in a MOOC, and Derrick Coetzee, Armando Fox, Marti A. Hearst, and Björn Hartmann (2014) explored how reputation systems function within MOOC discussion forums.

Other scholars urge instructors and students to develop a critical literacy with regard to how online instructional spaces function to (dis)connect users from the content created in the space. David Morgen and Pete Rorabaugh (2014) theorized that while "higher education has been mostly exploring how to export a serviceable replica of face-to-face culture into online space (short answer: we can't, and that culture has to be re-imagined in a fresh context) some of us have been interested in taking the networked values of viable online communities and dragging them across the boundary into our classrooms" (para. 6). This aspect of MOOC development was yet another area interviewees were asked to address.

One of the ongoing questions concerning MOOCs is whether and to what degree it is possible to create a sense of a writing community, at least in a traditional sense. Based on your experience with MOOCs, how would you comment on this issue?

Steven KrauseSteve Krause: As a participant, one of the things that I've thought and continue to think is how oddly lonely MOOCs as a space are. Because even though it is tens of thousands of people, it really just doesn't seem like there is a there there, in terms of people around you.

I gave a talk at the Cs [Conference on College Composition and Communication]. To quote myself if you will, one of the lines I had is, "If the lecture hall is, in Paulo Friere's way of thinking of education, a sort of a primary example of the banking model of education (all that's wrong with education), then the MOOC seems to be sort of like the online shopping version of higher education." Because not only is it something that you are doing, you're doing it alone and at your own pace and not really even needing to make connections with other people. To me, the discussions in MOOCs are like drinking out of a fire hose conversation. It's not even really a conversation. It's impossible to make connections like that. You can't make a connection with ten thousand people; it just doesn't work that way. Other people have found different kinds of experiences.

Although what is interesting to me about the people who have found positive experiences in MOOC communities is the people who are building communities outside of the MOOC structure themselves. The people who reflect the most favorably about the kind of community-building aspect of MOOCs are talking about things like the Facebook groups that arise from MOOCs, the Twitter streams that arise from MOOCs, and things like that.

Pat JamesPat James: I think for me the most exciting piece was watching my English teacher colleagues work as a team to build a course because in California, courses are teacher-built, individually. The individual instructor builds [his/her] own course. You don't have a lot of funding for instructional design support, so we support each other, and we try to help each other with what we know. We try to do professional development on a broader scale rather than have an instructional designer for each course. We just couldn't afford that. Most people do it independently, and in this case, we had instructors who were working together.

There was a team of three building this course, and we had instructional design support. We had a grant, so we had two instructional designers (three, including me), a project manager, and the three instructors working on this course together. It was really wonderful to work as a team, and I hadn't done that with teachers before on an online class. I think that in this case, it was definitely the way to go. I think there should be more team design going on where the instructors have the say in what's taught, how it's taught, and then designers are able to provide the vehicle for the methodology that's required to get that done. We had probably the best situation. We had these amazing videographers who were also teachers; they taught digital video at our college, and they came in and just did some wonderful video work in the class, and that made it fun. We just threw ourselves into it as a team, so there was that piece that I think was really important.

Steven KrauseSteve Krause: [For] Invasion of the MOOCs (Krause & Lowe, 2014), we didn't do a call because that would just have taken too much time. We put together a collection of people who we thought might be interested. We got them on board and then one of the things that I think is really interesting for us in terms of the process was we had everyone submit Google Doc versions of their essays. We did a sort of peer review of each other's essays. We had a space where we were all linked. I put people into groups, just like you would for a peer review for class. Then I also made it available so that everyone could see everybody else's essays. We made it really clear from the beginning that this wasn't a competition sort of issue, nor was it a sort of review the way that academic publishing tends to work where people are used to getting comments like "Accept." Rarely it's just "Accept"; usually it’s "Revise and Resubmit" or "Reject." We said to everybody, "You're in. We're going to publish this. What we're trying to do is find ways to make these essays better and also to try to get interaction between the writers." You had contributors in this collection be able to comment on each other's work. It really did make the collection a whole lot better than it could have been when we first got it started.

For the purposes of the project, I think it was essentially a logistical solution to a time problem. If we had done a traditional sort of thing where it was just me and Charlie [Lowe] responding to all of these essays, it would have taken three times as long. That being said, I think that it makes imminent sense for these kinds of collections to have these kinds of interactions. . . . I’m thinking, in particular, of collections of essays or maybe a journal with a theme to it. When you have a group of people who are all responding to each other in the same space, then you literally have conversations between the writers in that collection instead of this sort of non-connection. I mean I've had a number of essays in collections where I got the book or the journal or whatever and I’m like, "Oh, I didn’t know that so-and-so was being published in that." I think that that sort of connection up front makes a lot of sense. I know from everyone whom I talked to who contributed and was a part of it [that] it was a really rewarding experience for them, too.