The most valuable aspect of MOOCs is that the large number of learners enables the formation of sub-networks based on interested, geography, language, or some other attribute that draws individuals together. With 20 students in a class, limited options exist for forming sub-networks. When you have 5,000 students, new configurations are possible.
The “new pedagogical models” (A Silicon Valley term meaning: we didn’t read the literature and still don’t realize that these findings are two, three, or more decades old) being discovered by MOOC providers supports what most academics and experienced teachers know about learning: it’s a social, active, and participatory process.
The current MOOC providers have adopted a regressive pedagogy: small scale learning chunks reminiscent of the the heady days of cognitivism and military training. Ah, the 1960′s. What a great time to be a learner.
In order to move past this small chunk model of learning, MOOC providers will need to include problem based learning and group learning in their offerings. That won’t be easy. MOOCs have high dropout rates. Which means that if you’re assigned to a group of 10 learners, by the end of the course, you’ll be the only one left.
The large MOOCs can improve the quality of learning by creating a model for rapid creation/dissolution of groups. If you have teenagers in your house (or if you are a gamer), you’re likely familiar with how groups form in many video games or virtual worlds. There are two extreme opposites: World of Warcraft involves highly cohesive social units where individuals spend long periods of time together in solving problems and engaging in quests. In contrast, Call of Duty has low social cohesion as groups are formed on the spot and once a player logs off, the group dissolve (yes, you can log in and play with friends in a more cohesive unit on CoD as well). The latter model is worth considering for MOOCs.
Let’s say I take a course on Coursera. Due to high dropout rates, pre-planned groups will likely not work well. Instead, if I log in at 10 pm on a Friday in my statistics course, I can be automatically placed into a queue system similar to CoD: I wait until enough people show up to form a basic group, the system then launches us into our group work and we complete the 20-30 minute activity. If we like working together, we can decide to form a more stable group and schedule times to work online together. Otherwise, we disband. For the next group assignment, we are partnered with an entirely different group of learners.
To extend the group work experience, a quest layer can be added onto the assignment. Once a group is formed, each member is assigned a role that is vital to achieving a particular challenge. If members of the group don’t work together and share knowledge and skills, the problem will not be solved. The quest format will likely run longer than 20-30 minutes and may be most successful for groups that have worked together in the past.
My main point here is to emphasize that we need to think differently about group formation in learning when our learners have very weak social ties and when the commitment of learners to varies during the course. Taking a rapid group formation approach, augmented with quests, will help to ensure that some level of social learning occurs throughout the course, even after 90% of the learners have left.