10 Community Principles to Make Your MOOCs Stronger

by | Nov 28, 2017

[This guest blog post was authored by Jos Massen, co-owner of Curatr Partner, MOOC Factory. An alternative, original version is available (in Dutch), co-written with Peter Staal, Community Manager at Bind, and Joitske Hulsebosch, Consultant at the Interface of Technology and Social Learning.]

A Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) is an ideal way to get students, employees or interested parties together and to learn something – they’ve even been shown to work for the most maligned of subjects, Compliance Training!

But, how do you keep a MOOC social? What should you focus on if you are developing a social MOOC?

Together with peers from the industry, we took a look at the broad area of social online learning, and found that if you want to improve the attendance and learning process, you need to treat your MOOC as a learning community…

xMOOCs, cMOOCs and Learning Communities

First of all: some clarity around the terminology.

xMOOCs (extended MOOCs) and cMOOCs (Connectivity MOOCs) are fundamentally online courses which anyone can take – but there are some key differences between the two:

  • The xMOOC is perhaps the best-known.  These are online courses that are offered on platforms such as Coursera, Udacity and EdX. In an xMOOC, information is presented by an expert to numerous participants; sometimes more than a hundred thousand.
  • cMOOCs are based on a different philosophy. These connectivity MOOCs use networks, community-thinking, social learning and assume that participants will contribute greatly to the MOOC.  It is this that makes the cMOOC a social MOOC.

What is a Community?

When is something a community? How do you define community?

Some people use the term community to mean the platform the community uses to communicate with each other. For example, a Facebook group or intranet environment.  But a community is really a group of people, and so “feelings” and “unity” are also involved.

The term community has many definitions. The broadest is: a group of people united by a common denominator. We can make this feeling of unity more objective with the Sense of Community Index (SCI) which identifies four elements of a sense of community; membership, influence, meeting needs and a shared emotional connection.

four elements of a sense of community; membership, influence, meeting needs and a shared emotional connection.

The Sense of Community Index

From MOOC to Community: Is it possible?

A social MOOC is not immediately a community: the participants share the same interest in a subject but don’t yet feel united.

Nevertheless we think that it’s better if a community is created in a social MOOC because the learning process will be more efficient, more fun and faster. Participants will share deeper experiences, opinions and doubts;  all of which are needed if you want to generate new knowledge.

So, which principles, that make a community work, can you use in a social MOOC? Here’s our Top 10…

1. Keep the MOOC Small

One of the conditions for creating a community in a MOOC is the size of the group. The xMOOCs are simply too big to form a strong community because not everyone can react to each other. The group should be a couple of hundred people max.

Pro Tip: If you do have a larger MOOC cohort, you can work with sub-groups in which people with specific interests can meet each other.

2. Build Trust

Within any close community trust is created; people know each other, or at least feel comfortable enough with each other, to want to exchange information.  It is therefore good if that trust exists and grows within a social MOOC – and this is an important task for the moderator/facilitator of a MOOC to assume.

Participants are more likely to share information, talk about their doubts, start a discussion or ask questions if there is a strong, trustworthy moderator, which in turn helps to enrich the discussions.

Pro Tip: Invite groups of participants from current communities to take part in your MOOCs – they will already have a sense of trust and engagement will happen faster.

3. Share and Gain Knowledge

People in a community share knowledge with each other; particularly tacit knowledge.  Sometimes knowledge is not gained from documents or handbooks but from the discussion around such a document, or from talking about shared experiences.

This tacit knowledge can be made available in a MOOC just as it is in an offline community: People with the same interests meet up in forums to discuss issues, and because there is trust they can share their tacit knowledge which adds an extra dimension to the learning process.

Pro Tip: Make sure you ask about the practical experiences that participants have had.

4. Collect and Connect

In a social MOOC people want to gain knowledge (collecting) and meet new people (connecting).

Meeting others or connecting can be done by bringing other participants into contact with each other and the technical aspects of a MOOC should make this possible, by matching like-minded participants with each other, for example.

Gaining knowledge (collecting) in a social MOOC happens not just from the input that the moderator brings, but even more so with each other (after all, it is a form of social learning!)  The MOOC should therefore allow for sharing of sources and put all the information in a user-friendly format – this way all the participants can see which information they have gathered with each other.

Pro Tip: Bring participants with a comparable discussion point into contact with each other and put together lists of summaries and sources in, for example, Zeef, Listly or Storify.

5. Peer Pressure

Peer pressure is a well-known phenomenon that can strengthen the learning process. For example, if your classmate at primary school finished their work before you did, it would make you want to work faster.

As soon as you organise smaller learning circles with a few people you’ll see the peer pressure increase and lead to a better result in learning.

It’s not only your study mates who help in this but also the moderator of the platform on which the MOOC is followed. For example, personal reminders from the moderator or automated messages can be sent as soon as someone in the MOOC hands in an assignment or completes a level.

Pro Tip: Communicate what is going well within your MOOC, e.g. 250 participants have finished week 1; Steven and Nadija have shared a good example.

6. Experts and Key Figures

People within communities who have a great deal of knowledge on a specific subject (experts) and people with a large network or who are well-known (key figures) can also add to the peer pressure.

If a community is created in a social MOOC it’s important to involve these experts and key figures in the MOOC. This starts with the selection of participants: potential MOOCers (participants) will be more likely to join if the influencers are present.

These influencers also do their bit to raise peer pressure due to their credibility: other members of the MOOC try harder and react quicker to experts. What’s more, the new MOOC knowledge is shared in the experts’ and key figures’ own communities so that the knowledge continues to spread.

Pro Tip: Keep an eye out for which experts are often mentioned and invite them to play a role in your course.

7. Build a Reputation

As soon as people get together in a group they start to build a reputation.

A social MOOC should help people to build an online reputation so that you can see what your fellow MOOCers have done and achieved in the past. This means that you can decide how seriously to take another participant in a discussion based on their reputation.

Pro Tip: Use likes and/or leaderboards, or mention influencers when communicating with MOOC participants. Make sure that personal profiles become enriched according to the amount of work the participants do in a group.

8. Online, Offline, and Off-Topic Rations

In this digital age any learning process has an online element. However, the offline element is still important.

Along with an online platform where members of a community meet each other, share knowledge or information, there are also opportunities to meet at events, drinks parties, work trips or to simply to meet-up. There’s no reason not to include this in a MOOC – offline meetings or meet-ups strengthen the unity.

Pro Tip:  Organize a meet-up at the end of the MOOC or encourage people in the same area to meet up.

In addition, it should be possible to allow off-topic comment in a social MOOC: Let the MOOCers talk about reality TV shows, let them start their own “kitchen table conversation” or “fireside chat”.

This is how social capital is built up, the participants learn new things about each other and trust grows which is useful during the online learning process.

Pro Tip: Don’t be afraid to allow personal interests come into the conversation – it all helps to build trust and that all-important sense of community.

9. Public and Private Areas

Many people are wary of sharing their thoughts with a community of over 1000 people, and would much rather do it in a small group – and this has some important practical implications for a MOOC (there’s a reason it’s called Massive Open…! ).

Nevertheless working in small groups can be add value to the community feeling of trust (Compare it with a neighborhood: sometimes you’re happy to meet everyone in the park but sometimes you just want to chat to your neighbour, for example). A social MOOC works better if the participants can brainstorm in both public and private areas.

Pro Tip: Be aware that communication can take place on other platforms too, for example, in participants’ blogs.

10. A Warm Welcome That Compels You to Act

The feeling of coming home is important in a new community – people like to feel at ease – and studies also show that people often give up if the first interactions in a new group are not followed up. A personal welcome and a good follow up are therefore crucial.

The best way is if other participants also pull their weight. The moderator plays an important role in a social MOOC’s onboarding process; for example sending new participants a personal note and inviting them to introduce themselves to the rest of the group.

It also works well if the moderator points out that the new participant is expected to do something, like make a serious contribution to the learning process. A warm yet strict welcome so that participants feel welcome and pay attention for longer.

Pro Tip: Welcome all participants personally so that you show that you really are interested.

Applying the Principles of Community Thinking to Your MOOCs

So as you can see, we can apply the principles of community thinking to make a social MOOC successful: in the design of the MOOC, in the technical aspects and in the role of the moderator.

Once a community has been created within and outside the social MOOC participants will learn more quickly, better and more prolifically.

Ready to give MOOCs a try in your organisation? Give Curatr a try! Arrange a demo today.

About the Author

Jos Maasen

Jos Maasen

Learning Innovator

Jos Maassen is a Learning Innovator and co-owner of MOOC Factory, a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) and SPOC (Small Private Online Course) consultancy business and Curatr Partner since 2014.

MOOC Factory are at the forefront of the MOOC movement in the Netherlands and count the likes of Vodafone amongst their many clients.

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