The frailty of community in MOOCs

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“Whooooo are you? Who, who?”

Now that the PR hysteria around MOOCs has died down and there are actual courses running, I’m trying to track the experience of MOOC students, some of whom are blogging about their experiences. Here’s a helpful piece from Audrey Watters that talks about the peer feedback system in Coursera, one of the big two MOOC platforms, and its weaknesses…

 The Problems with Peer Grading in Coursera
(Hack Education/Inside Higher Ed)

The last problem she lists – “lack of community” – isn’t a surprise to someone like me who’s spent a lot of time in online social media over the years. I’ve reflected elsewhere about the kinds of things that eroded social cohesion in my own dearly departed virtual community. But in a higher ed context, it’s particularly troubling, especially for us at Eastern Mennonite University. One of the things that consistently gets pointed to as a value here is the premium placed on the building and sustenance of community. We often point to our Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition as the source of this value.

If, as seems to be commonly suggested, MOOCs are to be seen as a marketing tool – a way to get a message or brand out into the world – I think that raises at least two problems. First, it puts the cart before the horse. MOOCs deliver educational content, not marketing materials. Second, if MOOCs aren’t particularly good at developing a thick learning community, a school like EMU should be wary to engage in such an environment. To turn a phrase from McLuhan, the community is the message.

I’m not entirely opposed to a school like EMU experimenting with MOOCs. But in doing so, we should be looking hard for ways to overcome the severe limitations of the platform…limitations that cut against the very things that EMU believes make us “a Christian university like no other.”