Promoting discussion in FutureLearn MOOCs


MOOCs: Back to the Future. This was the title of a lunchtime seminar I attended last week in the Educational Research Department of Lancaster University, UK.

In this seminar Phil Tubman  (PhD student with Educational Research and School of Computing and Communications, and also Senior Learning Technologist in the ISS eLearning team at Lancaster), shared the progress he has been making on his PhD into whether MOOCs are living up to their promises. The title of his talk was chosen to suggest that with respect to MOOCs we currently have our backs to the future. As such we need to turn round and look for ways forward.

Given that he works for Lancaster University Phil is well placed to explore social learning in FutureLearn MOOCs. Lancaster University is a FutureLearn Partner.  Phil is interested in the problems of sustaining discussion in online forums and the role of the FutureLearn platform in this; FutureLearn claims to be a social learning platform.

Phil and his colleagues have looked at discussion threads in forums and found that they don’t include many members and that conversations often do not extend beyond a first reply. These findings are supported by other researchers. Phil and his colleagues have therefore designed an intervention which they hope will increase and improve interaction and social learning in these  forums. This is an interactive word cloud which they have called a Comment Discovery Tool (CDT). This tool displays the top 200 words from a forum thread as a word cloud. MOOC participants can then click on a given word to display all the comments which include that word. The example shown in the seminar was from FutureLearn’s MOOC on Wordsworth. Phil clicked on the word ‘daffodils’ in the word cloud which took us to all the relevant forum posts. Having done this, it would then be possible for the MOOC participant to follow the discussion from there without having to wade through potentially hundreds of forum comments and threads. Phil is continuing to develop this tool for his PhD and is interested in whether and how the comment discovery tool will affect interaction in the FutureLearn forums.

I look forward to seeing how this develops.  Phil and his colleagues, Phil Benachour and Murat Oztok have submitted a paper on this to the Learning Sciences Conference 2018, and a recording of Phil’s seminar will ultimately be posted here –

Assessment of discussion forum posts in ModPo

Today I am disappointed in ModPo for the first time. Why? Because, I realize that it has fallen into the trap of believing that requiring posts to a discussion forum can in some way measure the success of learning.

On checking I see that it does say this on the Announcements page in the very first post ‘a thought on plagiarism’, but I failed to notice it until it was mentioned in the audio discussion between Al Filreis and Julia Bloch that was posted today.

To be considered a student who has “completed” the course, you need to have written and submitted the four short essays, commented on others’, submitted (and minimally ‘passed’) the quizzes, and participated in the discussion forum.

Evidently to get a certificate of completion, a ModPo participant must make a post in each week of the course, in one of the staff initiated weekly forums.

I completely fail to see the point of this. It is not as if ModPo is short of discussion in the forums. It is completely swamped with discussion. In addition it is the kind of assessment requirement that tempts me to simply ‘play the game’ (if I was that keen to get a certificate, which I am not). I could put any meaningless post about any meaningless thing in each week’s forum and theoretically I have fulfilled the requirement.

I have already accepted that ModPo is not completely open, simply because it is tied to the Coursera platform and therefore does not have ‘open’ resources in the original cMOOC sense of participants being able to aggregate, remix, repurpose and feed forward resources at will.

But I have otherwise been very impressed by the pedagogy – the standard of teaching is very high, the level of support from and engagement by the tutors is beyond the call of duty for a MOOC, and the content is so stimulating.  All credit to the tutors and TAs.

But this requirement to post to the forums is a definite blip, in my book. Why? – because it puts (in this context) an unnecessary constraint on the autonomy of those learners who would like to achieve a certificate of completion, and won’t necessarily add anything to the learner experience. It definitely wouldn’t to mine.

I have listened to all the videos, read all the poems, completed the quizzes for Weeks 1 and 2, written and submitted my first assignment, but this requirement to post to the forums is one hoop that I will not be jumping through. If there had been a meaningful activity around being engaged in the discussion forums, then I would have been happy to comply. As it is, I don’t feel that I need to learn how to post to forums, I have done lots of this in the past, nor do I need to learn the value of social learning. I have been practicing and promoting it for years. If I feel that I can genuinely make a contribution in a forum, then I will.

Despite this disappointment, ModPo remains a highly stimulating experience, on a number of levels, and one that I would recommend to anyone interested in open learning, pedagogy and poetry.