Touch groups to improve participant retention in MOOCs (#edumooc)

This is another post "about the MOOC", or more specifically a design idea for anyone considering hosting a MOOC. For the purpose of this post, I use the term facilitator to mean whomever is hosting the MOOC.

Based upon two of connectivism's principles, specifically: "Learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions" and "Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning" (Siemens, 2004). I asked myself, what can MOOC designs / facilitators do to help cultivate conversation and foster connections within the very large MOOC community?

In another realm I've worked in, youth conferences based upon the principles of intentional community, participants to a large conferences are  assigned to "touch groups" upon entering the community. These touch groups meet multiple times throughout the conference. They provide a small group within the sea of people, so that individuals are not lost. They make it easier for new people to get their bearings and more familiar members to provide mentorship.

This idea got me wondering about  touch groups within a MOOC, and what that might look like. My thoughts are that they would be voluntary, but people who signed up would be making a committment to connect with those in their touch groups – perhaps a commitment to making a post once per week within their small group and to reply to 3 or 4 others within their small group, throughout the time of the MOOC.

Some questions that need to be considered about touch groups:

  • If people had the opportunity to be placed randomly into a touch group at the beginning would they do it?
  • Would enough "mentors" join the touch groups to make them effective? Or does that even matter?
  • Is it too much effort for facilitators or could the touch group assignment be automated, such that at the end of the first week, anyone who signed up get assigned to their groups.
  • How big would each group be? Perhaps 15-people or is that too many? You need
  • How would groups communicate? Would the facilitator group

What do you think? Is this a good idea that someone should try? Or something that doesn't make any sense at all? If you like the idea, how would you approach it?

10 Comments on Touch groups to improve participant retention in MOOCs (#edumooc)

  1. In most respects I like the idea of touch groups.   I also like the idea of making a committment to posting on a weekly basis.  Whether the group is randomly assigned or based on a specialty, would depend primarily on the expected outcome.   First time MOOC'ers (myself for instance) a random assignment would work better, thus acquiring a greater diversity of inputs.   If I were looking for something specific, I would like to be placed in a specialized group (not so random, please).  My goals and expected outcomes would drive my level of participation and expectations for the course organization.   The size of the groups (as in brainstorming) needs to be limited.  Most likely the size will be proportional to the desired diversity  of inputs being solicited, and limited only by what can be read and effectively managed by the participants.
    Enjoyed reading your posts and the replies keep it up all.

  2. Touch groups seem to me what Dave Cormier calls 'clusters' in his videos, except that what you have in mind in a face-to-face context might work because people tend to bond to people they are introduced to face to face; that is, if you are at a big conference and you happen to chat with someone, next time you wander around the coffee service, and if you see that person, the two of you might renew the conversation in part to avoid feeling out of place otherwise.  But online environments don't have that F2F empathy that bonds on facial and personality features, so I agree with Benjamin, it's got to be organic.  It just happens. There's no point in trying to manipulate it, let it happen, and then go with what's happening :-)

    • Interesting – because I do find that I'm drawn to posts in the groups with names that I recognize. So, I hypothesize that if I'm introduced to a few more people, that I'll be more likely to interact – hence increase my motivation to become an active participant rather than a lurker.

      • Yes, me too (I also notice people I've interacted with before).  Your posts for example have earned validity with me and therefore I start paying attention.  But this grouping was not imposed on us; we selected to interact here.  I don't know how interested I would be in an assigned partner or grouping of partners if I was told on entry "this is your cohort." But this is not to say it wouldn't work.  You should try it somehow and see.  We all learn from one another's ideas. Keep 'em coming :-)
        Other courses sometimes have greeters.  That is, if someone joins the group someone makes sure they are welcomed.  This builds solidiarity and familiarity among a small number of participants.  You can't do that with 2400 so are you suggesting that eac\h be greeted by someone? And that someone then shepherds a group of say, ten, or 100?  Running the math, you'd need between 24 and 240 volunteers for that, and would they be responsible for ensuring that everyone in that group was on track week after week?  Or on some kind of track …
        But leaving it loose, we each find our paths.  Or some don't.  But it's possible that if you had ten people to shepherd, only 2 would persist beyond the first three weeks.  Is that your fault?  Who is responsible.
        In a MOOC, each learner is responsible.  The facilitators lay it out and keep it going but they are not responsible for 2400 people.  They don't know what we are learning unless they happen on the artifacts we leave.
        This is where MOOC differs from more formal learning environments.  It's only for motivated self perpetuating mature learners.  Providing structures that take on some of the responsibility for their learning removes some amount from the learners.  If what we are learning is how to learn (and therefore how to teach) then this is to an extent counterproductive, which is to say, it would water down the experiment a little.
        I'm no authority but that's what I think now ..

        • Hi Vance,

          You raise some interesting points – and now having me thinking even more. One key thing is that, like with everything a MOOC, the touch group membership would be voluntary, so you would only need to manage those who signed up – and part of the condition of signing up is making a commitment of some type to the group – not a huge commitment, but still something, so that people who have no intention of contributing are not signing up. I think then, at best case you might get 20% of people signing up for the MOOC, that might sign up for a touch group. Then you could ask those who do sign up to indicate if they would be interested in being a "host" or just a "participant" within the group – perhaps that would help.

          Of course then there is the question – would creating such a structure be too much of a scaffold? Would it prevent participants from learning the skills necessary to participate, or would it give the novices a "safe" place to try it out and help them bridge into being active participants?

          Part of me things that MOOCs could help teach people to become self perpetuated learners – rather than being a place for people that have already learned that skill on their own?

          • Your points are valid as well and get to the crux of the dilema, when is it best to throw a lifeline and when is it best to let people figure out how to swim.  Obviously if you didn't do the former, you'd lose few along the way.  Also it would be unreasonable to expect everyone to enter the course with the same level of swimming skills.  But if you want them to not only swim and even excel in the water, the student is only confident of success when the student figures out how to survive in the open ocean.
            You have suggested a support mechanism. Our difference in approach is that you would implement this in the beginning of a course, and for certain courses it would surely work.  Alternatively if you think it's a good idea and find others who think so too then you could suggest a support network and this would be the MOOC way.  This would come from the participants who needed the support, and it would be their attempt to cope with the environment and keep themselves afloat in the ocean.

  3. There seems to be a running debate over whether forms of organization violate some principal of the MOOC environment. Given how new the medium is virtually all advice is going to be based on preference or speculation and the best method is likely a long ways form being decided.
    My preference would be a touch group established at random. So many participants at so many levels of "accomplishment" makes it difficult to establish initial connections (democratic or not, a MOOC doesn't erase who people feel comfortable approaching). This time lost to lurking and becoming orientated seems almost a natural artefact of the massive nature of MOOCs but that doesn't make it either desirable or beyond being designed out.
    As a final point, assigning groups at random seems in the spirit of MOOCs. Minor networks appear and evaporate in a delightfully frustrating manner and learning to "ride" them for all they are worth is part of the skill set. But accountability is also in the mix here. This isn't all about the temporary and learning what it takes to sustain a network includes being a reliable, accountable and giving group member.  There’s no reason a person need only remain within their assigned group though I do think it is valuable to have a home base to branch out from.

  4. Ah yes, but the idea of randomly connecting people causes you to connect with people that you otherwise may not have. Leaving it to organically form, means that you are connecting with like-minded people, but that does not necessarily challenge you – rather it affirms, but doesn't necessarily encourage diverse discussion.

  5. Touch groups will emerge as participants gravitate to those who have certain levels of power and/or prestige (i.e. the hubs of the network). This scale-free structure will have longer sustainability than any random group assignment. If we want to analyze the structure, let’s look at when, how, why, etc. individuals connect with those with more power (in the best sense of the word). The size of the hubs are not as important as the way in which information flows from within.

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