Friday, August 17, 2012

Students in Free Online Courses Form Groups to Study and Socialize

 The Chronicle of Higher Education

August 16, 2012, 7:03 pm
Map of Udacity meet-ups.
As enrollment has rapidly increased in free online classes, also known as Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOC’s, students are increasingly forming groups, both online and in the real world, to study and socialize. Whether aiming to make the experience more personal or to learn more about the possibilities of free online education, the students are seeking out various ways to connect with classmates. Following are examples of some of those gatherings:
  • Both Coursera and Udacity, two companies offering MOOC’s, encourage students to organize study groups through, a site that facilitates local gatherings. The two companies have each created an official channel on the site to organize student-led gatherings in different parts of the world. In response to enthusiasm for the Meetup groups, Udacity is holding its first Global Meetup Day, on September 15, in which Udacity members will meet in their own communities and together watch a live broadcast featuring Sebastian Thrun, the company’s founder, and other Udacity leaders. For those living in time zones that would make it difficult to watch the live-stream, Udacity is offering another option. The 10 international communities with the most participants on will hold individual video chats with the Udacity team.
  • Professors are trying to come up with ways to interact with students and make the classes more personal. In Coursera’s Sociology 101 course, taught by Mitchell Duneier, the Princeton professor led weekly Google Hangouts with students in order to replicate the feeling of a traditional, physical classroom. The videos were posted on the course’s Web site, allowing all students to benefit from the discussion. Charles R. Severance, who teaches the class “Internet History, Technology, and Security” at Coursera, has taken a different approach. Mr. Severance, a University of Michigan at Ann Arbor faculty member, holds “office hours” in different cities around the country in which he invites interested students to meet him in person and have a discussion. Jeff A. Stern, a rising junior at Elon University, attended the first meeting, held in a Starbucks in New York City. According to Mr. Stern, a wide variety of people came to talk, including graduate students and business people. “There was some discussion about the course, but the majority was about the platform and how we thought Coursera was going to evolve,” he said.
  • Students are organizing their own meetings. Satia Renee began writing about her MOOC experience on Google+ because she felt that the discussion forums for the Coursera course she is taking, “Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World,” were too chaotic and hard to follow. “There’s no way to create a good small study group within Coursera,” Ms. Renee said. Using Google+, she’s able to connect with other people who are taking the same course. She even joined a study group that meets every Sunday to discuss the week’s readings and share ideas about what they were going to write for the weekly response paper. This is the fourth week of the class, and Ms. Renee has participated in two hangouts so far. While she enjoyed the first one, she said that there were fewer participants in the second, which made the discussion less interesting and useful. As for Coursera, Ms. Renee hopes that the company can develop a course model that creates “more of an intimate and real connection between students.”
  • CompScisters, a Facebook group, has been developed to encourage women to take and complete MOOC’s in mathematics and science. Originally a study group in the discussion forums of Sebastian Thrun’s “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” course, CompScisters broadened its focus as other platforms emerged offering similar classes. Jacqueline L. Spiegel, a co-founder of the group, described it as “the intersection of women, women’s lives, and computer science,” adding that “it’s a place to meet, to find people who are doing what you’re doing.” After receiving criticism for their female-only group, the organizers of CompScisters formed CompSciblings, a Facebook group for members to discuss issues of gender in science, technology, engineering, and math. While a majority of discussion among CompScisters occurs on the Facebook page, according to Ms. Spiegel, there have been in-person meetings of members of CompScisters in Southern California and in the Bay Area, including at the cookout that Coursera held for all of its users at the end of July.
  • Study groups are not just limited to the United States. Dipendra K.C., a second-year sociology student at Tribhuvan University, in Kathmandu, Nepal, arranged a meeting with other students taking Coursera’s Sociology 101 last June. He organized the group through the Kathmandu Coursera group on When the group met, they began by talking about the course content, but Mr. K.C. said that they quickly shifted to discussing the potential of Coursera classes in Nepal’s higher-education system. “We discussed how we can use technology in our local context to disseminate the information,” he said. This was important to Mr. K.C. and his classmates, he said, because the type of education he received from Coursera was very different from what he has experienced in Nepal. “The way that it makes students think on their own, that’s totally new,” he said.
  • Discussion forums play a key role in forming communities. At edX, the organization formed by Harvard, MIT, and Berkeley, the forums for the first course, “6002x: Circuits and Electronics,” were so popular that the students didn’t want them to end after the class was over. “We kept the discussion forums alive, and students are still using them,” said Anant Agarwal, president of edX, adding, “it’s like a living, breathing organism.” The forums have proved so successful, Mr. Agarwal said, that certain members have decided to continue to learn together by teaching themselves new topics using publicly available course materials from an MIT class. In a nod to their old course, they call their new project ”6003z.”

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