UX thoughts about MOOCS

Studying user experience and engagement in Coursera

Getting to know 100.000 classmates

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Numerous researchers have pointed out that, in the context of Education, social interactions can have a meaningful impact in student motivation, persistency and learning outcomes.

In offline classrooms, just the fact of being in the same physical space facilitates personal interactions. If you don’t understand something you can just ask the person sitting next to you,  rise your hand and ask your question during the lecture or approach the instructor at the end of the session. You also have more opportunities to comment the materials and assignments with your classmates, learn from each other and find encouragement to keep up with the workload.

In online courses, in contrast, since you cannot see your classmates or talk to them in person, it is easier to feel disconnected, not supported or even alone. E-learning platforms have tried to solve this problem by creating online communication spaces and tools to support and encourage students interactions: discussion forums, chats, profiles, blogs,…

But, how can you get to know your classmates when there are more than 100.000 students enrolled in the same course?

In MOOCs, this process of knowing your classmates and build personal relationships becomes much more challenging due to the massive number of students, but the key is probably understanding that it is not about meeting them all, but about establishing a few meaningful connections.

Using brief personal presentations to break the ice

One effective strategy used in traditional online courses to tear down invisible barriers and facilitate socialization, is asking students to introduce themselves in the discussion forums at the beginning of the course to break the ice.

Some MOOCs have also used this approach. The Microeconomics course, for example, proposed an introductory activity in Week 0 where students were asked to start a thread in the subforum “Getting to know your classmates” and introduce themselves with a brief text.

But with such a large number of students, the result was 21 pages with thread titles like “Hello, from Zagreb, Croatia”…:

Subforum "Getting to know your classmates" within the Microeconomics course

Once you have introduced yourself, the experience of exploring the rest of your classmates presentations (by clicking one thread, waiting until the page is loaded, reading their text and coming back to the subforum page) does not seem really engaging, efficient or specially enjoyable.

Are Discussion forums the best place for these massive scale introductions?

The use of the discussion forums for students introductions works perfectly fine when you have a limited number of students and they are suposed read all postings from their classmates. They can even post all the presentations within the same thread, one after another.

With the volume of students enrolled in a MOOCs, it is impossible to expect them to get to know all their classmates by reading all their presentation postings. Some reasons why actual interface design of Coursera Discussion forums is not optimal for this task:

  • Generic thread titles: Most of the thread titles give little to no personal information about the person to capture your attention and make you click on it.
  • No photos: images are more effective tools to create emotional connections, and quicklier than text, but you can only see the profile picture of your classmates inside the thread page.
  • Fairly passive experience: you cannot actively interact with the content, you can only decide to read or skip each thread, order the list of threads by date or popularity (not really useful in this case) and search for a specific term.
  • No faceted search or filters: search works fine if you want to identify other students for your country (because names of countries have unique names) but if you want to find students with a similar background or any other criteria, searching for keywords does not really help (because you can probably use lots of different names to define you background and you will only retrieve texts that used the exact keyword in your query).


Here are some ideas to improve the experience of finding out more about your classmates:

Proposed wireframe for a new menu section "Know your classmates"

Do you think the interface design can influence the time spent in this section, the number of students you get to know and the feeling of “being part of” the community?


Author: Elena Sánchez

UX professional passionate about User-Centered Innovation!

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