UX thoughts about MOOCS

Studying user experience and engagement in Coursera

What makes MOOC special? Massive communities and…

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Last week, I was interviewed for an article about the ways in which student communities are encouraged or built in MOOCs and I had the opportunity to contribute with some reflections from a User Experience perspective. I would like to share some of these ideas about the emergence of strong communities around MOOCs and continue the debate in this post.

I believe that the feeling of being part of these massive learning communities plays an important role in the overall User Experience of MOOCs and it can have an impact in students motivation, persistence and learning.

It is undeniable there is something special about MOOCs, something that goes beyond previous learning experiences, but, could it be related with these massive online communities?

Let’s try to analyze the different ingredients that could have contributed to MOOCs revolution and hype:

It is not about being free

Even if it can be considered quite innovative in the context of higher education, the fact of MOOCs being free is not enough to explain their extraordinary user acquisition numbers.

Before the MOOCs explosion, we already had tons of different e-learning materials (texts, slides, podcasts, videolectures…) available online, for free, some of them from top Universities as Stanford. But the lack of a common timing and collective setup, made it difficult to share your learning experience with others and to feel socially connected or supported.

It is not about being online, either

The online aspect of MOOCs does not seem to be enough reason to explain their impact, either. Internet and computers are definitely changing the way we understand education, but e-learning platforms and online courses have been around for a while, they are not a MOOC innovation.

Can it be about massive learning communities…

Unlike independent learning from free online materials, online courses are usually organized in groups/classrooms that start at the same time, in order to offer more opportunities for peer-to-peer interaction and collaboration using discussion forums, chats, wikis, etc.

This social aspect is definitely important during the learning process and should be enhanced, but peer-to-peer interactions have always been part of offline education. It is the size and diversity of these learning communities which is different.

…  inspired by the idea of  “first-class education, for everyone, for free”?

I think the novelty of MOOCs is not about social individual connections, which can be harder having 100.000 classmates, but about the feeling of “relatedness” or “being part of something bigger than yourself”: a movement or a cause shared by thousands of people around the world.

I would even say that this cause can be the interest in one topic or knowledge area, but ultimately, also, the idea of first-class education, for everyone, for free, and the feeling that you can collaborate to make it happen.

The TED talk that Daphne Koller, one of Coursera’s founders, delivered in Edimburg in June 2012, was definitely aimed at communicating this idea:

“It would establish education as a fundamental human right, where anyone around the world with the ability and the motivation could get the skills that they need to make a better life for themselves, their families and their communities.”

“It would enable lifelong learning. It’s a shame that for so many people, learning stops when we finish high school or when we finish college.”

“And finally, this would enable a wave of innovation, because amazing talent can be found anywhere. (…) If we could offer that person an education, they would beable to come up with the next big idea and make the world a better place for all of us.”

What I find most interesting of Daphne’s message is that it was not only targeted at students, it was also designed to inspire and engage teachers and researchers by telling them that they can also be part of this movement and contribute to improve education:

“It has the potential of giving us a completely unprecedented look into understanding human learning. (…) You can collect every click, every homework submission, every forum post from tens of thousands of students. (…) You can use these data to understand fundamental questions like, what are good learning strategies that are effective versus ones that are not?”

After listening to Daphne’s words, it seems difficult to argue against this cause or to not want to be part of these communities. And I think this is, definitely, one of the secrets of MOOCs success.

After all, when have universities, professors, teachers, schools,… ever got to inspire and empower us, in a similar way, to shape the future of education?


Author: Elena Sánchez

UX professional passionate about User-Centered Innovation!

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