Group work in a MOOC setting

In this blog I am looking at group work in a massive open online course setting. In particular, what is the most effective way to design these activities?

Working together online is not straight forward. A Higher Education Report on forming groups started with this quote "... I assumed that once students where in groups they would somehow manage to work together" (1). However the report continues to clearly define that this is not the case and there is quite a bit that can be done to ensure successful experience in group collaboration. Then if you look at the andragogy principles of self-direction and taking responsibilities (2) you might think that group work is perfectly suited to the MOOC format.

There are certain factors that make group work in a MOOC perhaps different to a paid or prescribed online course. The number of registered participants could be split into four main types active, non-active, lurking and drop-ins.  I will discuss a recent MOOC experience and suggest a possible alternative to completing and getting value out of group work.

My recent experience in Swinburne Carpe Diem MOOC in how the group work was arranged can be depicted as follows:

Notes: The preset groups lasted for the 6 weeks of the course with no option to swap or change groups. However other "community" discussion boards were made available to all participants in the last half of the course where all the main activity happened.

Background to this design choice possible includes:
a) The designers were trying to teach the pedagogy of Carpe Diem Rapid Learning design by using the same pedagogy. This started on the assumption that a group of people would be put together to create an online course design.
b) Ease of management. In a MOOC with unknown quantities of active or drop-in participants, the choice of random, preset groups are set-and-forget kind of groups

Problems faced:
a) People with low numbers of active participants wanted to swap groups but there was no mechanism to do this.
b) Participants quickly went to other sources for ways of getting together (eg Facebook). This caused confusion and lots of time spent in the first two weeks of the course trying to connect
c) Even though the first activity was an introduction post, there was still lots of twitter and facebook social connections being made outside of the MOOC. Nothing wrong with that, except that there was then no way for those people to work together on the content within the course design once they discovered their common interest. I set up a space in the University Learning Management System (LMS) as a way for myself and colleagues to interact but this was not widely used.
d) Working collaboratively did not "naturally" happen, it just felt like hard work and even the active participants who persevered posted comments about confusion/what/where/who.

A possible alternative for group work design:
The main concept for this design is to clearly provide the mechanism for active participants to find their own motivation to complete the tasks. This motivation can then be the driving force to stay in a group and participate. For drop-ins or lurkers they would still need to self-enrol in a group of interest to see the activity there.
First, List a set of topics for choice
Then, Describe the tasks that need to be done with this topic.
.... Provide self-enrol groups at this point in the course (not before). Ensure each group has active e-moderator.
.... Allow for introduction and discovery tasks to help the group settle in.
.... Setup the collaborate tasks for the group to start to work together. Participants can choose to change groups at this stage.
Lastly, provide badge submission points for individual recognition of group work.

(1) Forming Groups, Training Students to Be Effective Collaborators, and Managing Collaborative Groups. (2001). ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report, 28(6), 51.
(2) Culatta, R. (2013). "Andragogy (Malcolm Knowles)." Retrieved 29/4/2014, from