What we’re learning from you about communications in large online courses

05/04/2013 in About this course, progress report

In this course we encourage you to communicate with each other via several channels, including your own blogs and twitter accounts, and we provide some guidance about when and why to use them. We let you, the course participants, choose which one you prefer.

One of the main purposes of this induction part of the course is to give people time to explore the possibilities of different features and benefits of the different channels. We give you time to ‘settle’ before the course gets underway in earnest.

What we’re finding is that the email discussion list (JiscMail) is both the most and the least popular channel. It’s the one that most people have gravitated towards for introducing themselves and sharing their work on initial activities. That means that there have been a lot messages circulating (good), but also that some people have rapidly felt overloaded (not good) and have opted out.

(For help on getting just one daily digest from the JiscMail list, or opting out, see the FAQ.)

By comparison, the web forum that people can use for posting introductions is relatively un-used, although other forums are starting to get lively. no one has used that channel.

About 80% of you opted into the email discussion list when registering for the course. As some decide that this is not for them, this may fall to 50% or less of active participants.

Whatever channel you choose to use, you won’t miss out on important communication from the organisers. We post all course content and messages from the organisers on the main ocTEL website and send one email at the start of each week directly to each participant. If the email discussion list is used by just a minority (rather than the majority) of participants, we believe it will still be useful.

It’s part of the process of large group dynamics evolving and finding an equilibrium. It’s why we included an induction period in the course design. At the same time, we acknowledge that managing communications in large groups is a challenge for everyone. For help on how to manage the different channels, please go to the FAQ.

There are also some interesting questions and positive points that emerge from this in terms of online learning:

  • with a large, open course – with participants from around the world and in different professional roles – how do you make visible the other participants and their activity?
  • can the introductory process ever be non-chaotic (in the sense of chaos theory, rather than shambles)?
  • how do nudge people towards ‘pull’ or more passive communication channels like forums (which require the hassle of new login procedures as well as unfamiliarity) instead of the convenience, for senders, of email?

16 responses to What we’re learning from you about communications in large online courses

  1. Ref

    By comparison, the web forum that people can use for posting introductions is relatively un-used, although other forums are starting to get lively. no one has used that channel.

    The reason for that is quite simple, it not’s clear that you can use that medium for posting introductions and there certainly isn’t any guidance (apart from this post) that you can.

    Do you post in the General Discussion? Or might it have made sense to add a forum called “Introductions”?

    Just a thought.


  2. Thanks, James,

    I absolutely take your general point. Arguably the General Discussion forum is no more or less welcoming to an introduction than the email discussion list (which is, after all, for general discussion).

    But there’s general agreement that we should signpost locations where people can post more directly. We took the decision not to do that with the opening introductions because we wanted to see where people would gravitate of their own accord. When many gravitated in the direction of the most ‘push-oriented’ channel, this had an adverse effect. So we’ll adjust discussion activities in future parts of the course accordingly.

    all the best, David

  3. I wonder if in addition to signposting where one *can* post, it might be useful to indicate at least sometimes where one *should* post? As the course is still open to new registrants it might help them for example to be able to see there is a forum labelled *Introduce yourself*. Or would that be too dirigiste for a cMOOC?

    Cheers Stephen

  4. Niki said on 06/04/2013

    I wonder if introductions are necessary – participants motivated to learn in this way want to get to the content, learn and get out again fast – how many participants looked at the suggestion of posting an introduction and sighed in disappointment at the same old online course starting point? And if motivated to take part in the MOOC in the first place, then the provision of only one discussion channel that is not push-centric would suffice. With this many participants, Twitter would be perfect – short and to the point, easy to search – selection of hashtags to streamline the discussions. First and only introductory question needed is “which country are you from?” Email should only be for direct mooc to participant communications nothing else.
    Who is really going to read any of these introductions anyway – every single one got deleted from my inbox without being read, and I am fairly sure the organisers of this course are not reading them either as they are not relevant.

    • Doing introductions might be ‘same old online course starting point’ but I think it is a very important element. I like to be able to find out about others who are involved. I won’t read all the introductions but scanning through allows one to pick up on bits and pieces that interest them. Also for some this will be their first online course starting point and writing something about yourself is a good way to get involved. The ‘introduction’ activity provides an obvious method for Online socialisation (Gilly Salmon’s Five Stage Model of E-learning – Stage 2) and isn’t the need for socialisation very much part of what we need in a learning situation. I don’t agree that ‘many want to get to the content, learn and get out again fast’. I, for one, am hear to learn from others on the course so I want to know about who I am learning from!
      I do agree that alternative approach to the ‘Introduction’ might be refreshing. What about using a wiki or database perhaps with specified fields: Name, place, role, reason for doing the MOOC, previous experience, …., other, comments. This would be nicely searchable and could be summarised and analysed and wouldn’t require reading of endless writing in the same way. Just a thought!
      I think the issue is not that all the info is produced but that it arrives in a very overwhelming way in our inboxes and had the effect of putting some people off. Learning how to control and organise all the available information is something that is very relevant in today’s world.

  5. I am so pleased that this topic has been raised as I have been both engaged and disengaged this week due to this very issue.

    Engaged because I have read several of the introductions and have found them interesting and reassuring. I have discovered that there are several participants like me who have a smattering of knowledge and experience with TEL, some who are really very new to it, and some who are really quite advanced. This has told me that the course is going to be beneficial and interesting because there will be very different perspectives and areas of interest which suit everyone.

    Disengaged because the one thing I really hate to do, and have done to me, is ‘spam’ others trying to work. I have also been concerned that we have ‘lost’ some potential participants who would have probably made some beneficial contributions.

    Like David and the team I have learnt a lot essentially as a result of these issues. I remembered quite quickly that I could direct emails from ocTEL JISC to a specified folder with an alert so I know there’s been communications received; this has helped tremendously and reminded me of a technique I had forgotten. I’ve started my own blog by following the directions on this site and liaising with my e-learning pals at work. I have also watched the Skinner video – thanks this was excellent. I have also seen what a supportive and friendly environment this is going to be as I received replies to help me with making my avatar clear (oh yes that’s another thing I have mastered this week – thanks to all concerned).

    And, like the team, I have again been reminded of the importance of clear signposting. I did ponder quite sometime as to whether or not the General Discussions forum was the appropriate place to post my intro, and wasn’t sure and didn’t want to make a ‘public prat’ of myself by posting in the ‘wrong’ place, so opted for the JISC list as it clearly stated in the instructions that this was a valid medium of communication for this course. I think the suggestion to have a clear ‘Intros’ forum is a sound one, and I believe this would be useful to new participants joining the course. Then, those who wish to read can, and those that don’t need do nothing in this regard.

    There has clearly been a learning curve this week from which I expect we have all learnt something. The idea to have an early start like this has been effective in that it has achieved precisely what it aimed for : to give time for us to settle in, get to know each other and to address the teething problems which are always likely to occur.

    Looking forward to the rest of the course.


  6. David, I finally have my username and password and am able to participate. I use a Facebook group with my students and find it an easy way to engage with them. It is much easier than using a Learning Management System (LMS) as you don’t need to sign in and you get notifications when someone has posted. A great thing about Facebook is that you can like a comment (which indicates to the student that you have read what they say but don’t have to respond) unlike a forum where you actually have to say something. Facebook provides the opportunity to acknowledge what the student says through simply liking their statement.

    I opted for emails because I find Twitter too time-consuming, however, as a lot of people have stated, we are getting inundated with emails. I had ticked on daily digests for my email feeds but I am receiving them individaully. When my student’s assignments are due at the same time, I found it cluttered my inbox and had to set up a folder and move all the emails across.

    I deliberately decided not to create a blog for this. I have so many blogs, wikis, etc that I do not want to create another. So, I guess it is the emails (if a Facebook group is set up I will use that to interact with fellow participants). If there is one, my apologies for not noticing that yet. I could set one up but believe one of the organisers should do this.

    As to introducing ourselves. I agree with elltatwsc in that, although I am happy to do this, I don’t want to clutter people’s emails and do people really read them. Not many, I am sure. I make a point of reading my student’s introductions on forums, but I don’t have 1,000s of students, only 100s and that is more than enough.

    I am sure I will get lots out of this course and look forward to interacting with others.


  7. Super comments Lynne. Like you, I have used this week’s experience as a learning moment, and always keep in mind that we learn from both the good and the bad. In my online course I have students introduce themselves on a dedicated discussion board and it works well, but would they prefer an e-mail list? I’m guessing not simply because of the size of my classes (about 60 students), and now I know not to try it.

    As for “meet and greet” type activities, I think that they are necessary for extrovert and social learners who need to make a connection with their peers, but should be no-stake activities so that those who prefer anonymity are welcome to skip that step.
    The whole point is that we are all different, and we must teach and learn based on our own personal preferences.

    The fact that David Jennings is summarizing our responses and habits is a super tool to assess how learners really behave in the first week of a course, and I am enlightened with every post or e-mail I read. Thanks everyone!

  8. I agree with all the comments!

    However we must remember each individual is starting at a different place, will have different preferences and initial ideas about how they want to digest information. I think part of this course is introducing different options and allowing the individial to learn about new options and choose from these alongside the familiar. That said it is important to clearly signpost each and provide an overview PLUS repeat these messages.

  9. Hi, I agree with the comments that maybe the Forum hasn’t been too successfull as you’ve judged it, because for example, I didn’t know where to post my introduction. I’m also not sure if these introductions are required and have only read a couple of other peoples. Yet I do want to have a sense of who else is taking the course and what experience and positions they are – this could help with networking and especially sharing information. I wonder if in future there might be a more flexible space where people can post things about themselves and then share information. In a previous MOOC I found that using facebook seemed popular and very easy for doing just that.

    But as you point out there is this balance between the push and pull. Many people are likely to remain lurkers rather than active participants – does this matter and how does it then effect others wanting to be more active? interesting material to be got from all of this.



  10. Thank you for the clarifications above.

    Returned from leave to find 200 ocTEL emails, one of which contained my login details. Should have set up mail rules before the break!

    Have been trying to browse a week’s worth of content, but this is an equally confusing experience. So many places to look, no particular order and the chance to miss some thing useful amongst the recurring ‘please remove me from this mailing list’ posts.

    Now to echo Stephen’s comments I’m off to work out where I *should* start as it seems I *can* post the same thing in any number of places and it may well get lost in a sea of perceived spam or lurk unread in a quiet corner.

    That said, this is quite an exciting journey and will be a very useful lesson for all involved 🙂

  11. My tuppence ha’penny worth after my first couple of hours of engagement – otherwise entitled ‘initial impressions’:

    In my opinion, the reason many people will have used the JISC email is because that was the link you posted first in the guidance section. It was the first mentioned and it was easy just to click on it – that seemed to be the most obvious place that you were (implicitly) suggesting people post their introduction.

    I think that if you had put the ‘forum’ link first, rather than the email one, then people would more likely have used that instead. I also think if you’d put an ‘introduce yourself here’ post in the forum, then you’d have found several hundred posts there instead, rather than just a handful. I really think it was down to the initial direction (or lack of) that you gave that has determined the way people have initially engaged with it.

    As it was a choice made prior to starting the first activity, nobody really knew what would happen when they clicked ‘inform me of the posts’ – I know I certainly had no conception that when I came back today from a week’s leave, I’d find 250+ emails in my inbox from ocTEL. Ooops!

    I immediately removed myself from the email list and deleted all the emails – I reckoned that I was being ‘spammed’. I thought – I’ll go the forums and read all of these online in a contained place where they originated (as in the email updates that we get from Moodle forum posts).

    However, when I went online I saw that these were not postings from a forum but a completely separate medium. So now I’ve deleted them and won’t be able to read them. Oh well, such is the learning curve. I wasn’t really that interested in reading about different people’s history really, so I don’t think I’ve lost much in doing so. I may go back in and opt for the weekly update on the main topics for future weeks.

    I have now explored a bit more about the course by exploring some of the different media available such as Twitter and the forums. I chose the forum as the best place to start and I clicked on that link because by the time I logged in for the first time, I knew for definite I didn’t want my contribution to add the email spam trail. The first thing I did was to jump to activity 5 and join a group of what looked like like-minded people.

    As the weeks go by, I reckon that people will gravitate to the medium or media that they feel most comfortable with. It’s all very well suggesting people have a look at other media but if you’re not tech savvy and have never tried that medium before then there aren’t that many instructions on how to go about it.

    So I think that although there are understandably many ways of engaging with this course, it would be a good idea to have a designated initial central point of contact, to give people a chance to find their feet, and then offer the chance to spin out to various media thereafter.

    I also think that the sheer quantity of stuff being generated over so many media is already somewhat overwhelming and I shall forever have this sneaking suspicion that no matter which medium (or media) I use and no matter what good ideas I pick up from this course, that better stuff is being posted somewhere else, rather than through the media I am (capable of)using.

    Ah well, such is life… ‘The grass is always greener’ and all that…. 🙂

  12. Thanks, everyone, for these thoughtful comments.

    Here are three things I think we’d do differently if we had our time again:

    1. add people to the JiscMail list in digest mode by default, giving them the option and instructions for switching to ‘immediate’ mode;
    2. make it a clear place on the forums for posting introductions if people chose to use that channel – this seems to have worked well for Activity 0.5, and it’s something we can act on for all of the rest of the course, though actually…
    3. for the introductions activity, we might have encouraged people to edit the biographical info on their profiles, rather than using any of the email/forums channels, and left the latter for the Big Question activity.

    Do you agree that those are good ideas, and would help?

    I completely appreciate that coming back from a break to find 200+ messages about a course is not good. I apologise in advance to those who aren’t back until next week…

    Here are a couple of observations that may be reassuring (or not!):

    1. Shuna, all those messages that you deleted are online, so you can still read them – see the Jiscmail archive (I hope that link works – jiscmail URLs are odd beasts) or our own archive in the Course Reader.
    2. SolentRoger is right that you can post the same thing in one of several places. Rightly or wrongly, that is deliberate. Yes, there is a risk of contributions getting lost. With (now) over 1,000 registered participants, it’s a brute fact that not everyone is going to read everything. However, the Course Reader does aim to pick up just about every contribution wherever it’s posted and make it accessible.

    I don’t think we have done enough to explain the features and benefits of the Course Reader yet, and that’s something we need to address. In the meantime, I strongly recommend Martin Hawksey’s screencast about it.

    Finally, one suggestion above that I respectfully want to put on hold for now is that we tell you where you should post. We want to leave that up to you and whatever feels best for you. The place we’d most encourage you to post is your own blog, because

    • that can give you a sense of greater ownership,
    • it means the course comes to you rather than you coming to the course,
    • it helps embed what you pick up from the course in the rest of your professional life and development,
    • it leaves you with a portfolio of evidence that you control (we haven’t made plans for how long the forums here will persist, but it will not be forever).

    … but we don’t force anything on you. It’s clear from just the comments above, that people have different preferences, and we deliberately want to support that diversity. It fragments things a bit, but (a) with 1,000 participants a bit of fragmentation isn’t always a bad thing (b) the Course Reader aggregates it all back together again.

    I hope some of that is useful.

    • Thanks for the reply and those reflections on our observations – te information and links were very useful.

      A day further on, there are two things I’d like to add. The screen cast video about how to access your profile after logging in was really useful – however, it seems that the only way that you can get to this profile page (where all the links, course reader etc are located) is logging out and logging back in. I can’t imagine that I’m alone in having my pc set to keep me logged in to my favoutite sites – so I hadn’t come across this page. It would be useful to have this set up as a ‘personal home page’ – if I click on profile it takes me to the profile set up page rather than the profile home page, where all the links are. If we could have the ‘profile’ page set as the one with the course reader, links etc on it, that would be helpful.

      Secondly, I use my iphone a huge amount to access the web but when accessing your site via a web browser on my iphone it takes me to a hybrid of a web app – some are compatible with iphone but many of the pages are squeezed down the right hand side of the page so it’s neither one nor the other – it’s not a fully compatible app nor is it a full website that I can enlarge and zoom in on, so the worst of both worlds rather than the best of. I wonder if it’s possible to do anything about this as I find the most time I have for browsing will be on my iphone on my long train commute?

      That apart, it is becoming more familiar as I make more forays into it and I have started joining in discussions in a small group. It seems we are happier in our wee ponds than we are in the big ocean 🙂

  13. Apropos previous comment I have since found that you can link to your own profile if you are logged in but the link to it is at the very bottom of the page – and not on every page. That ‘Welcome’ box would be more prominent higher up the right hand side, as it helps navigation round the site – but best of all would be a link to that page from the photo on the top right hand side of the page 🙂 Cheers.

  14. This seems like good reflection to me. I spotted that I could edit and post my introduction into my profile, then wondered about this. We are all communicationally challenged like we are challenged by how much time we can spend on activities. FWIW I think that some level of introduction is important. In another course I am doing we thought about small group introductions where small groups were defined as 35 or less. I thought that for a group of half this size, face to face round table individual personal introductions were probably best, but for larger groups, it would be best as a sub-grouped activity. I think that for non-face to face group work, text based introductions scale better. I’m not sure how fast everyone reads, but I suspect there are a lot of people in the current ocTEL participant group that can read several times faster than most people speak. One final point I’ll make is that the more intrusive emails helped me to engage. I nearly set up an email redirection, but I’m used to coping with floods of email and actually found it a reasonable level of traffic. In a way, those that struggle with this volume of email either don’t know well enough how to use the email system they use, or the system they use is not up to the job. Peace be with you 🙂

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