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Making friends in MOOCs: It is No Fluke!
Thursday, July 13, 2017
Friends in MOOCs
My SOLE (Self-directed Online Learning Environments) research team (Meina Zhu, Minkyoung Kim, Shuya Xu, Najia Sabir, and Annisa Sari) and I just submitted a paper for review last week related to instructor personalization of MOOCs. In terms of the data for the study, we sent a survey to over 1,000 MOOC instructors last summer and received about 152 responses. Here is the title of that paper (unfortunately, I cannot share the paper at this point since it is in me if you want a copy.):

Bonk, C. J., Zhu, M., Kim, M., Xu, S., Sabir, N., & Sari, A. (in review). Pushing toward a more personalized MOOC: Exploring instructor selected activities, resources, and technologies for MOOC design and implementation.

One question that we asked was the following:

1.      How many of the participants from your most recent MOOC would you now consider a personal friend?
a.       None
b.      1-5
c.       6-10
d.      11-20
e.       More than 20

I was interested in this question since I taught a MOOC for Blackboard (catalog) related to how to teach online exactly 5 years ago ( has been 5 years already? Yes!). It was called "Instructional Ideas and Technology Tools for Online Success." We used CourseSites from Blackboard. You still can enroll 5 years later.

In that course, I made many new friends, including people from Scotland, Belgium, Ukraine, Italy, Australia, South Africa, the United States, the UAE, Sweden, Macedonia, and other parts of the world. Friends in the USA included those from Alaska, Idaho, Michigan, Georgia, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Massachusetts, Texas, Kentucky, and so on. One of my MOOC participants, Paul Beaudoin, is an American composer, theorist, and author who was at Fitchburg State University at the time.

Paul performed extremely well in the course and got to know and support many of his global peers. In fact, despite nearly 4,000 people enrolled, he and I became good friends. Paul was among my favorite students in the course. During the course, Paul sent me an email asking me to look "under the hood" at one of his own courses and give him some feedback. And so I quickly explored it and found his activities to be highly impressive. Not surprisingly, Paul later recognized by Blackboard with an award for his unique and engaging online course ideas and activities.

Suffice to say, we became good friends. I have recommended him for a couple of awards and recognitions since then including a Fulbright experience a year later in Estonia which he was awarded. His proposal was titled:
The Changing Face of Music and Education: Technology, Creativity, and Inspiration,”

At the end of the MOOC, Paul said to me (which I have permission to share...see my testimonials):
           “Many thanks for the work you have been sharing with us these last 4 weeks. While I was hesitant at first, I have come to love this MOOC and look forward to it. Even better, is that I am implementing some of the ideas I've learned these past few weeks in my Summer Survey of Music class. I am now working on implementing other TEC-VARIETY ideas to bring into the fold.

I have much better expectations for the outcomes of this class and with the new techniques/strategies I have learned in the Instructional Ideas and Technology Tools for Learning MOOC. I am inspired and open to bringing my students a more engaging learning experience. Participating in the Instructional Ideas and Technology Tools for Online Success has made it clear to me that my focus in life is one who is passionate about teaching.”

Given the admittedly shaky start to my MOOC as the suite of tools Blackboard used were not designed for a MOOC, I was grateful for with all the positive comments when the MOOC was over. In fact, I was a tad overwhelmed. I now had dozens more people to connect to and share my research  reports with. At the time, i promised the participants that my next book would be free and so it is. My "Adding Some TEC-VARIETY: 100+ Activities for Motivating and Retaining Learners Online" is now free. It has had more than 100,000 downloads since it came out in 2014.

Giving away one's writing is one way to generate new friendships. Giving course design feedback is another. So is offering a free massive course. In terms of MOOCs, I think that the number of friendships made relate to the type or form of MOOC that you design. Is it an xMOOC (more traditional instructor led) or a cMOOC (more community and participant driven) or pMOOC (more project or product based) or some other type? One's goals and teaching approach or philosophy will certainly impact the number of new friendships made. As per the title of this blog post, "Making friends in MOOCs: It is No Fluke!"

Here is what we found in our survey research:
While the type of MOOC taught was deemed important, we were also curious whether these instructors felt like they made new friends as a result of teaching their MOOC(s) as it might be an indirect sign of MOOC personalization and enhanced interaction with the participants. However, when asked how many of the participants from their most recent MOOC that they would now consider a friend, 115 (76.7%) of the 150 MOOC instructors who responded to this question indicated none. Nearly one in five respondents (n=29; 19.3%) made between one and five new friends. Only 6 respondents (2.4%) made more than six friends from teaching their MOOC. In effect, despite the huge enrollments, delivering a MOOC typically led to few new personal friendships; a sign that they were more often taught as xMOOCs or self-paced MOOCs and not more participant or community driven types of cMOOCs.

See figure above (we are using a line graph in our journal article). Over three-quarters of MOOC instructors make no friends at all when teaching the massive courses with tens of thousands of people. How can this be? Perhaps I have a more loose definition of friendship than most MOOC instructor. But clearly, most MOOC instructors are not involved in teaching such a massive class to make new friends. They are likely more focused on delivering content. We need to do some follow-up interviews to find out more. But it is an open area of research. Perhaps others will want to focus on the possible links between friendships made and retention, learning, satisfaction, or enrollment in additional MOOCs.

I am curious what others think. I am also interested if anyone knows of any additional research on this topic. Perhaps one of my MOOC friends knows.

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  posted by Curt Bonk @ 11:24 AM  
  • At 8:50 AM, Blogger Mark said…

    Hi Curt
    Has it really been five years since your MOOC? Time flies!

    An interesting post and a good question about the establishment of friendships from MOOC’s (and indeed other types of online courses). As you rightly say, one variable is how a person might define that word ‘friendship’.

    In my own opinion, one key aspect of your own experience with Paul in your anecdote, is your own personality, you are a very social, approachable and friendly guy. You do not play any academic elitism games and I think that many people feel able to connect and reach out to you. The fact is that when they do that, you respond and find time to reply and connect back. Not every educator wants to do that or feels able to do that, especially in the context of a Massive Open Online Course.

    Here are think we are getting into a discussion about professional identity and how educators view their own role in the process of learning. Here is Finland there is a lot of awareness around the development of an educator’s core values and beliefs about their students and the very purpose of their course and of education itself and these are fundamental to their becoming professional teachers.

    I think there are also really strong connections to areas like Nel Noddings Pedagogy of Care, although this is more often associated with early years education and health sciences, there has been very little research around the importance of this in the online learning environment. To avoid this becoming an overlong comment, I would just say that you, as an educator exhibit a lot of the characteristics associated with caring about your learners.

    Finally, I think as well you are also touching on something that has come out from other streams of research into MOOCs, namely the nature, skills and characteristics of the participants themselves. As I think we can agree, MOOCs did not deliver the great democratization of education that was hoped for by many people. The data seems to suggest that vast majority of participants are already well educated, critical and digitally literate and, as Tressie McMillan Cottom identified them “roaming autodidacts”. Perhaps these people do not so much feel the need to reach out as Paul did, (though I know Paul and would say he is also very much a roaming autodidactic and very digitally literate). However, my point is that in general, the learners taking the MOOCs in your survey did not reach out very much to instructors to make friendship connections because they did not want to and did not need to.

    So – when is the next MOOC then? Five years is a long time – or perhaps the time for a MOOC is gone and instead we should just build informal and emergent networks to explore areas in which we have a mutual interest?
    Warmest regards

  • At 9:39 AM, Blogger Curt Bonk said…

    Thanks for responding Mark, my friend. I have always loved reading from Nel Noddings. I think I have both her intuition and her caring books. Too seldom is it mentioned when teaching in higher education.

    You are right that MOOC learners may not typically reach out to their instructors for friendship. But my MOOC may have been different since it was taken by teachers and instructors and instructional designers and teaching and learning administrators who wanted to learn how to teach better online or blended. So reach they did.

    I like your ideas of creating "informal and emergent networks to explore areas in which we have a mutual interest." I just might do that. First we have to finish writing up our current research and I must finish my next book. Perhaps in 3 years when I have my next sabbatical I should start it off with a 1 month MOOC. And then travel the world one month in 12 different places and make somew more new friends. Humm...I am liking this idea.

  • At 9:57 AM, Blogger Mark said…

    Hello Curt

    I agree that your MOOC was different and perhaps not typical. My recollection was that a number of the participants already knew you or at least knew of your work and weekly synchronous sessions (if I recall correctly?) are also not typical features. Thus the feeling of being connected and 'cared for' was much greater than in a typical video based MOOC.

    Your plans sound great - I look forward to reading the next book and I hope one of those months of the world tour will be in the 'North of Europe'.

    Thanks for your response, which also illustrates the point I was trying to make in my original comment. I am not too surprised by the results of your survey to be honest, but there are always exceptions.
    Warmest regards

  • At 10:06 AM, Blogger Curt Bonk said…

    Oh, I promise to come back to Finland during that sabbatical. Got some new friends in Helsinki to see and you and Eero and Riikka in Tampere. Have friends in Tromso, Norway as well.

  • At 3:15 AM, Blogger Ida Brandão said…

    I have received information about this survey through Stephen Downes newsletter and like him I would like to see some data on friendship among peers in MOOCs. I suppose you might have inquired participants in all MOOCs you have tutored and eventually, might have more responses.
    Anyhow, I wish to witness that the first MOOC I participated in was run by you in 2012 «Instructional Ideas and Technologies for Online Success» and I was quite impressed to have access to a free online course with such quality. This fact, made me a MOOC addict and by now, I have participated in over 40 MOOCs, promoted by different institutions through different platforms. My latest MOOC is still running «Generative Art and Computational Creativity», promoted by Simon Fraser Univ. in Kadenze platform. I have also created a MOOC Space that is a kind of eportfolio -

    Regarding making friends in MOOCs, I can't say I have, perhaps I have a restrictive notion of «friend», but in certain MOOCs with more interaction there are very friendly posts and now and then a peer sends a personal email. It may happen that some peers' names get familiar in certain MOOCs related to a particular field.

    Finally, I wish to thank you for that initial good experience, which introduced me in the MOOCs' wave and has helped me to stimulate my neurons, learn more and have a nice interaction with peers.

  • At 10:52 AM, Blogger Curt Bonk said…

    Thanks for the info Ida. I am delighted that you remember my MOOC. Congrads on the MOOC space: and thanksf or citing my blog post on Friends in MOOCs.

    I think you are in Portugal. I was there with my daughter 3 weeks ago. Spain too. We got to Coimbra, Lisbon, Seville, and Barcelona. Much fun! Next time we should meet you for lunch.

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About Me

Name: Curt Bonk
Home: Bloomington, Indiana, United States
About Me: I am a former accountant and CPA and a former educational psychologist. I am now Professor of IST at Indiana University and also adjunct in the School of Informatics. I founded and later sold SurveyShare. As president of CourseShare, LLC, I run around the world training instructors to teach online and give motivational talks about emerging learning technologies. I also write and edit books related to e-learning and blended learning. See bio and vita.

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Click here for information about my recent book, The World is Open: How Web Technology Is Revolutionizing Education.

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