Can social media enhance the MOOC experience?

Researchers say ‘yes,’ but only when taking into consideration 3 key issues.

Though social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are extremely popular for communication and collaboration—even among academics—when applied to online learning, course designers must understand that providing more options for communication without integration is not always best.

This is the main finding of a recent study conducted by academics in Australia that surveyed over 150 participants on their opinions of using social media as part of a 2014 MOOC for educators on designing their own online and blended teaching materials. [More on the detailed methodology can be found in the full report.] The MOOC, called “Carpe Diem” (CD), had just over 1,000 participants, a high level of engagement and completion, and included the use of hosting platform CourseSites’ LMS, as well as Twitter and Facebook for online communication and collaboration.

Outside of the structure LMS, the Facebook group moderators guided participants to ask question about the CD MOOC, seek practical help, communicate and discuss issues around work tasks, and share links to online group work and resources. Twitter was used by both the CD MOOC team and participants to share practical information and resources, while also encouraging participants to share their thoughts.

Using a combination of a survey (completed by 155 MOOC participants) and phone interviews (conducted with 29 of the survey respondents), researchers from The University of Western Australia, Monash University, Swinburne University of Technology, and the Australian Council for Education Research, found that while half of respondents used, and found value in, Facebook and Twitter throughout the MOOC, almost half did not use these platforms and cited specific barriers to use.

Though these MOOC participants are in a very specific age range of 46-year-plus, the lessons learned from trying to include these popular social media platforms within the CD MOOC provided by Swinburne University of Technology, can be applied to other MOOCs, and for diverse students.

3 Lessons Learned

Personal preference matters

According to the study’s findings, 41 percent of interviewees did not use any forms of social media as part of the CD MOOC. One of the main reasons for this was unease at blurring social and professional identities.

“I did not use Twitter or Facebook. Those are social sites. For professional work, I prefer it to be on a professional platform,” noted one participant.

However, for those who did use Facebook and Twitter (approx. 50 percent), a number of participants were not enthusiastic about CourseSite’s formal LMS, since they were more familiar and comfortable using platforms they knew how to use already.

“When designing for MOOCs or online learning, participants’ preferences for social media use should be taken into account,” say researchers. “One solution is to offer a few different platforms, in addition to the LMS, but not require that learners use them if they feel uncomfortable. Alternatively, ask learners to create professional identities on social media for all formal learning and professional development uses.”

(Next page: More MOOC social media considerations)

More isn’t always better

One of the other main issues respondents had with using social media during the MOOC was the confusion on which platform to turn to, since not everyone had time to check all three platforms.

“It’s a time issue,” said one participant. “You know, you’re looking on the community and Twitter and all of the social things, and you end up tearing off your actual course work.”

Other participants said confusion was also a barrier to using social media, with one explaining that “While it is great to encourage using other forums outside the CourseSites to collaborate, it created more confusion as we did not know where to go to stay in touch. Encouraging a set place as a common thread would have been helpful at the start.”

“Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter should be viewed by MOOC designers as an addition to a LMS rather than a substitution,” said researchers. “Social media should ideally serve complementary purposed to a LMS, ensuring that material is not duplicated…It may be worth, for example, incorporating a Twitter feed directly into the LMS site, thereby opening access up to all participants and avoiding the requirement of logging into yet another social media site.”

Researchers also noted that online designers need to make sure that participants are not given too many social media options, “as more is not always better. Instead, more options may lead to confusion, intimidation, and learners who log off altogether.”

Explain the Benefits

For those participants who did use social media and found value in using outside platforms, improved learning outcomes thanks to facilitated discussion and work sharing with peers and moderators, as well as networking opportunities with learners around the world, were two of the benefits most cited.

However, for those participants who chose not to engage with social media platforms, many cited social media as a “waste of time,” both inside the MOOC (LMS) and outside (Facebook and Twitter).

Many of the participants who echoed this sentiment also noted feeling unfamiliar with the platforms.

Along with providing a basic introduction to these platforms, “it [also] may be useful to outline in detail to students the contributions that social learning can bring to a MOOC and, indeed, to any online learning environment,” wrote the researchers. “Those who believe that conversations on social media are a waste of time may view things differently if they understand how conversations and knowledge sharing with their peers can support their learning experiences.”

For much more detailed information, including the design of the CD MOOC, methodology, findings, and researcher background, read “The Space for Social Media in Structured Online Learning.”

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