Dissertation Title:
“Exploring Communication Patterns in Massive Open Online Courses”

Dissertation Defense/Final Exam Result: Passed May 2019
Dissertation Deposited: June 2019 (IDEALS) (ProQuest Dissertations & Theses)

Dissertation Abstract:

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) use free or low-fee short courses to increase access to education both in the United States and internationally. Since the University of Illinois partnered with the MOOC provider Coursera in 2013 it has seen over 1.55 million enrollments in over 125 open courses, as well as the development of four online graduate-level degree programs. Yet online distance education includes potential drawbacks such as limited communication and feelings of separation from instructors and peers which may lead to an increased likelihood of dropping out. The use of communication tools may help reduce these challenges.

This study examines how and why participants in MOOC courses offered by the University of Illinois on the Coursera MOOC platform communicated with each other, community mentors, instructors, and/or others outside the course, which in-course and non-course communication tools they used most frequently, and what the instructors’ expectations for communication were. It looks at which types of communication tools course participants and instructors found most and least useful, as well as whether course participants’ goals for the course, the subject matter of the course, and/or course access options affected participants’ communication needs and patterns.

Semi-structured interviews were conducted with eleven course participants and five course instructors, while over 2600 course participants from ten courses completed a survey about their experiences with communication. Analysis indicates that course participants most often communicated with others outside the course before other participants, community mentors, and finally instructors, but most valued communication with instructors; yet instructors currently have limited contact with the courses.

Within the platform, participants most often used the forums but primarily did so by reading rather than contributing, instead preferring the synchronous live sessions for interaction when possible; many participants also wanted interactive live chat functions added to the course space. Outside the platform, they most often used tools which allow for engaged, real-time discussion. Course participants who interacted with anyone were more satisfied with their progress towards their goals, and learners who completed the course were more likely to have communicated with others.

While not all participants want or value communication within the course, making the course space more supportive of communal engagement would help support online learning processes, encourage persistence, and build success.