Why MOOC forums fail to deliver


Founder at MoocLab
Staff member
Group Manager
Social learning is a key element of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) primarily via interactive online discussion forums which aim to help build communities for students, professors and teachers. And yet these forums fail to deliver. They tend to be badly managed (if at all) and awkward to navigate making them more counterproductive than a useful learning aid, a point highlighted by Robert McGuire in his article Building a Sense of Community in MOOCS: "Ironically, the biggest obstacle preventing MOOC students from forming relationships is the feature most relied on to encourage them.”. It seems MOOCs have largely disregarded the huge potential that social learning offers through shared experiences, peer to peer learning and mutual support.

The reason these discussion forums are failing in their objective to engage learners is the lack of community. MOOC platforms focus on the courses rather than the student experience, and building a thriving community seems to be secondary to gaining a large number of “sign-ups”. The designated discussion boards are filled with vast quantities of threads or topics which are not categorised in any meaningful way, and with no or little ensuing discussion around the topic itself. The forums also tend to be dominated by a small group of avid participants, isolating the “masses” who feel too intimidated to join the conversation. The percentage of students registered on a course who participate in the forums is minute.

There is, however, no doubt that the social aspects of online learning play a major role in student engagement, and that forums have the potential to provide the perfect social platform to build a sense of community. So, how do you achieve this? Forum management and content are key. Successful forums have active forum administrators and moderators whose job it is to encourage discussion, moderate and organise the content, carefully plan and add meaningful content themselves. The Student Room and Mumsnet are good examples of how a thriving community should be managed. Without this, any forum will die. MOOCs didn’t consider the real value of forums and forgot to prioritise the learner’s experience over the course content and instructor. Currently, most MOOC platforms offer designated forums once a student has enrolled on a course. These forums have little meaningful content and lack “leaders” to encourage participation. In short, they have no community spirit.

Some MOOC platforms are now trying to encourage more active student interaction using a “social media” type approach with personal profiles, avatars, “Likes”, “Recommends”, Awards etc However, on closer inspection, the discussions on the course forums remain very short with one or two replies only, resulting in, again, a long list of threads with no true conversations. Why? Once more, it comes back to a lack of forum leadership. The threads are not managed in any meaningful way and there is no encouragement or incentive to participate.

Student engagement on MOOCs is directly linked to course completion rates – the more engaged the student the more likely he or she is to complete the course - and it is only through creating vibrant communities around MOOCs that drop-out rates will start to decline.

MoocLab, the new MOOC Community Website, offers a fresh approach. Rather than being a course-centric discussion forum, it is a “MOOF” – Massive Open Online Forum – a free and open platform where users can meet fellow online learners to share and discuss their learning experiences and pathways. MoocLab is dedicated to providing a place where both consumers and providers of e-learning can form their own community groups around common interests, whether it be a particular course, a subject area, a course provider, an instructor, or any other MOOC/online learning interest area. Being a fully managed discussion board, discussion topics are organised and grouped into clear categories making navigation around the forums easy. The site is regularly seeded with relevant news, articles, polls and discussion topics encouraging users to share their views and experiences. MoocLab can also be considered a VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) where students can ask and answer questions and upload files, documents and videos allowing users to give and gain valuable knowledge. Contrary to other MOOC related platforms, building a real community or communities is at the heart of MoocLab’s vision, with the forum as the main focus of the website. Its aim is not to replace the MOOC designated forums which can still offer support to students who choose to use them as a learning aid, but rather to provide a central meeting place for all e-learners looking to share experiences, learn from their peers and offer support, thus creating a true sense of community spirit. So, sign up now and get posting!

Carolyn McIntyre, CEO at MoocLab.club



Active Member
“Online education was never meant to substitute the in-person experience. The principle is that online education is meant to create new opportunities for people to come together, to share, and to experience each others’ perspectives in new and exciting ways.” Robert Lue, faculty director of HarvardX