Coursera Forums: Why Students Don’t Like To Have Graded Discussions

In several Coursera classes, including two from Duke University, course instructors and staff have attempted to motivate students to interact in the forums through a participation component to the final grade. In every instance I have observed, this choice resulted in a vocal backlash from some students against the idea. The response at times has been so heated that the course staff have completely removed the participation requirement, while in other courses the weight of the participation grade has been reduced. I’d like to present in this post some of the common objections to graded forums presented by MOOC students, as well as some data from forum participation in Duke courses.

Forums Will Be Unusable

By far the most common objection posed by students, and it appears in several flavors.

  1. High potential volume of posts. Sometimes students will note the numbers involved and follow the arithmetic to a natural, if inaccurate, result. For example, requiring a course with 20,000 enrolled students to each post 5 times throughout the course would theoretically result in 100,000 posts, which would indeed be a large number for such a course.
  2. Low signal-to-noise. Following on the volume argument, students will often comment that a participation grade based on the number of posts would result in a large fraction of the forum filled with meaningless posts, redundant questions and answers, and other minutiae.
  3. Wasted time. Adult learners, which comprise the majority of current MOOC users, are often very conscious of their available time. The combination of the above two arguments usually leads to student concerns about time wasted attempting to read through large forums clogged with irrelevant comments in an effort to contribute their own thoughts. In addition, students who are subscribed to course threads fear that they will be inundated with emails containing meaningless content.

The evidence from 30 Duke course sessions is that forums never reach hundreds of thousands of posts, even in courses with many active forum participants or a grade requirement for a high number of posts per student (See Figure 1).

Number of posts compared to the number of forum users in the course.
Figure 1. Over a wide range of values for both volume of forum posts and number of forum users, Duke Coursera students consistently post an average of approximately 6 posts per forum user. This data may suggest that a student’s decision to post in the forums is not strongly impacted by the existing volume of forum posts.

Additionally, the average number of posts per student does not appear to correlate strongly with the number of course students or the total number of posts at the end of the course, perhaps suggesting that forum volume does not significantly affect students’ decision to interact in the forums.

Forum Engagement
Figure 2. The ordinate shows the fraction of students who accessed the course that posted at least once in the discussion forums. The abscissa marks the average number of posts per forum user. Despite the idea that both variables are possible measures of student engagement, there is no clear correlation. A few courses stand out as interesting cases: the purple triangle marks the only session of the English Composition course, which had an exceptionally high participation rate in the forums without a graded requirement. The dark red and green circles mark the two course sessions that had graded forum participation (Medical Neuroscience = red, Healthcare Innovation = green). Medical Neuroscience removed their forum grading component (36 posts/student over 12 weeks for 5% of the final grade) during their second session, which is identified by the light red circle.

Lowered Comment Quality

Related to the usability arguments, students will often complain that participation requirements based on the number of posts rather than their quality will result in frequent posts along the lines of ‘I agree’, ‘You’re right’, and ‘Thank you’. While these types of posts do exist in courses with graded participation, they also exist in those without any posting requirement. Qualitatively, it is not clear from our sample of courses that there is any significant increase of such posts when participation is graded, except in the ironic case of students who object to the requirement and are striving to make their point. A more rigorous analysis of discussion forum content would add clarity.

A couple existing options may increase the quality of forum comments that satisfy a participation requirement. First, the course staff can create a peer-evaluated assignment where each student would copy and paste their highest quality forum post(s) and grade them along a simple, preferably objective rubric. Second, Coursera’s platform currently allows the number of up-votes a student’s posts receive to be included in the grading formula. However, this second option can be affected by the voting culture of a course:  voting based on agreement with a comment rather than based on its quality within the discussion erodes the integrity of this grading approach. Third, there is a new forum grading feature that allows course staff to track the number of posts in each sub-forum. Potentially, students could be instructed to satisfy their forum participation requirement in more targeted ways, such as providing a quality response on a specific topic posed by the instructor and closely moderated by the course staff and community TAs.

Objection to Compulsory Interaction

A few students are concerned about interacting with other students on a social level, and they would prefer to have a course that does not require interaction. Several reasons may be given.

  1. Dislike social interaction. Some students specifically chose online education because they do not like the interaction and social aspects of in-person classes. This group is especially vocal in their rejection of forum participation.
  2. Weak language skills. Given the international nature of Coursera MOOCs, we do have some students who mention their difficulty with English as a reason why they do not wish to post in the forums.
  3. Privacy concerns. Some students are especially concerned about their privacy and protection of their identity. These students will point out that their only two options are to post under their name, or under a generic ‘Anonymous’ title that makes it difficult to understand who is participating in a conversation. Additional complications arise from a platform bug that does not allow a student to see their own anonymous posts on their personal forum summary page. This bug makes it difficult for a student who wishes to remain private to track their completion of the forum requirement. An ‘alias’ option is often suggested as a compromise, although this is not yet possible on the Coursera platform. However, students are able to edit their name into an alias, but are often not aware of this possibility.

An interesting and feasible suggestion that often crops up is to make forum participation a bonus to the final grade, rather than a basic component. In theory, this might make forum participation a rewarded effort rather than a required one. With the current means of grading on Coursera, this suggestion can be implemented.