This post is part of a series that expands on Dave Cormier’s Youtube video “Success in a MOOC” and applies his advice to the upcoming Mechanical MOOC about the Python programming language. Cormier breaks down online learning success into five steps: Orient, Declare, Network, Cluster and Focus.
Cormier’s third piece of advice is to network, that is to connect with the other MOOC participants. As in other forms of social media interaction, the quality and frequency of your engagement with other learners in the MOOC will establish your reputation in the class. In Cormier’s terminology, you can “declare” yourself with an introduction or by keeping a public learning log, but to “network” you have to seek out other participants and engage with them.
Since your peers in the MOOC will be your primary source of help, it is worthwhile to learn how to use discussion boards (or email listservs, Twitter, or whatever tool the course is using). Roger Peng of Johns Hopkins, who teaches Coursera’s Computing for Data Analysis MOOC, starts his course with a short lecture on “How to Get Help”. He bases his advice on Eric Raymond’s essay “How to ask questions the smart way.” The Raymond essay is long and somewhat off-putting for beginners, so here’s a summary with some additions of my own gleaned from the codes of conduct of OpenStudy, Codeacademy, Edx and my own experience.
- Do your homework. It will be clear to others on the forum if you haven’t read the manual, attempted the problem, watched the lecture, etc. It will also really annoy people if you ask something that has been answered in another thread, so make sure you search the archive for questions similar to yours before posting anything new.
- Describe your problem or question clearly. Give details about what you’re working on and why you’re having trouble. Explain what you’ve already done to try to solve the problem. Don’t post open-ended or vague requests for help.
- Don’t forget the details. If you’re asking about a homework problem, give the assignment number. If you’re running into a problem with a computer program, state which version of the software you’re using and which operating system it’s installed on. Try to anticipate the questions that someone reading your question might have.
- Follow the rules. Your course may have an honor code that prohibits certain kinds of collaboration. Don’t go posting answers to homework if that’s not allowed!
- Use forum conventions. Make sure you’re posting to the right part of the forum. Don’t post an invitation to a skype chat on a thread about lecture material, for example. Some boards have separate sections for newbie questions, social chat, etc. Pay attention to this. Also note if people are labeling their posts and follow that convention. Sometimes labels appear in brackets in the subject line, like [homework question] or [meetup]. If you’re using Twitter, make sure you tag each of your tweets with the appropriate #hashtag so that other participants can find it.
- Use the subject header well. Summarize your post clearly in the subject header so that people will be more likely to read it and help you. General subject headers like “Hi!”or “Help!” aren’t likely to get read and simply clutter up the stream.
- Make your post easy to read. Write in clear sentences. Don’t use abbreviations unless that’s the custom in the forum (e.g. texting/twitter speak). Use short paragraphs and include subject headings if necessary. Use formatting tools provided to separate text, or to mark something as a quote or a code snippet.
- Take a penny, leave a penny. Even if you’re new to the subject, there is likely some question you can answer. Make the effort. If you post a question, try to answer a question for someone else.
- Follow up. If you solve the problem, make sure to post the solution back to the thread. This will help the next person who searches the forum for this type of problem. It will also serve to mark the thread as closed so that people don’t continue to offer suggestions.
- Moderate. Many discussion boards will have ways of voting posts up or down, or flagging posts that are inappropriate. Using these tools helps improve everyone’s experience by lifting the good stuff to the top.
- Play nice. Don’t misuse the forum to promote or sell things. Be patient with other participants; they have varying degrees of experience, language skills and knowledge of forum conventions. Don’t insult people, start arguments, or pile on to existing arguments. Stick to the course topic. There are other places to discuss politics and cats. Lastly, this.
In my next post I will discuss MOOC networking in the context of the Mechanical MOOC on Python.