Collaborative exchanges on MOOC discussion forums fall into the category of computer supported collaborative learning (CSCL). Kirschner and Erkens (2013) named three main elements that contribute to students learning collaboratively in a computer-mediated environment. The first is a pedagogical element, which refers to the means used to help students achieve the intended learning outcomes of instruction. For example, an instructor might use scripts that specify activities to facilitate collaborative dialogue among students (e.g., Fischer, Kollar, Stegmann, & Wecker, 2013) or representational tools that assist students to complete distinct tasks as they learn (e.g., Slof, Erkens, Kirschner, Jaspers, & Janssen, 2010). The second element is a social element, which refers to support for formation of functional groups and effective communication among group members. For example, an instructor might employ tools such as Team Maker (Layton, Loughry, Ohland, & Ricco, 2010) for group creation or Comprehensive Assessment of Team Member Effectiveness (CATME; Ohland, et al., 2012) to encourage personal reflection on contributions by group members. The third element is the technological element, which refers to functionality and restrictions of the CSCL environment. Pedagogical and social support via the tools presented as examples above would not be possible without adequate technological capability.
The 6.002x platform provided the technological capability for multiple simultaneous discussion threads that were tagged by topic and could be searched by key words. In its first iteration, the forum provided some pedagogical assistance to direct students’ collaboration, in that they could search for tagged posts related to a topic of interest. Students were encouraged to do this prior to posting a question, thus allowing them to find a group of peers that may have shared their question and were still engaging in active discussion about it. In addition to asking or answering a question on the forum, students had the option to comment on questions and replies. Their comments often contained clarifications to questions or replies, which served to further direct the subsequent posts. Students were strongly encouraged to use the forum to find help with understanding course content or using course technology, but they could choose whether or not they wanted to use it.
Kirschner and Erkens (2013) further proposed a theoretical framework to guide CSCL research and development. They outlined three important dimensions of CSCL and related subcategories that should be addressed by research: (1) aspect of learning—the cognitive, social, and/or motivational outcomes of collaborative exchanges, (2) unit of learning—the benefit realized by an individual, group, team, or community from learning in collaborative endeavors, and (3) pedagogical measures—the interactive, representational, or guiding strategies used to facilitate positive outcomes for students as they collaborate. At present, CSCL research has focused on some, but not all, of these areas (e.g., Fransen, Weinberger, & Kirschner, 2013; Jӓrvelӓ & Hadwin, 2013; Schellens & Valcke, 2006; Shell et al., 2005; Slof et al., 2010; Weinberger, Ertl, Fischer, & Mandl, 2005). Although our more immediate question of classifying the type of student posts and the role of the poster in the 6.002x discussion forum was descriptive, it contributes to our future work, which is focused specifically on the cognitive and social aspects of learning from the 6.002x discussion forum for individuals.
When taking a more fine-grained view of CSCL, the literature provides multiple examples of frameworks used for content analysis of discussion forum posts (see De Wever, Schellens, Valcke, & Van Keer, 2006 for a review). These frameworks have been used to examine participants’ interactivity, cognitive knowledge, metacognitive knowledge, critical thinking skills, social presence, perspective taking, and learning strategies. Although we believe these frameworks are extremely valuable to delve more deeply into students’ learning behaviors and cognitions, we found that the open nature of the 6.002x discussion forum tended to produce a significant number of posts that were not strongly related to any of those constructs. In the MOOC space, it becomes necessary to precede more in-depth examinations of student posts with an initial coding or classification schema, to parse the sample prior to further analysis. We found no previous work to serve this purpose; thus, our work can fill a current void in MOOC-related CSCL research as well as provide a foundation for the future use of natural language processing in classification of discussion forum data.