#PLENK2010 – Open courses and the ‘Granny Cloud’ phenomenon

Thanks to Alec Couros for further information about his open course – EC&I 831: Social Media & Open Education – and for the link to his call for mentors for this course which made for very interesting reading – and has had me reflecting on the question of how to scaffold open courses further – or whether we need to scaffold them at all.

Voluntary mentoring of online courses is not a new idea. John Smith, Bron Stuckey and Etienne Wenger always use mentors on their Foundations of Communities of Practice online course in CPsquare. This is not an open course, but mentors work voluntarily, having first participated in the course themselves. I was privileged to be a mentor myself for one the courses. As in Alec’s course, the mentor plays a different role to the course convenor. In CPsquare this is to support participants in finding their way in the course, to support them in their learning and interaction, to promote and encourage discussion and to support the course facilitators in their management of the course. This sounds similar to what happens in Alec’s course – the difference being that in the CPsquare course all mentors are already known to the course convenors and have been participants on the course for which they are a mentor.

Alec’s idea of a ‘call for mentors’ also struck me as very similar to Sugata Mitra’s ‘granny cloud’. Mitra is renowned for his ‘Hole -in- the -Wall’ experiments in India, which resulted in evidence that children can organise their own learning and teach each other – see http://www.ted.com/talks/sugata_mitra_the_child_driven_education.html for details. However, there was also evidence that the experiments did not always work – see Arora’s work and this blog post for an introduction. Following this critique by Arora, Mitra decided that children’s interest and motivation to learn in the absence of a teacher would be more likely if they were supported by what he has called a ‘granny cloud’. So he recruited hundreds of British grandmothers who are willing to voluntarily connect with the children online and answer their questions – a very similar idea to Alec Couros’ call for mentors.

These ‘experiments’ in learning with minimum intervention from a teacher raise all sorts of complex questions about the role of teaching, both in traditional settings and in open settings. The one that strikes me as being important is how the quality of mentoring is controlled. What sorts of checks do we need to have in place to ensure the safety of learners and that they get a ‘fair’ deal. Under what circumstances would it be worse to be ‘mentored’ than to be left to manage your learning on your own?

I need to read around a bit more (Mitra, Arora and Couros) and see whether these questions have already been addressed.

7 thoughts on “#PLENK2010 – Open courses and the ‘Granny Cloud’ phenomenon

  1. suifaijohnmak October 3, 2010 / 12:39 am

    Hi Jenny,
    I share many of your views on mentoring, and mentoring has been used in both f2f and in the virtual communities for sometime, only that it may be still new when used in open networks, with people who haven’t met each other f2f.

    I have been involved in the steering committee of mentoring for sometime, and being a mentor in the supply chain management and teachers too. I could see the benefits and limitations when mentoring is done in open, rather than in private space. So, would be interested in learning more about Alec’s ideas and its use in his course and Mitra’s further development on those experiments. The use of granny clouds do interject with a closing of the “generation gap”, but could be challenging if it is done using avatars (like SL) where issues of safety and child protection could be a big concern. Also, who are the ones taking responsibilities on what emerged out of the learning if personal privacy acts are breached (under the Child Protection Acts)? These are real concerns in case of children in education. These issues may not be open if it is still done in private space, but could be a concern for the parents, IMO.

    I will respond to you and Alec with a more detailed response later on my views on the above.
    Thanks for sharing your valuable experience in mentoring.

    Hi Alec,
    Thanks to you too for your sharing.


  2. courosa October 3, 2010 / 3:03 am

    Quick comment of clarification – yes, it is true that not all mentors have taken the course or know the student that they are ‘mentoring’. However, this is not true of all mentors. Some of the mentors have taken the course before, either for credit or as non-credit. As well, there are some cases where mentors already know or work with the students in the class. I imagine that over time, these numbers will likely increase.

    Thanks again for your post – and John, yes I’d like to hear your thoughts as well.

  3. Frances Bell October 3, 2010 / 7:41 am

    Hi Jenny and John,
    I have been thinking about your writing a lot in the last week as I read and cited your Networked Learning papers – so thanks!
    Re ‘granny cloud’ I was quite entranced with it when I heard Sugata Mitra speak at #altc2010, and think that grannny style mentoring has much to recommend it (I can’t wait to be a granny myself and I am looking forward to having more time for volunteering when I retire). Along with this though, a tiny little pricking of unease comes into my mind. Obviously, we need to protect the mentees from harm, but I also think we need to examine the whole sets of relationships between mentors, mentees, facilitators, etc. We could encourage mentees to reciprocate in the long run, as you have done Jenny. Also to acknowledge all aspects of giving and receiving.
    I have some illformed unease about the future of higher education – how will it be gendered? Will the low paid and volunteers be mainly women? (Gender is not the only lens for these questions – also race and global inequity).
    Apologies for straying to the bigger picture – I can’t help myself.

  4. criscrissman October 5, 2010 / 4:00 am

    Your questions about scaffolding resonated with me, Jenny 😉 How much if any in an online open course? What’s the right balance if your goal is to create enough chaos/ambiguity/disequilibrium for learning to be cathartic, deep, powerful, and transformative? How do you provide the right amount of scaffolding for each student so that the more needy are supported just enough and the more facile but burdened student might take the path of least resistance? Will too much scaffolding with mentors prevent the class of actual students from becoming a meaningful community?

    I’ve always been impressed by how generous students are to help out others in need. Many times a Q&A Forum has saved me from explaining something numerous times and enabled students to help each other out. I’m convinced these shows of support go a long way in nurturing community.

    I’ll carry these questions with me as I consider the role of the connectivist teacher. We began a discussion in the Second Life cohort last week and I see it as a question we’ll revisit often.


  5. jennymackness October 6, 2010 / 8:13 pm

    Thank you John, Alec, Frances and Cris for your comments – much appreciated. I am still thinking through all the issues so your comments have been helpful.


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