Definitions, diversity, emergent learning and responsibility in MOOCs

Despite being orientation week in ChangeMOOC  there have already been some interesting discussions. From these it is clear that MOOC is becoming a more familiar term. There are increasing numbers of MOOCs – (See Stephen Downes’ MOOC Guide) being offered. To date these ‘courses’ have mostly been about the effect of developing technologies on education and learning, but interest is beginning to grow in whether subject specific MOOCs will attract participants. Lisa Lane experimented with a History MOOC which didn’t work for her – and Stanford University – are currently offering one on Artificial Intelligence. It’ll be interesting to see whether this one is successful.

With the term MOOC becoming more familiar, more people are questioning what it means. Already in ChangeMOOC we have seen a discussion growing, both in the Research Group and in some people’s blogs (Frances Bell, Glen Cochrane) – around the questions: What is a MOOC? How do we define it? These questions were also discussed in EduMooc – I didn’t attend EduMooc, but I was made aware of the discussions thanks to Heli.

What has intrigued me is what seems to be a natural tendency for people to try and normalize/formalize or ‘pin down’ something that is innovative and was never intended to be ‘pinned down’, which if successful would make it not innovative any longer. Not very well expressed but I hope you get my gist.

As I commented on Frances’ blog – trying to pin things down with definitions, will always be problematic for the very reason that Stephen outlines in his work on Fallacies, where he writes:

The following are fallacies of definition:

  • Too Broad (The definition includes items which should not be included)
  • Too Narrow (The definition does not include all the items which should be included)
  • Failure to Elucidate (The definition is more difficult to understand than the word or concept being defined)
  • Circular Definition (The definition includes the term being defined as a part of the definition)
  • Conflicting Conditions (The definition is self-contradictory)

Add to this problem, the diversity of people who are reading/using the definition and we get yet more interpretations. And we must remember that diversity is a key principle of MOOCs, so we can’t ignore it.

And then we have the principle of autonomy in MOOCs, which requires learners to find their own paths through the course, making sense for themselves of their individual journeys. There is no expectation that people will end the course having arrived at the same place or even at the same understanding. It is expected that the learning will be unpredictable and emergent.  George writes about this in his Rather Random blog.

It is the messy, chaotic nature of MOOCs that people seem to have most difficulty in coming to terms with. It is also the idea that valuable and meaningful learning cannot be prescribed. If people can tolerate this unpredictability, this is exactly what makes MOOCs exciting for many learners who clearly feel empowered by the freedom to take charge of their own learning, in ways in which they may never have experienced before.

But, despite the clarity of the principles behind MOOCs,  —- and I have always felt that they have been clear but not always understood (Stephen might have refined his explanations since 2008, but the principles – themselves have remained unchanged) —– there remains a big and challenging question, which was raised by a speaker in one of the EduMooc webcasts.

‘What is the responsibility of the creator?’

In other words, these MOOCs are set up by one or more individuals. They are created not collectively, as we go along, but usually by one or more (less than 5?) individuals working as a group. As creators and conveners of the MOOC, what responsibility do they have for their creation and the resultant learning that takes place in the MOOC? Where does their responsibility begin and end? Does it matter?

24 thoughts on “Definitions, diversity, emergent learning and responsibility in MOOCs

  1. bioramaxwell - Robert September 17, 2011 / 2:08 am

    Jenny, thank you for your post. You have hit on some of the ideas I’m currently struggling with while building a hybrid online/inclass biology course. I have been interested in the concept of MOOCs and wanted to incorporate this into the course, possbily even offering the online portions to the general public for Open Education.

    Your comment about the messy, chaotic nature of a MOOC is something I both love and fear as an educator. I would love to give my students a foundation of knowledge (the inclass portion) and then let them have freedom to explore the topics with the idea that they will take the foundations given and build a learning experience that satisfies the learning goals of the class.

    This of course brings up the responsibility aspect of the instructor/facilitator of the MOOC or course. While I have not come up the answer, my gut tells me that there is a responsibility, but it can vary. If it is just an open course alone, then you will have one level of responsibility. If the course is being offered for course credit, continuing eduction units, or certifications, then there is a stronger sense of responsibility. Not for the learning, but to help build the dialogs and help motivate participants. I’m working through this idea of the level of responsibity and how much “control” a facilitator or instructor can keep on a chaotic social networking style of learning.

  2. Karen September 17, 2011 / 2:14 am

    You write, “It’ll be interesting to see whether this one is successful.” It’s also interesting to consider what we mean by “success” when it comes to MOOCs.

  3. jennymackness September 17, 2011 / 9:12 am

    @Robert. Many thanks for your comment. I think we share many of the same concerns. Your comment has prompted me to make another post – thanks. Look forward to hearing your thoughts if you come back and have the time. Jenny

  4. jennymackness September 17, 2011 / 9:14 am

    @ Karen – I agree. I suspect the meaning of success is individual to each participant. For me it is related to whether the ‘course’/experience has any impact on my practice. It would be interesting to know what it is from the conveners’ perspectives.

  5. Glenyan September 17, 2011 / 3:39 pm

    Hi Jenny; I think it matters a lot how any individual MOOC is defined. Not so much ultimately, but compared to how it is billed or compared to what the claims are; this is where the creators’ responsibility lies. As Robert mentions, the Change11 MOOC is being offered for credit and at a fee. This is being done at the University I attend, and while I know how I feel about this, I’m still not so sure how strongly I feel about it.

    Discrepancy of what is represented and what *is* can lead to very strong issues of trust and credibility. One distinction that I always seem to come back to and keep an eye on in MOOC talk is the difference between the responsibilities of learning inside and outside of Education. This has implications for things like the above instance with my University, facilitator roles, and my own motivation inside the MOOC, among other things.

  6. jennymackness September 18, 2011 / 7:48 am

    > think it matters a lot how any individual MOOC is defined. Not so much ultimately, but compared to how it is billed or compared to what the claims are

    @Glen – I agree – but I’m not sure that that involves defining a MOOC. Isn’t it more to do with clearly setting out the expectations. I have noticed that this has been an area that has improved in MOOCs since 2008. The ‘How this Course Works’ page is now much more explicit. The problem online is, that there is no way of knowing who reads what and my experience is that a lot more needs to be spelled out in online courses than is the case in face-to-face courses.

    >Discrepancy of what is represented and what *is* can lead to very strong issues of trust and credibility.

    I agree with this too – but it is the case in all courses not just MOOCs. Trust is a key element of good teaching – but then there’s the whole question of who is the teacher in MOOCs. Is the convener necessarily the teacher?

    >One distinction that I always seem to come back to and keep an eye on in MOOC talk is the difference between the responsibilities of learning inside and outside of Education.

    This is a difficult one for many institutions, but presumably places such as Athabasca University and Stanford feel they have addressed these issues in order to be able to run MOOCs in the first place? By Education, with a capital E, I’ve interpreted this as institution? Is learning outside the institution their responsibility? It’s like asking whether the child is still the school’s responsibility after they have walked out through the school gates? My experience is that the child is no longer the school’s responsibility, but since I haven’t taught in a school for many years now, I can’t be sure that things haven’t changed. When participating in MOOCs, not for credit, I have always taken it that in MOOCs my learning is my responsibility.

  7. Jim Stauffer September 18, 2011 / 8:12 am

    I have noticed a tendence to attempt to codify, to package in reproducible form, anything which is successful. If an innovative teacher’s math class attracts positive attention, you can be sure there will be a book outlining 10 steps to copy it. MOOCs seem to have gained a lot of traction, so now there is pressure to disect, define, and duplicate them. I think you hit it on the head when you write about attempting to pin down something innovative. Instead of defining the boundaries and populating the middle, we need to keep probing the edges.

  8. jaapsoft2 September 18, 2011 / 8:15 am

    First and very important: The students have their own responsability in what they do with the MOOC and what they learn.
    Secondary is the responsibility of the makers of the MOOC. The questions, subject, opinions formulated and stated by the makers are their responsibility. The answers, conclusions, the learned is the responsibility of the participants and students in a MOOC. The students are in some sense also the makers of the MOOC. A MOOC is a social creation of the makers and the participants. I do not agree with “They are created not collectively, as we go along, “, I believe we do create the MOOC as we go along.
    The technical and organizational structure is a responsibility of the makers, but the participants do add parts of the structure.
    Every adult is responsible his (her) learning, and you cannot accuse another person for your conduct, for what you learn.

  9. jennymackness September 18, 2011 / 8:39 am

    @Jaap – thanks for taking the time to comment.

    >“They are created not collectively, as we go along, “

    Just to clarify where I was coming from in this. Basically I was thinking that we didn’t all sit down and design on the course schedul together. I suppose the MOOC participants could get together and say – ‘Hey guys – we don’t like your schedule – we want it in a different order, or we want different things in it etc.’ but assuming that won’t happen then what we have been given was not created collectively. The outcomes may be created collectively and we learn from it, or not learn as the case may be, will be individual and collective – and that learning will be our responsibility.

    > The students have their own responsability in what they do with the MOOC and what they learn.

    I completely agree with this – but I’m not sure that it negates convener responsibility and I can’t sort out in my own head where that responsibillity begins and ends. For me this is an important consideration for people who are using MOOC principles when designing their own courses/MOOCs.

  10. Glenyan September 18, 2011 / 1:27 pm

    Jenny and all; One of the the divisions of responsibility comes from the use of the word ‘course’. This term is at odds with the nature of this MOOC, as a ‘course’ encompasses learners on a common path, doesn’t it?

    At most, this MOOC can be said to be a collection of courses.

  11. Lisa M Lane September 20, 2011 / 5:59 am

    My History MOOC didn’t work because (literally) no one came, but then it occurred to me that we were already offering one as part of our online teaching program, which is an all-volunteer faculty project that started with us offering workshops at our college, then evolved into online synchronous sessions once a month, then into a certificate (just ours, not for-credit or associated with the college). Last year the certificate blog was open to all, and participants (about 25 of them) were authors, but this year we went with an aggregated blog. MOOCsters picked up on it and mentioned it on their networks, so more people came, and now we have over 90 (we closed enrollment last week). That may not be “M” but it’s plenty, and necessitated my moving to a new server and learning a lot of things I didn’t know (I am, after all, just a History instructor sharing a vision of online teaching — we don’t have any tech support to speak of and are paying for $250 hosting out of an award we got).

    Our makers (yes, less than 5 faculty) were responsible only for design of the class, and now it just runs. We have interesting discussions and conflicts inside the originating group, as some think the whole thing got too big and is no longer catering to our own faculty. My own feeling is that a wider scope is good, that the whole web is our classroom, but I could very well be wrong. Open is great, but I did not expect it to get this big, or to attract as many people who were so far “ahead” of our main group, and several members are worried that we are “scaring off” our own instructors. We have certainly had to provide guidance for newbies, but some newbies will not make it because they don’t know what help to ask for or where to ask.

    So we evolved rather than planning to be a MOOC. The definition of a MOOC should be worked on at Wikipedia, where they were going to delete the term until a few of us started working on it. It would also provide a focus to the disparate, self-referential discussion of MOOCs that tends to take place inside them. I think at this point I’m for abandoning the “M” and seeking discussion of a pedagogy for open online classes in general, to help us create them within our various disciplines and have them work. The concerns Robert notes above are the big ones, I think.

  12. RoseQ (@RoseQ) September 20, 2011 / 9:14 am

    Just to say thanks for the lively discussion.
    #change11 is my first MOOC and comes at a bad time in terms of other commitments ( there ever a good time?!) LOL
    …And just with the blogs I’ve chosen to follow and places I keep dipping into – I’m already delighted I made the decision to register.
    It is EXACTLY these types of debates I was hoping for

  13. jennymackness September 20, 2011 / 9:26 am

    @ Lisa – thanks for sharing your MOOC experience with us.

    Am I right in thinking that the MOOC you are currently working on and is attracting more participants than you can realistically cope with, is not a History one and is therefore not subject specific? Do you think that no-one came to your History MOOC because it was subject specific and if so, what does this say about MOOCs?

    >We have certainly had to provide guidance for newbies, but some newbies will not make it because they don’t know what help to ask for or where to ask.

    I agree with you on this. I think this has been a concern since CCK08 and one of the changes that has occurred is that increasingly more guidance is given in each MOOC. When I had a go at writing an online course based on MOOC principles, I followed Alec Couros’ example and provided lots of ‘How to’ video tutorials.

    My own experience with teaching online is that the courses need a lot of skilled facilitation if participants are not to fall by the wayside. But this type of facilitation which involves teaching intervention is at odds with the MOOC model. How do you deal with this in your MOOC?

    As far as the ‘massive’ element goes – then I tend to go along with Stephen, George and Dave in their discussions about why massive is necessary for a MOOC – but I don’t think courses in general need to be massive to be able to apply the principles of MOOCs at least to some degree.

    Thanks for your comments. Jenny

  14. jennymackness September 20, 2011 / 9:31 am

    @ Rose – Welcome 🙂

  15. Lisa M Lane September 21, 2011 / 3:00 am

    @Jenny The subject of my current open online class is the pedagogy and technology of teaching online. So it has a subject, but that subject would only be seen as “academic” by people with degrees in Education. And yes, I definitely think one reason the History MOOC didn’t work is because people don’t want to take a MOOC about History — they want to learn this way because they are trendy people (or trendy wannabes) who want to learn trendy things, the latest stuff. I think that’s why the Stanford AI class is popular too.

    We are indeed dealing with the difficulty of balancing guidance and freedom in the teaching online class. At the moment, we lean toward independence because no one has time to teach it nor is getting paid for doing it, but I’ve been making tutorials like crazy! 🙂

  16. Glenyan September 21, 2011 / 1:55 pm

    Thanks for that link, Jenny, Carmen’s entire comment there is excellent. Although, a MOOC as only three dimensional space might make nobody responsible for anything, at anytime. The presence of a topic itself goes beyond this, as Lisa mentions.

    The ‘gives permission’ vs ‘support’ distinction in Carmen’s comment makes me think, as well. I think there’s a place in between these two where structure can be available or not, depending on the wishes of the learner or the ability of the educator (facilitator or other participant) to notice it about any individual learner.

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