Critical Discussion in MOOCs

I have been thinking a lot about Terry Anderson’s post and the reaction it provoked in the changemooc sychronous session and in responses to the post (I think this is the right recording of the sychronous session). In this post Terry  ‘laid bare’ that he felt alienated in the session on Rhizomatic Learning led by Dave Cormier, supported by Stephen Downes and George Siemens.

In his post Terry was at pains to say that he respected Dave’s work  – also Stephen and George’s work – but that he had felt alienated from the ChangeMOOC synchronous session for a number of reasons, which were both to do with the conversation (chat) in the MOOC session about the ideas being discussed, and with the concept of a MOOC and the technologies involved.

Dave, Stephen and George’s response appeared to me to be quite defensive and I wondered why. I have noticed this before when MOOCs or Connectivism are interpreted as being attacked. My own interpretation of Terry’s post was that he was genuinely concerned and somewhat bewildered by his sense of alienation. He was not making a personal attack on Dave, George or Stephen but simply expressing how he felt and, from my perspective, being refreshingly open and thoughtfully critical of some of the ideas being expressed.

I don’t want to go into the nitty gritty of what Dave said, or what Terry said or what Stephen and George said. I don’t think that’s the point.

My point is that MOOCs and the ideas within them seem to be over sensitive to critical discussion and opposing points of view. In CCK08 we experienced the maliciousness of a genuine ‘troll’. But Terry’s post was not malicious. He seemed genuinely concerned that he didn’t feel part of either the ideas or the social scene (i.e. alienated – which is not a comfortable feeling – even painful).

For me there are two big and ongoing questions in relation to MOOCs that for me have not yet been satisfactorily answered:

  1. What is the responsibility of the MOOC conveners to ‘newcomers’ or ‘MOOC novices’?
  2. How will the MOOC avoid ‘group think’, and in reality welcome and embrace the diversity of ideas that inevitably comes from a diverse network – which may (and hopefully will) include critical discussion of MOOCs. Isn’t this what a MOOC is supposed to be all about?


13 thoughts on “Critical Discussion in MOOCs

  1. Glenyan November 11, 2011 / 11:25 pm

    Lots to think about here, Jenny. I think you bring up some key issues and frame them quite well. 1. There’s been discussion about MOOC responsibility on your blog before. Any discussion probably comes back to what has been said, at least for me. 2. Societies are very cliquish, and it makes sense that MOOCs, which rely heavily on social media, are also. I do find that in Connectivist circles the interactions that tend to get the most thoughtful response from those in positions of influence or facilitation, are the more negative points that “need” to be refuted. It would be nice to see more thought and response put into the ideas that are trying to build connectivism and MOOC-style learning from within, and to those who seem initially open to the ideas. If not, these ideas run the risk of becoming stagnant or ideological.

  2. dave cormier (@davecormier) November 12, 2011 / 2:30 am

    The subtext to all that is that stephen, george, terry and I actually all know each other quite well. I’m sorry if my response to Terry came off as defensive, I don’t feel particularly defensive about it and think that his response points to a weakness in the way that discussion was developing.

    There’s a fair amount of group think wherever you go. Think about it Jenny. You are PART of the MOOC… not looking at it from the outside. The MOOC avoids groupthink when it’s members point at important issues and call people out.

    which you’ve done.

    cheers. d.

  3. Heli Nurmi November 12, 2011 / 10:53 am

    From my point of view (CCK08,09,CritLit, Plenk2010) I am Very Glad about Dave Cormier’s way to participate. I see him as a honest, open, dialogical person and I’ve learned to appreciate him. I enjoy especially the Edtech conversation with Jeff Lebow and others (they have had already 6 yrs).

    Dialogue is the point of development and emergency, it is necessary. It is a great challenge to avoid behaving in a defensive manner. How to be open and don’t obey blindly what others have said and done etc. Dave is not in an easy place but he is strong enough – I want to support albeit he doesn’t need my support 🙂

    Uh, I write so slowly in English, I do not continue further, but I want to say that I greatly appreciate the dialogue Dave and Jeff and other Edtech fellows have implemented.

    And you, Jenny, I do appreciate your openness and I see you a discussion leader. You don’t say anymore that here in your blog can’t happen important discussions?

  4. jennymackness November 13, 2011 / 5:46 pm

    Glen – thanks for your comment.

    >any discussion probably comes back to what has been said, at least for me.

    This is very likely in my case Glen because I have a memory like a sieve – so it is unlikely that I remember posts that I have made in the past. I am sometimes surprised that on the whole my thinking is fairly consistent but hopefully developing.

    >Societies are very cliquish, and it makes sense that MOOCs, which rely heavily on social media, are also.

    I agree that MOOCs can be cliquish – but I find it disappointing that they are. A key principle of MOOCs is diversity and hopefully this can be fully experienced. But I am also looking for resonance – any maybe that is what others are doing too and that is what leads to cliquishness.

    The problem with the comfortable environment of cliques, and possibly even a danger of resonance, is that it might lead to a lack of critical discussion and challenge – which of course can be uncomfortable.

  5. jennymackness November 13, 2011 / 5:59 pm

    Dave – I have just listened to your video interview with Jeff Lebow – – which I found very thought-provoking. Thank you.

    And I have also read today a post by Keith Hamon ( ) where he discusses rhizomatic learning in terms of a bowl of spaghetti.

    I agree that there’s a fair amount of group think wherever you go, which is why I think it is important to ‘stand back’, try and be able to ‘see the wood in the trees’, see the whole picture as well as the parts and so on.

    I think we need to be able to be both, i.e. in the middle of the spaghetti messiness and entanglement and be able to stand back as an individual and view it, reflect on it, think about it from a distance and as a whole.

    Reflection is about standing back. Does it fit into the rhizome metaphor?

  6. jennymackness November 13, 2011 / 6:07 pm

    Heli – it’s always lovely to receive your comments and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that you do this in a language that is not your own. It is the MOOC participants who participate in English when it is not their language that I so admire. I don’t think I could do it. Thank you.

    Like you, I have also enjoyed Dave’s week and particularly his videos. These have really helped to unpick the rhizome metaphor – but more interesting for me has been how he applies these ideas in the ‘classroom’.

    I still haven’t quite got my head round the rhizome metaphor. It doesn’t quite fit my image or experience of what happens in a classroom, or even what should happen, but I think it is very useful as a starting point for articulating what a connectivist approach to education might involve.

  7. George Hobson (@jgh) November 14, 2011 / 3:24 pm

    Jenny – thanks for articulating the MOOC problems so clearly. As a newbie I did not know what to expect in Change11 but I adapted as I went along. It has been a breathless few weeks which has captured my interest in all sorts of ways.
    I am not sure what else the organisers could have done to smooth my understanding of how to participate – I did read often enough to expect to feel disorientated and lost, so was expecting that.
    But your second point is an issue. The “group think” and obvious friendships of those involved was a barrier. Two points:
    1. It feels as if there is direction on this course as in any other, this time looser but still nevertheless there. How can this be truly “connectivist” never mind rhizomatic with central direction? (Is it perhaps inevitable that there will always be this, whether MOOC or trad?)
    2. When a group is so far down the road with an idea, how can you initiate others into the “group think”? Could differing starting points of understanding be taken into account as a norm?

  8. Irene Gould November 14, 2011 / 4:58 pm

    Hi Jenny, good posting! I have felt the same as you. I didn’t even conceive Terry’s posting as negative…….
    On the other hand, I expected more comment on my posting and you are the only one that commented (thanks). So, I wonder, lots of people say they want criticism, it is good, you learn from it and more beautiful things, but I guess only when it’s positive…….
    I am somewhat cynical after last week…….

  9. jennymackness November 14, 2011 / 7:11 pm

    George – thanks for your comment and observations.

    >I am not sure what else the organisers could have done to smooth my understanding of how to participate

    I don’t think the organisers could do much more for the participants. As George said long ago, when you have so many participants, then the relationship between participants and the organiser (learner and ‘teacher’) has to change. They simply cannnot be responsible for individual participants – that is the role of the network. Does this perhaps need to be made more explicit?

    But do they perhaps have responsibility for the presenters – especially if those presenters are MOOC novices?

    >How can this be truly “connectivist” never mind rhizomatic with central direction?

    This is an interesting comment. I think the view is that it isn’t direction but ‘structure’. Dave Cormier talked about it in his interview with Jeff Lebow. This balance between structure and looseness, and between the role of the tutor and student autonomy, is something I have thought about a lot. I don’t have any answers – other than that the tensions do exist and that as teachers and learners we need to achieve the balance required for the specific context.

    >When a group is so far down the road with an idea, how can you initiate others into the “group think”? Could differing starting points of understanding be taken into account as a norm?

    This is another very interesting thought – which hadn’t occurred to me as I have been participating in MOOCs since 2008. In schools we would deal with this through differentiated planning. Alec Couros has addressed this in his open courses by calling for mentors – – And Lisa Lane uses mentors in her Pedagogy First Course – – but I think those courses might have smaller numbers. Perhaps there could be a bank of mentors and newcomers could contact them privately if they wanted to – just thinking out loud here.

    Thanks for your comment.

  10. jennymackness November 14, 2011 / 7:20 pm

    Irene – I have been meaning to get back to you about your blog post. Sorry for the delay. I will comment on your blog.

    I do think that courses should be robust enough to cope with constructive criticism – but my experience of teaching in general is that it takes a lot of trust – even in face-to-face environments and I’m not sure that it’s possible to build up that level of trust in a MOOC. It is so much more difficult in online environments where we have no other cues such as facial expressions and gestures to draw on and the bigger the online network/course the more difficult it is.

    I used to say to my online students that they should always try and believe that a person who posts a critical comment probably has good intentions – or at least isn’t being deliberately malicious. I think we can usually tell, especially after a few posts, if the latter is the case. Good teachers usually try and find out why students make the comments they do. Sometimes students have misunderstood, but often we can learn from them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s