Constraints and Change in ChangeMooc

Thanks to Jon Dron for a fascinating week in Changemooc, which started with discussions about the need to balance hard and soft technologies in learning environments and ended with discussion and reflection on whether MOOCs need to integrate more constraints to allow for greater emergent learning, engagement and creativity.  Here is a link to the recordings of the live sessions.

The MOOC design philosophy is based on the principles of autonomy, diversity, openness and connectedness and on four types of activity – aggregate, remix, repurpose and feed forward. Participants self-select and typically large numbers sign up and very much smaller numbers remain active to the end of the course. What could be the reasons for this?

  • An imbalance between soft and hard technologies. Are MOOCs too open/too soft? According to Jon Dron, the ‘sweet spot’ in networks, sets and groups is the balance point between the hard and soft technologies where emergent things happen. Do some of the soft technologies in ChangeMooc need to be replaced with hard technologies?
  • The structure is not quite right. There is a structure in MOOCs – in Changemooc this is the Daily Newsletter, the weekly synchronous session, the schedule and so on. If ‘We shape our dwellings and our dwellings shape our lives’ as claimed by Winston Churchill, then structure shapes our behaviour. People cannot be creative in a vacuum. They need some structure to kick against. Does Changemooc need more structure and if so in what format? There needs to be a balance between the Red Queen Regime, where there is not enough structure, people are always running to stay in the same place, everything happens too fast, there is no creativity or emergence – and the Stalinist Regime where nothing changes because there is too much structure. The structure of the MOOC needs to be based on the behaviour of the people using it.
  • There is too much going on in Changemooc – so that it is hard for participants to see the shape of their own and others’ developing learning. This inhibits stigmergy which creates necessary constraints. Stigmergy is the signs left in the environment as a result of people’s activity just as ants leave a trail of pheromones when they’ve found food; this trail is followed by other ants and the trail gets stronger and influences how following ants behave. But whilst there is security and productivity in this kind of behaviour, there is also the risk of stupidity, blindly following the flow, rather than harnessing the wisdom of crowds.
  • There is too much choice, which can lead to paralysis rather than liberation, opportunity costs (imagining that other choices would have been better), escalation of expectation and self-blame when a wrong choice is made. (See Barry Swartz’ entertaining TED video – The Paradox of Choice – in the reference list below).
  • The MOOC is too large – which has the effect of slowing things down in the system and has more effect on the system as a whole than smaller faster aspects. The system is too spread out, too diverse and only works for a few people. Things evolve faster in smaller spaces where niches develop. Jon Dron referred us to the work of Stewart Brand.
  • There is too little choice – too little opportunity to move into smaller, safer groups and sets. Too much landscape of mountains and trees and not enough of shrubs, flowers and insects.

Possible solutions?

Jon Dron suggestions revolved around parcellation and tagging. The system (course) needs to be structured to allow smaller spaces to emerge according to participant need. Tagging could be one answer. Tags can separate out spaces, so for example a ‘good for beginners’ tagged space could emerge. There has been a little of this tagging ‘emerging’ in this Mooc – not in relation to participants, but in relation to invited speakers, some of whom have provide their own unique tags for the activities they have suggested. But as Jon Dron said, we then need bridges to connect those tagged spaces and this has not happened. Tags allow people to choose the spaces they interact with, reduce feelings of exposure and increase feelings of trust and safety. Tags are also a way of enabling the management of groups at scale.

Would tags and parcellation help to increase the level of engagement in Changemooc?

27-11-11 Postscript

Jon Dron’s final reflections help to answer the questions about engagement in MOOCs –

Stephen Downes’ thoughts –

Alternative persepctives from Matthias Melcher –


Judith Donath (2010) – Design for Privacy and Public Space Online –

Stephen Downes (2011)  – Engagement and Motivation in Moocs –

Jon Dron (2007) – Control and constraint in e-learning: choosing when to choose–LQTu6YK8S08QPSgvD3Dw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false

Jon Dron (2009) Ten Design Principles – Slide 23

Rafe Furst (2010) The Emergent Fool –

Ursula Goodenough (2010) Emergence into the Adjacent Possible –

Stewart Kauffman –

Barry Schwartz (2005) The Paradox of Choice –

7 thoughts on “Constraints and Change in ChangeMooc

  1. Jeffrey Keefer December 1, 2011 / 4:34 am

    I was sorry to not be able to follow along with all this at the time, but as we know life does get in the way . . . or perhaps that makes it sound too much as if life and the experiences in the MOOC are separate.
    With this said, given how much is swirling around, what do you think, if anything, could help communication and engagement in #change11?

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 )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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