The Case for SmOOCs

On reflection #fslt12 was a SmOOC – a small open online course. I suspect that just as the number of Massive Open Online Courses of the Stanford type will proliferate – at least in the short term – so too will SmOOCs.

SmOOCs have a lot going for them, principally in terms of the relationship between size, diversity and openness.

We had 151 people register for FSLT12 and 168 register for the Moodle site.  Canada, USA, South America, Africa, Europe, India, the Far East and Australia were all represented and at the time of writing 60 people have accessed the Moodle site within the last 3 weeks. We haven’t yet examined the data in any detail, so these are just rough estimates and we don’t know how many people accessed the Moodle site as a Guest. We had 28 people add their blog to the course WordPress site, but again we don’t yet know how many people blogged about the course, without aggregating their blog.  12 people completed the assessment activities.

So in my terms, compared to some of the MOOCs I have been involved with, this was a small MOOC.

As a result of this experience, my perception is that in SmOOCs, ‘openness’ is safer. It was interesting to observe this in FSLT12, which was open enough to ensure diversity, but small enough to ensure that ‘cliques’ didn’t form and that there was a very good mix between novice and experienced participants, different ages, disciplines and cultures. This in itself is interesting, as in the early days of MOOCs it was thought that large numbers were required for diversity. I have thought about and discussed this before – see

Mooc principles and course design

Change 11- massiveness and diversity

For me the question remains as to how massive does a MOOC have to be to hit the ‘sweet spot’ of diversity and openness. In 2012 Roy Williams, Sui Fai John Mak and I published a paper about the Ideals and Reality of Participating in a MOOC, where some of these tensions were discussed.

In FSLT12 I was surprised at how much diversity there can be in a much smaller MOOC – and equally surprised at how this did not lead to sub groups or cliques but to an apparent genuine desire to interact with this diversity.  In past MOOCs I have been involved with it has been the different cultures and resources that have offered the diversity, but in this MOOC, although it was enriched by different cultures, it was the mix of experts and novices that worked so well. This was particularly evident in the microteaching activity where both novices and experts engaged, supported and learned from each other. My feeling is that this was made more possible because of the smaller numbers and also because the smaller numbers made the learning spaces (Moodle and Blackboard Collaborate) feel more intimate, supportive and safe.

So I can see that SmOOCs can offer diversity with relatively ‘safe’ opportunities for connectivity, interaction, autonomy and openness, but do they avoid ‘group think’? This is something that I need to think more about.

3 thoughts on “The Case for SmOOCs

  1. Mark McGuire July 1, 2012 / 12:57 pm

    Hi Jenny

    I think “group think” is less likely to be a problem in a SmOOC than in a larger course that is bounded, sealed and contained. I followed the links relating to resources that were provided for week 4 (Lecturing & OER) and came across many additional voices, positions, statements and further links. For me, it’s the “Open” aspect of a MOOC that is most important, not whether it is “Massive” or “Small”. Of course Open (and Open Educational Resources) works best when artifacts and people are well connected and strategically positioned. A link to a blog inevitably exposes you to more, related, links. Uploading a video to YouTube and then embedding it in a post or page invites you to see related videos. It’s like linking to a book in the library stacks, rather than taking it out of the shelf and putting it on reserve – it’s information in a context. When we are introduced to the context as well as to the artifact or person, we enter into a much richer, broader set of people, positions and possibilities.

    Mark McGuire

  2. jennymackness July 1, 2012 / 3:47 pm

    Hi Mark – thanks for your comment – which seems to agree with what Peter Sloep is saying in his recent post about MOOCs – http://pbsloep.blogspot.nl/2012/06/on-two-kinds-of-moocs.html.

    For me openness is more than just open resources. For me the most critical and possibly difficult thing about openness is that it requires openness of self, in a very exposed environment. In this sense a ‘smaller’ MOOC might feel ‘safer’ than a massive MOOC. On the the other hand it might not. It might be easier to ‘hide’ in a massive MOOC. But for those who are not going to hide, but who are going to be ‘open’ in the sense of ‘opening themselves’ to the learning network, then, at least to begin with (i.e. for novices), a smaller MOOC might be easier.

    As far as ‘group think’ goes, I think this is possible in both large and small MOOCs if critical thinking and alternative perspectives are not encouraged, valued and articulated. We do not know how many people leave MOOCs because they simply cannot make their alternative voices heard, or have their alternative perspectives listened to. I suspect there is more group think in networks than might at first seem the case.

    Lots to think about here – thanks 🙂

  3. Mark McGuire July 1, 2012 / 9:20 pm

    Hi Jenny

    I think you are right – “openness of self” is the first thing we have to learn in these open environments. I certainly see benefits in a SmOOC. With very large groups, as in the Internet as a whole, the network effect can result in the inflation of a small number of people and views and the relative diminishment of others. Also, a smaller open course does not mean that it isn’t serving the needs of a much larger number of people. Unlike a closed courses, an open course and all its constituant parts becomes an open resource for others to draw upon later. Still, the self-transformation that you highlight might be better facilitated and supported when engaging in conversation with other people, rather than through the intermediary of archived resources. Immersion in a conversation is like being on the stage with other actors in a play that is unfolding as it is written and performed in real time. Visiting the site and the records of past conversations after the actors have left is like doing history or archeology. Although it is fascinating to discover who was there, what they said, and what they left behind, learning should be more like building than digging.

    Thank you for the link to Peter Sloep’s post, which I will read now. Also, thank you very much for all the work you did (and are continuing to do) on the fslt course and the open discussion that preceded and is continuing to followed it. I think it’s an extremely useful course and a big step towards a model of best practice.

    Mark McGuire

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