The challenge of ‘openness’ in small MOOCs

An interesting discussion on the Pedagogy First course blog has sparked off further thoughts about issues around ‘openness’.  This post is, in part, a response to some of the thoughts posted by Alan Levine, and the responses of others, which have provoked this further thinking.

Martin Weller has said that ‘Openness is a state of mind’.   Overall I agree with this, but is openness context dependent? My mind isn’t your mind, my experience might not be your experience, my location won’t necessarily be your location and so on. How we understand and experience openness is individual to each learner. Carmen Tschofen and I discussed this in our paper  –  Connectivism and dimensions of individual experience.

No place is  it more important to remember this, than in a small course/community/MOOC in which novice learners are working alongside ‘expert’ or experienced learners and where the topic is learning to teach.

FSLT12  was such a course, and so too is Pedagogy First – they are both small open online task-oriented MOOCs  focusing on developing learners as teachers/lecturers/facilitators, with an emphasis on developing an understanding of pedagogy. In addition, both these courses are offered for assessment, so, for example, an assessment requirement of the Pedagogy First course is for regular blogging and open sharing of completed tasks; the first task for assessment in FSLT12 was open reflective writing.

‘Openness’ in these circumstances is no mean feat.

Experiences of learners new to working in online environments have been well researched (Sharpe and Benfield, 2005). Feelings of over-exposure, isolation, inability to cope with navigating the online environment, inability to cope with the abundance of information, the lack of visual cues to support interpretation of others’ comments, feelings of disorientation, not knowing how to balance time on and offline, feelings of anxiety and intense emotional responses – are all common examples of how people new to the online environment might feel.

But in an open course we have people with these experiences working alongside ‘veteran’ MOOCers who are familiar with the chaotic complexity and hustle and bustle of the open MOOC market place. These veterans enter an open network knowing what to expect.

So how do we bring these two groups together?  In the Pedagogy First course, there has been a call for mentors, meaning that there is an expectation that experienced MOOCers will support novice MOOCers.

As part of the Pedgaogy First programme we have been asked to buy the book –  Susan Ko and Steve Rossen (2010) Teaching Online: A Practical Guide (3rd ed) Taylor and Francis – and I am looking forward to reading what it has to say about initiating newcomers into an online course. My copy is in the post!

In the meantime I am revisiting my well-thumbed and very familiar copy of Gilly Salmon’s book ‘e-Moderating: The Key to Teaching and Learning Online’. In this she presents a 5-stage model for facilitating online learning.

Gilly Salmon 5 stage model

In my experience, following this model helps to avoid a lot of the pitfalls associated with online learning. Salmon recommends starting with ensuring access, as has been done in the Pedagogy First course, and focusing to begin with on socialization, which she says helps to ensure the success of an online course.

Socialization will of course continue throughout the course, but it is necessary at the beginning to develop the sense of belonging and trust needed to enable later, weightier and more challenging discussions. Salmon says these discussions happen at Stage 5 –  ‘different skills come into play at this stage. These are those of critical thinking and the ability to challenge the ‘givens’ (p.48).

So how does this relate to ‘openness’ in small connectivist MOOCs such as FSLT12 and Pedagogy First? My thinking following discussions in Pedagogy First is

  •  ‘Openness’ as a ‘state of mind’ takes time to develop. It is not a given and cannot be assumed. It should not even be expected, if we believe in the autonomy of learners, i.e. freedom to choose. But if we want it in our MOOCs (thinking here of MOOCs as ‘courses’ as in the case of Pedagogy First) then we should allow time for ‘novices’ to work through the 5 stages of Gilly Salmon’s model.
  • Veteran MOOCers may need to hold back, or at least carefully consider how their posts might be interpreted by novices. This doesn’t necessarily apply to an open network or even to a MOOC such as CCK08, but I think it does apply to a MOOC that has been designed for novices and where there is a recognition that novices will need mentoring.
  • For me when I facilitate or convene an online course/MOOC I hope that the course design/environment will encourage the development of autonomous and connected learners who embrace openness, alternative perspectives and diversity, and engage in critical thinking, stimulating dialogue and reflective learning. This will not happen if they ‘drop out’ in the early stages. One of the criticisms of MOOCs is the high drop out rate.

Stephen Downes has said, to teach is to model and demonstrate, and to learn is to practice and reflect.  So maybe modeling and demonstrating, practicing and reflecting on Gilly Salmon’s model is not a bad place to start for small task-oriented MOOCs.

And finally, perhaps in the case of small MOOCs it is easier to think of them as open courses rather than open networks. Maybe this would bring a different perspective to the way we work in them and what our expectations might be.

34 thoughts on “The challenge of ‘openness’ in small MOOCs

  1. Alan Levine (@cogdog) September 3, 2012 / 7:57 pm

    Maybe it’s going to be my role to be a troublemaker 😉 I really am a nice person, I have references.

    I would agree openness is contextual, but then again, is not everything? We all enter this space with our own frame of reference, and it is all to easy to generalize from there. I make that mistake on a daily, hourly, basis.

    Salmon’s model is very logical, I recall and respect her work from the late 1990s when I first came across it.

    Yet I wonder if the online learning space now, which sits in the mode of a chaotic living organism that is the networked web, is really a place where we need to be trying to impose a safe orderly structure? Are we afraid to make it a challenge?

    Are we doing a disservice to quote unquote novices to be trying to make everything so ‘safe’? Should we not be asking them to swim more and being here to help them tread water? Isn’t there some value to being uncomfortable and then finding one can deal with it?

    I do not want someone to be so turned off they give up, but I think we might be underestimating the human potential to figure things out. I think we are doing a disservice by always leaning so far on the side of comfort and safety. There is learning to happen by making mistakes.

    Frankly I think we should set the bars higher than lower.

  2. jennymackness September 3, 2012 / 8:29 pm

    @ troublemaker/ nice person 🙂

    You certainly have the knack of pushing my thinking! The thing is that I agree with you on so much and then disagree with you on other things.

    I completely agree that everything is contextual and have recently heard it said (can’t remember where) that it’s boring to bring it up again (I must be boring!). I also agree that learning is often necessarily messy and very often uncomfortable. When I was teaching in schools I used to tell the children I taught that they should expect learning to be hard, messy, uncomfortable.

    I also agree that we (if we are ‘teachers’) should have high expectations and that usually learners rise to those expectations.

    Where I think we are maybe not on the same page is in relation to safety – and of course there are degrees of this and it’s all a question of balance – but some recent research I have done with Roy Williams and Simon Gumtau about emergent learning (forthcoming in IRRODL) posits that if learning is experienced as too chaotic, too unpredictble, too unsafe, then learners fall off the edge of the emergent learning landscape and (as Dron and Anderson put it) become ‘lost in social space’.

    Ironically, people need to feel ‘safe enough’ to make mistakes.

  3. Frances Bell September 3, 2012 / 10:15 pm

    Another very interesting post Jenny. I have two comments:
    1. I think we can only understand the social dynamics of MOOCs by means of rich (and fairly expensive – i.e. Beyond surveys) research into the interactions and power relations between participants.
    2. I was interested in your observations about CCK08 – I was fascinated by interactions of those (mainly fluent English speakers) who persisted but also very curious about the disappearance of many of the international contributors to the Introduction thread.

  4. Scott Johnson September 4, 2012 / 5:29 am

    Are there degrees of comfort? It may be a disservice to prospective students to soften the entry into the open learning environment by easing the challenge. Wouldn’t it be better to get to the messy stuff first in order to avoid the charge of “luring innocents”? But it seems to me we are playing at “weeding out sissies” rather than welcoming people into the unfamiliar by not respecting that being overwhelmed initiates all sorts of legitimate human reactions.

    Is it an innate characteristic of all people to thrive on challenge? What if it is something of value that can be learned, only we need to allow it to develop? And what if the “challenge” is illegitimate–the material is poorly presented, unthoughtful, disrespectful, etc? Do we want to spend our time learning for bad experiences just because they are richly populated with chances to grow stronger and wiser?

    Discomfort may actually induce deep learning by some mechanism it would be nice to know more about (I’ll stay off the research team, thank you). If that’s our goal in openness we might want to qualify participants by their base-line startle response. Wetting yourself indicates a minimum passing response.

    Thanks Jenny for the Sharpe and Benfield link. Very appropriate for the students we serve in class and online.

  5. Lisa M Lane September 4, 2012 / 6:24 am

    Experienced online users tend to think of the web space as large, full of opportunity and adventure, a space where we should not create too much order.

    But I do not think novices see that same space.

    Most novices in the Pedagogy First POT Cert class come from one of two places: a mandated LMS, or not much online experience in general. As my own research has indicated, those who have never taught online often are people who do not do many things online.

    They also may not see any of us as being “there” – novices see themselves as alone with a machine.

    Discomfort may induce learning, and I assure you that plenty of discomfort is there for novices as soon as they see the class site. Abject terror, however, is not conducive to learning. If we wanted to just open a community, we would have done so. The class structure imposes an order that we have thought out carefully and have good reasons for. One of these reasons is affective: to induce some stable comfort first to maximize the openness of the mind without causing the fire-hose effect.

    That kind of openness should come, as it did for most of us, gradually. We tend to forget that few of us entered the web in its current chaotic form – almost all of us had far more time to adjust and remake our own understanding of what the environment offers, and what its dangers are.

    I have argued forcefully against closed experiences for new online teachers. Last year the format was ideal, with more experienced members mentoring and moderating, many even as they took the class themselves. This year already is making me thing we should have had more parameters, rather than less.

  6. Robert Maxwell (@bioramaxwell) September 5, 2012 / 1:39 am

    Thanks Jenny. You really give me things to think about :). I had not come across Gilly Salmon’s book, but the model presented helps clarify things that occur in my class. It takes about two weeks for my Freshmen to get comfortable working in the online environment, and yes, it takes a small percentage longer. During this time, they are learning to socialize.

    The course is open, so anyone can come in and take part, but learning space does not span the whole internet. Instead, I’m focusing their attention primarily in working within the course’s virtual space at present. That will change over the semester, but you have to start opening their minds to the possibilities.

    I agree with Scott that you do not need to soften the the challenges you present to the students, but you do need ways to allow students to get comfortable. One way I have done this is that my GSU students who are getting college credit for the course is to break their assessments into “variable point pools” (note: everyone who participates in the online class gets a digital badge, but only the GSU students get college credit). These variable pools allow students to miss a few assignments, or mess up on an assignment, as there are alternatives that they can take. I don’t see this as extra credit, but as different ways of getting to the same end.

    I also like how Lisa points out that people are entering the chaotic world of Web 2.0. Most of us grew up with the advaces in compter, digital and internet technologies (and for this reason, I consider us the digital natives). Most people know the social platforms they use regularly, but don’t yet see the overarching opportunities. Get them comfortable in one space, then open the door to some new spaces.

  7. jennymackness September 5, 2012 / 8:51 am

    Hi Frances – good to hear from you.

    I agree that we need some further larger scale research projects around how people learn in MOOCs. I’m looking forward to reading the outcomes of Allison Littlejohn’s (The Caledonian Academy) research into ChangeMOOC.

    I don’t know a lot about how international non-English speakers cope with MOOCs, but the research we are currently doing into FSLT12 is beginning to suggest (from my initial trawl through the data) that people drop out of MOOCs for a whole host of reasons, a lot of which are nothing to do with the MOOC itself, but more to do with their personal circumstances. I think it’s also a surprise to many that participation in a MOOC can take quite a considerable time commitment.

    Thanks for your comment – Jenny

  8. jennymackness September 5, 2012 / 9:04 am

    Hi Scott, Lisa and Robert,

    Many thanks for your interesting comments and perspectives which I think are summed up in Robert’s words

    >you do not need to soften the the challenges you present to the students, but you do need ways to allow students to get comfortable.

    For me this is where the difference lies between an open online course such as Pedagogy First and a MOOC, such as CCK08.

    In CCK08 participants were expected to find their own ways of becoming comfortable with the environment – and as Lisa points out it took time – and for me this was both in terms of hours and effort. For some, it simply never happened. The experience was too overwhelming.

    In open online courses such as Pedagogy First and many others I have worked on which have been structured according to Gilly Salmon’s model – time and structured activities are built into the beginning of the course to support learners in becoming comfortable with the environment, before deeper learning activities are suggested.

    In the work I do in open online courses, we work hard to keep everyone on board, but in MOOCs, it is almost expected that there will be a high drop our rate.

    So for me, the two different types of course/MOOC have very different expectations and when we mix them, these expectations may become confused?

  9. Lisa M Lane September 5, 2012 / 4:06 pm

    In a MOOC, a high drop-out rate doesn’t necessarily mean failure. But in a more task-based or curriculum-based open online class, it matters enormously, and may mean failure in the same sense as a for-credit class, where we spend much time figuring out what went wrong. When one can see at the very beginning something is going very wrong, a teacher would normally step in immediately. In a MOOC, letting it all play out is part of the game.

  10. Nancy White September 11, 2012 / 12:22 am

    Small aha. How important is it to be aware of and separate the challenges of the technology, the challenges of the learning domain, and the challenges of the learning practices?

  11. Lisa M Lane September 11, 2012 / 12:33 am

    Yes! Aha indeed. I’m not sure about “separate”, but “aware of” in the sense of how one designs any learning experience, I’d say absolutely.

  12. Nancy White September 11, 2012 / 1:14 am

    Separate as in “not confounding nor confusing!”: 🙂

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