Caught between a MOOC and a hard place

The title of this post is a tweet that has just been posted by Lisa Lane. It so perfectly describes what is happening on the Pedagogy First programme that I have pinched it for this post.

The Pedagogy First programme has only just started and I already find it to be full of contradictions.

Lisa has described it as a MOOC – actually a SMOOC (i.e. a small MOOC),  but I’m beginning to realize that this is misleading. The actual course site doesn’t refer to MOOCs. It is in fact an open online course, so more structured, more teacher led, more prescribed, less messy etc. than my understanding of MOOCs.

The programme has been designed to be open, but I’m also beginning to realize that a ‘constrained’ and ‘structured’ openness is what is required. There are good reasons for this, mainly related to helping ‘novices’ to settle in.  It seems that ‘open’ in relation to this course has a specific meaning, i.e. open and free to the world to join in, but not ‘open’ enough to cope with the diversity of opinions presented by a diverse mix of novices and experienced online learners. Experienced online learners are nowadays very likely to have ‘MOOC’ experience and be influenced by this, whereas novices will have neither online experience nor MOOC experience.

The programme requires a weekly blog post, tagged with ‘potcert’ which feeds into the course site. In a recent blog comment Lisa describes her blog as ‘I try hard to keep in mind it’s my blog, like my house. People can stop by, but they don’t live there like I do’.

This is how I think of my blog – my domain to write what I want, but it seems that there are restrictions on what we can write if our post is to feed into the Pedagogy First course site, for example, we are urged to keep our posts short, to not use ‘jargon’, to not discuss things that might be ‘jumping ahead’ in the syllabus, to focus only on the tasks required by the syllabus, to not post anything controversial. If we want to do this, then we should not tag our posts with ‘potcert’ even if we think the topic is related to online pedagogy.

I have worked on enough online courses and MOOCs to understand the dilemma and to recognize that novices can easily be scared off.  In my last post I wrote that veteran MOOCers may need to hold back a bit – but that has to be their own decision. My decision following this discussion and now that I understand how the Pedagogy First course works, is not to tag my posts with ‘potcert’.

I don’t think it works to tell bloggers what they can do on their own blogs, particularly if they have been blogging for many years. Also should we expect some to limit their thinking and writing while others catch up? How would you feel if your child was experiencing this at school?

Maybe a better approach is to focus on the novices, i.e. get the mentors working with them from the word go (my understanding is that the mentors haven’t started yet), make posts which explicitly state what the nature of open courses is, tell them to expect to be confused and find it overwhelming, tell them to pick and choose and so on.

Only two days in and this course has already raised so many issues. I think Lisa is right – the course is currently between a MOOC and a hard place.  I wouldn’t be surprised if many online courses begin to experience this as MOOCs become more commonplace.

42 thoughts on “Caught between a MOOC and a hard place

  1. fred6368 September 4, 2012 / 9:47 am

    Hi Jenny, I personally dont think that MOOCs are about learning at all. I think they are about extending institutionalisation in the age of the globalisation of education. As part of the groups that I am a part of, such as Everything Unplugged, we think that rhizomes are more about engaging with useful learning and I have blogged on this in Designing for Discontinuity;

  2. Lisa M Lane September 4, 2012 / 3:33 pm

    I’m pretty sure I made a mistake in ever hooking this wagon to the MOOC star. I regret using that terminology (even in its Small-to-Medium version), because the idea has been great but the implementation difficult, at least this year. I find it extremely uncomfortable to even suggest anything to people who are blogging, even though I’m not at all limiting what they write but asking them to use the tag appropriately for the course.

    If fred6368 is right, POT is not an institution nor can it extend institutionalization, and in many ways we are more rhizomatic. But the models are truly failing me in what we’re trying to do.

  3. Scott Johnsonscottx5 September 4, 2012 / 11:41 pm

    Hi Lisa,
    Course sounds like it is frustrating you. It does seem odd that MOOC’ers, who should be extremely adaptable, are having trouble with the criteria set for this course:-) Working with all sorts of different people on many projects we all know how to shift the presented self to fit in. Openness need not require an aversion or flat out refusal to follow directions? This is an interesting problem (to those of on the outside anyway–vexing to you no doubt).

  4. Robert Maxwell (@bioramaxwell) September 5, 2012 / 1:24 am

    Lisa, don’t regret it. Your taking what works from the MOOC framework and adapting it to what you want. Most of us as we start to open our courses to the world use frameworks that are already out there. The MOOC is the latest craze, and the original MOOCs were great for people who had experience in pedagogy to question what they did and how they did it.

    As Jenny points out in her post above, the problem is that the MOOC does not speak to the novice. They need direction, and sometimes constrait. More importantly, they need quality feedback to keep them on track.

    Most of us are not teaching classes for experts; instead we are dedicated to the novice and intermediate learner. MOOCs just don’t work for them.

    Feel confident in taking and remixing! I have loved opening my classes (just wish more people would stop by 🙂 ).

  5. jennymackness September 5, 2012 / 8:26 am

    Hi Fred – thanks for your interesting comment.

    > I personally dont think that MOOCs are about learning at all. I think they are about extending institutionalisation in the age of the globalisation of education

    I’m not sure about this – especially in relation to cMOOCs. I think the original intention (stated by George Siemens – I would have to hunt for the link) was to ‘destabilise’ education. I have always joined MOOCs thinking about learning and am currently researching the FSLT12 MOOC in relation to how people learned in that ‘course/MOOC’. We have lots of data and there is plenty of evidence that people were learning. What we are questioning is ‘what’ they learned.

    Thanks for your link to your Wikiquals project. Very interesting. Is this over now or ongoing?


  6. jennymackness September 5, 2012 / 8:43 am

    Hi Lisa, Scott and Robert

    Many thanks for extending the conversation. I think you are right Robert. Moocs don’t speak to novices – but then they were never intended to, in the sense that in the original conception of Moocs, people were expected to find their own way and create their own support networks, making their own connections and autonomously determine their own learning paths.

    I think the original model for MOOCs was clear about its intentions – but they were about more than ‘opening’ the course. They challenged traditional ways of working and were intended as a challenge to the traditional notion of a ‘course’.

    Now we are seeing lots of ‘MOOC’ adaptions, which take a little of the innovation and mix it with a little of the traditional ways of working and so on – so expectations have become a bit blurred. My experience is that things can often go awry when expectations are not clear.

    As Scott says – ‘This is an interesting problem (to those of on the outside anyway–vexing to you no doubt).’ It is also an important problem – the experimentation with MOOCs has brought about a new emphasis on pedagogy and for me that has to be good. Courses such as ‘Pedagogy First’, and your course Robert, together with cMOOCs and xMOOCs are all playing an important role in this.

  7. Lisa M Lane September 5, 2012 / 3:54 pm

    What’s interesting is that Jenny’s own research (primarily with CCK08, where I was a for-credit participant) makes this pretty clear. “MOOCs don’t work for novices” may become my mantra.

  8. Scott Johnson September 5, 2012 / 8:15 pm

    Aside from the confusion induced by MOOC information overload, I wonder if the lack of apparent centre throws novices off? I tend to approach MOOCs as a museum of curiosities semi-confident I’ll find a “reason” for participating at some point in the process. If I had a guidance counselor to account to for this fuzzy strategy I’d probably withdraw right away. Sensing value and utility when it isn’t directly obvious (or implied in the sense of occurring in an educational setting) is a self-message that maybe only experienced learners dare listen to? I’d call it “working with plan-B” as a viable alternative.

  9. Nancy White September 5, 2012 / 10:07 pm

    What if we imagined things differently. If MOOCiness is about openness, and potentially innovation, how do we imagine a MOOC joining people around something they don’t know anything about – rather than an existing area of knowledge or passion. How can MOOCiness support discovery, connection. Does MOOCiness always have to be about connecting what we know and are smart about? MysteryMOOCs where we abandon some of our various skins and :”walk in” with a different mind set.

    All this is possible and it seems to me that we have to work with the messy duality of having a contract with each other and not being constrained by that contract. What if the game werewolf was a MOOC? (Yeah, it is 5am and I’ve been up for 2 hours w/ jet lag and of course Im probably making no sense in some way, but I SENSE something here and don’t know how to articulate it.)

    What if there was some open magical mystery tour to explore the infinite possibilities of teaching and learning online. What would it look like? And can it productively live with the ever present meta commentary that so many of us fall into (and I suspect love) without letting that commentary kill the very magical spirit that is also generative in its own way?

    Oh dear. Maybe i should go back to sleep!

  10. Robert Maxwell (@bioramaxwell) September 5, 2012 / 11:27 pm

    I agree that MOOCs were more than just opening courses. I should have indicated that for me that was one of the major things that struck me, my epiphany so to speak. The concept of having course content and student work open to the world changed the way I approached the material. This is one reason I keep telling people to take what works for them, what they are comfortable with, and then rework their course. It is not about forcing a course into a MOOC model, or even adapting what your doing. It is about taking a fresh look at your course, determining what you really want people to take from the class, mix traditional and connectivist models that suit your style, personality and goals, and then try it out.

  11. Scott Johnson September 6, 2012 / 3:35 am

    Hi Nancy, like the idea of a MOOC based on something we all don’t know, though I suspect the project might founder on selecting the least informed to lead us.

    From Wallace Stevens’ “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock”

    The houses are haunted
    By white night-gowns.
    None are green,
    Or purple with green rings,
    Or green with yellow rings,
    Or yellow with blue rings.
    None of them are strange,
    With socks of lace
    And beaded ceintures.
    People are not going
    To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
    Only, here and there, an old sailor,
    Drunk and asleep in his boots,
    Catches tigers
    In red weather.

    Still, it could be useful to study the not knowing of things to disconnect from the shaky assumptions of always white nigh-gowns. By definition the novice should, knowing of fewer objections, be an ace at catching tigers in red weather. Can we allow ourselves to allow that?

  12. VanessaVaile September 6, 2012 / 6:56 am

    Reblogged this on MOOC Madness and commented:
    This post may explain, at least partly, the name for my own sort of course related but apparently less than I thought blog. Confused? So am I. Par for the course.

  13. Lisa M Lane September 6, 2012 / 7:09 am

    Nancy wrote: “What if there was some open magical mystery tour to explore the infinite possibilities of teaching and learning online. What would it look like?”

    I kind of thought it would look like Pedagogy First.

    It’s interesting that one can so easily see a class as a static thing. Just because we start at the head of a marked trail, with hand-holding and guidance, doesn’t mean that the magic won’t happen and the possibilities become infinite. We can start the journey together with saying hi and being supportive, checking each other’s backpacks and water supply, making sure we’re all wearing the right shoes. As people gain confidence they can go off the path, explore the woods, and maybe they’ll know which mushrooms are safe to eat.

  14. Scott Johnson September 7, 2012 / 12:51 am

    In response to Lisa’s answer to Nancy’s magical mystery tour observation where Lisa said “I kind of thought it would look like Pedagogy First.” I’d like to ask if we MOOC’ers have frozen our expectations of how a MOOC looks, functions, behaves and etc? So soon we’ve become stuck and unable to adapt to a variant of what we are used to.

    I sense a chance to move ahead.

  15. jennymackness September 7, 2012 / 4:14 pm

    Hi Nancy – fascinating idea, but wouldn’t it be like trying to form a community with no domain, which if my understanding of the literture is correct, is doomed to fail, i.e. for success a community, the domain and practice are all needed.

    But I do think that uncertainty, unpredictability and an openness to emergence are all essential to the type of learning that many of us seem to value in MOOCs – and whilst much of this is serendipitous – I think it can also be designed for if that is not a contrdiction of terms.

    In some research I have been doing with colleagues Roy Williams and Simone Gumtau, this is what we have found, but also that ‘safety’ and ‘constraints’ might need to be considered in the design.

    Thanks for your visit and to Lisa and Scott for their responses.


  16. jennymackness September 7, 2012 / 4:17 pm

    Scott – thanks for this interesting comment

    >I’d like to ask if we MOOC’ers have frozen our expectations of how a MOOC looks, functions, behaves and etc? So soon we’ve become stuck and unable to adapt to a variant of what we are used to.

    I agree that this is a real danger, i.e. in that it might prevent ongoing exploration and critical reflection.

    But on the other hand – do we need to agree some basic principles, or does just anything go? I don’t know.

  17. suifaijohnmak September 8, 2012 / 6:00 am

    Hi Jenny,
    Here is my response “I don’t think it works to tell bloggers what they can do on their own blogs, particularly if they have been blogging for many years. Also should we expect some to limit their thinking and writing while others catch up? How would you feel if your child was experiencing this at school?” That’s also part of the reasons why I have participated in some MOOCs. I enjoyed reading your posts, and your First Time MOOCs, though I didn’t enroll as my blog is more about reflection than an introductory blog for MOOCs 🙂

  18. Scott Johnson September 8, 2012 / 8:01 pm

    Hi Jenny,

    My thoughts on freezing our understanding of what MOOCs “are” or can be used for comes from not wanting limitations set on the exploratory mind-set I fall into when I’m participating. A rather selfish attitude Asked for an answer to what characteristic of this explorer state includes or results in learning I find myself without an answer. How can I be an autonomous learner without being fully aware of my learning? Without autonomy there goes qualification #1 for MOOC’ish practice.

    Taking a strategy from Nancy and reversing the idea that autonomy and MOOCs are necessary partners, what if we move autonomy from the obligation of being the perfect individual individual and move it to being the perfect social individual? In this case principals need to revolve around service to the group as a higher value than the free-for-all nature of a “pure” MOOC model (whatever that is, I have trouble attributing it to connectivism because connecting naturally presupposes the social and a sense of equilibrium based on feeding in at least as much as you take out).

    Sorry if this doesn’t answer your question of “anything goes” in MOOCs. My first reaction was to say “yes” but the inclusion of the novice into the discussion changed my thinking. As much as it sounds contrary to autonomy, I believe we have an obligation to share our learning with others. Times it might sound to us that we are being told what to do. But isn’t how we respond the key to being autonomous within the social? Not that we do or don’t take orders but that we act with intelligence based on that input? So yes we are obliged to add whatever structure is necessary to be understood—even if it feels less than magical.

  19. Nancy White September 11, 2012 / 12:19 am

    Back from the road, a bit more ready to digest and reflect on the comments.

    Maybe our domain is something like “explorers of…” “living fully as self reflective learners.” or “hey, this adventure looks like fun, lets do it TOGETHER.” Maybe we aren’t a community, but a set of fellow travelers, dropping in and out of the walk along the way?

    Scott, I love your poetry. I’m not sure I can live up to being a perfect social being, but I’d be up for practicing for being one.

    What if we question the categories “novice” and “expert.”

    I think this is something of a conversation about liberation from all the things that bind us, eh?

  20. Scott Johnson September 11, 2012 / 1:25 am

    Hi Nancy,
    I love the idea of exploration with the added excitement of partnering with people you didn’t know when the thing started. Reading the biography of John Cage “Where the Heart Beats” by Kay Larson right now and his life seems to have been a series of following hunches. Not always what appeared as the best choice at the time but one he built into the best one. Curiosity, adaptability and determination would have made Cage a good candidate for MOOCing.

    My original objection to MOOCs being defined was a sense of limitation in saying they are “for” this or that. This sounds like a contradiction but why can’t they be as big as for anything or rigidly linear and focused on a single topic? To me, the key is not to limit myself by allowing limitations rather than out of hand rejecting them. (This is what comes of reading John Cage’s thoughts–explore everything).

    Wonder if we need to be the perfect social being? I think we are bound and connected to other people whether we like it or not. In a sense this creates an obligation though I don’t think we necessarily need to be nice about it 🙂

    Questioning the categories of “novice” and “expert” sounds useful. Especially when the categories create barriers.

  21. jennymackness September 11, 2012 / 7:36 am

    Hi John, Scott and Nancy – thanks to you all for your further comments, which are all very relevant to me at this particular time, because, as Scott will know, I am researching how people learned in the FSLT12 MOOC at the moment. You have all given me a lot to think about.

    Scott you have written
    >My original objection to MOOCs being defined was a sense of limitation in saying they are “for” this or that. This sounds like a contradiction but why can’t they be as big as for anything or rigidly linear and focused on a single topic?

    You will have seen all the discussions a few months back which tried to define MOOCs and the outcome was that it was pretty much impossible. There are many different types and they mean different things to different people – but if we are designing a MOOC with the intention of running one – then we have to decide on what will be in and what will be out of the design – and in that sense we define it and put limitations on it. George, Marion, Liz, Joe and I had some very tangled discussions about this when we were designing the FSLT12 MOOC.

    >Questioning the categories of “novice” and “expert” sounds useful. Especially when the categories create barriers.

    In FSLT12, the terms novices and expert came up quite naturally and were discussed in positive terms of the advantages of having this mix, but in Pedagogy First, this mix has been seen as disadvantageous. So in one environment the categories create barriers and in another the barriers are still there but more permeable. Which reminds me of Etienne’s work on landscapes of practice and working across boundaries.

    And Nancy – you have written
    >I think this is something of a conversation about liberation from all the things that bind us, eh?

    I’m wondering if it is realistic to think in these terms, but I’m still thinking about all your comments. I don’t feel I’ve got my head round it all yet! Many thanks

  22. Nancy White September 11, 2012 / 4:45 pm

    Jenny, you bring up what is a powerful tension for me between the pragmatic and that to which we aspire. On one hand, scaffolding (such as Gilly Salmons which you cite is a different post) is useful, but if we take it too literally and follow it too closely, we create that same zombie walk that has deeply damaged so many educational contexts. I want a “yes, and” practice to infuse both my learning design, facilitation and participation. This is very aspirational. I fail all the time, but I HOPE I keep trying.

    The latest experiment is w/ colleagues in the Netherlands.

  23. Scott Johnson September 12, 2012 / 3:48 am

    Jenny, A portion of my job involves crossing boundaries and I’ll have to read up on what Etienne has to say. My job involves working with instructional staff helping put their classes online and developing a back-channel list of professional development resources. I have no written qualifications in any of the work I’m assigned, no organizational job description or any other signs of “belonging.” Most of the time my identity seems a product of organizational transition–identified with an activity rather than an actual role. Having come in after change had begun I have no past in the memory of the college. Not an expert, not a novice. Interesting “role” to play.

    I see MOOCs in the same place. Free of many expectations and open to be whatever they choose. In theory anyway. In actuality, like everything else, there needs to be a focus or purpose attached. As you mentioned, the FSLT12 questionnaire asks for an accounting of activity and even the most open MOOC needs some recognizable presence to be worked with. Evidence that something occurred emerges from all human activities and I guess designed-in purpose can’t be avoided in anything we make? Even if we made the most vaporous MOOC someone would come along and name it as being this or that followed by someone arguing over which part violated some code of MOOC’ness.

    The above is probably not very useful. New ideas that we don’t have names for are the best though. We can’t fall back on experience or precedent but we also take our efforts seriously and expect to be held accountable. What a ridiculous predicament to put ourselves into.

    Nancy, Project Community looks very interesting!

  24. Nancy White September 12, 2012 / 3:53 am

    Scott, feel free to jump in at any time. Tomorrow is our first online live meeting w/ the students. So my first chance to “take the learning pulse!”

  25. jennymackness September 12, 2012 / 7:17 am

    Hi Scott and Nancy – this has been a very interesting discussion – and Nancy I have been exploring your Project Community site, so it’s clearer to me now where you are coming form. I like the design of your site (very clean and inviting!) but I’m not clear about who this is for, whether it is an open course, or whether it is onlin or facce-to-face or both. It seems that it will fulfil many of the ideas you are exploring. I’ll be interested to see how it goes 🙂

    Thanks both


  26. Nancy White September 12, 2012 / 2:47 pm

    jenny, we have not categorized the course … it is funny, I had not even thought to do that. It is an enrolled, required course at a Dutch university, but since the topic was using communities and networks in innovative open industrial design, it seemed logical to me to do it “in the open.” We have our first live online meeting today and I suspect to be working with a dynamic of confusion. That is a good place to start from. Confusion breeds questions, which lead to meaning making. A false sense of certainty is a lovely trap!

    As always, I expect to learn more than I teach.

  27. jennymackness September 12, 2012 / 3:12 pm

    Hi Nancy – re confusion – I listened to Eric Mazur’s opening keynote presentation to the ALT-C 2012 conference yesterday (they have not yet posted the recording, but Eric Mazur has posted his slides on his website (

    In his research (he is a physicist) he found that confused students are twice as likely to be correct when answering a test question as those who claim not to be confused, that confusion doesn’t correlate with understanding, is not necessarily the result of poor teaching and is part of the learning process – in fact he said an ‘essential’ part of the learning process.

    He also said that teaching should be based on questioning (can’t remember his exact words), and that although confusion is discouraging – ‘to wonder is to begin to understand’.

    All this was backed up with numerous graphs and data. It was a fascinating session and it was great to see what I have always thought of as the legitimacy of ‘messy learning’ backed up with scientific data.

    Hope your session goes well.


  28. Nancy White September 12, 2012 / 4:05 pm

    We had plenty of confusion and interestingly, I used that as a positive framing as well. Kismet. And when the power went out, we used it yet again, moving to chat as the beamer was out. Thank goodness for knowing a few backup platforms! LOL. I am going to share the quote from Mazur with the class on the blog RIGHT NOW. Perfect example of the power of networks and communities right in the moment. I’m smiling HUGELY! Thanks

  29. jennymackness September 12, 2012 / 4:20 pm

    Thanks to you Nancy. It is good to learn a bit more about what you are working on 🙂

  30. Scott Johnsonscottx5 September 12, 2012 / 9:33 pm

    Hi Jenny, Eric Mazur seems to be onto a secret of learning that could be very fruitful. Many of the courses we build leave no room for the student. It’s all just laid out and structured like a tour for for people who don’t have the time (or desire) to engage the content. There’s a online course our college used to offer that was an editorial mess, no one page looked the same as another, links went astray and the illustrations looked like a first grade classroom wall. Students loved it. The course has been sent off for extensive “fixing” and will come back looking like a perfect little show pony that mustn’t be touched. A certain (and important) amount of the understanding of the course material came from its being messy not Hollywood’ish.

    This has gotten me curious about what understanding is. I was confused enough about the meaning of learning and now it seems the answer resides higher up the ladder inside what understanding means. Do we hide behind “knowing” as a means of avoiding understanding? Can we know something without dressing it up?

    Thanks for the link.

  31. Nancy White September 12, 2012 / 9:38 pm

    Messy? I do messy really well! 😉 No show ponies here!

  32. Nancy White September 12, 2012 / 9:39 pm

    and…. thanks for adding your thoughts to the student’s post, Jenny. That was fantastic. And you got a response right away from another student. LOVE LOVE LOVE It!

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