Is structure counter to cMOOC philosophy?

This was a question that came out of our FSLT12 Research Review meeting today. We were discussing what we have found out about the ways in which people participated and learned in the FSLT12 MOOC  –  and the extent to which this was constrained by the structure and curriculum we designed into the MOOC.

These questions have been timely for me. I have been pondering for quite a few days now about the approach taken by George Siemens and Rory MGreal to their Openness in Education MOOC, which I signed up for.

I was completely baffled at the start of the MOOC on September 10th when there was nothing on the site. Apparently this was down to technical failure, but I’m wondering how many other people were contacting ‘friends’ to find out what was going on. To what extent is communication a part of structure and curriculum? But even now that the MOOC has got going and has been explained as follows …..

This course is based on a connectivist model of learning that Stephen Downes and I have been developing since 2008. We will provide some readings each week, but the course is really driven by learner contributions and resources. Which means that if no one blogs, the course gets pretty boring :). Once you’ve submitted your blog, please include the course tag (oped12) in your posts and they will be aggregated into a daily newsletter. Please be patient as it typically takes a day or two to get ramped up with the course.

We don’t have a central discussion forum set up…learning happens in many places, sites, and tools. More on that here: If you feel a place of interaction needs to be created, please create it and share with others using the course tag.

…. it’s quite difficult to find the content and it seems that there are not going to be any synchronous sessions, where people could gather/connect if they so wished.

David Wiley has made similar comments in a blog post, but brainysmurf  has responded in the comments on his blog

It’s really up to us as participants to decide what to do with the facilitators’ content (if anything), to develop our own live sessions if we want to and to share our resources as we see fit. That shift in power/control/effort is going to rattle more than a few people, I bet!

Am I rattled? Well, not rattled, but certainly questioning whether this extremely ‘hands off’ approach is in the best interest of learners.

Which comes back to the question of just how much structure and support should MOOC conveners provide. I know there are no right or wrong answers; and to come back to the initial question, I’m not sure how much or in what ways a structure/curriculum constrains learning, but then I’m also not sure how much a lack of structure/curriculum constrains learning.

Is structure counter to cMOOC philosophy? I don’t think so. I don’t see that the principles of connectivism – autonomy, diversity, openness and interaction across distributed platforms, or the key activities of cMOOCs – aggregate, remix, repurpose, feedforward, necessarily militate against structure or a curriculum.

5 thoughts on “Is structure counter to cMOOC philosophy?

  1. Scott Johnson September 21, 2012 / 8:12 pm

    Hi Jenny,
    I agree that there has to be something to interact with to get people started. It’s very Zen to have the master to remain silent to the novices’ questions. MOOCs can be anything they want to be but, by the rules of interaction, (which I just made up) not having any sort of content ready on day one is a simple excuse. Which brings up rule #2 of interaction: any declaration of purpose or adherence to theory that FOLLOWS a screw-up is neither allowed or to be taken for intent beyond simple impoliteness. Theater of the Absurd MOOCs are the only exception.

  2. Mark McGuire September 21, 2012 / 8:28 pm

    Hi Jenny (and others)

    The question of how much structure is needed for a MOOC (or any course) to work is a central one – and there may be no single approach that would constitute “best practice” for all situations. I am thinking about a recent blog post by Lisa Lane (“A course is a course of course”, in which she discusses the difference between a course and a class. An open course that provides a curated set of artifacts, readings, and a schedule of suggested activities can be very useful. Such a course provides more structure than, say, a set of video documentaries that are archived on a site along with links to related content. However, my preference (and I acknowledge that others may have very different learning styles) is for a social component as a central part of any class (if we think of a class as a specific iteration of a course, as Lisa suggests).

    In my experience, when it comes to learning, nothing compares to conversing with other people, whether the conversation is online or face-to-face, synchronous or asynchronous. John Perry Barlow once said that cyberspace “is where you are when you’re talking on the telephone” ( We enter such a space when we are engaged in conversation, whatever the setting or medium. A party line is like a class; a conversation that we can all hear is like a radio interview; a conversation that we can all hear and participate in is an open course (or class). Conversations create space; shared conversations create shared space; open conversations create public space. The act of creating, and engaging in, open learning experiences is a practical and constructive way to create a public sphere in which we can develop our individual selves and form mutually supportive relationships with others, and with the environments, artifacts, and networks that surround and constitute who and what we are.

  3. Scott Johnson September 22, 2012 / 5:24 am

    Jenny and Mark,

    If MOOCs are a form learning system (should that assumption be made?) it seems they must have potentials that can be exploited. As in their being fertile ground to be seeded with ideas. To me, there needs to be some structure, deliberate act or perceptible presence to initiate activity. Within the activity we can practice creativity, determine who we are and not just “be”, but become.

    This all seems too abstract and removed from human interaction.

  4. Lisa M Lane September 22, 2012 / 8:21 am

    Such a broad approach will favor those already experienced with MOOCs (and open learning and other such trend subjects). The instructions are more vague than CCK08, and assume knowledge of what one is doing, in addition to containing some phrases that makes no sense (“Each time you access some content, create a blog” – I’m sure they mean “create a post”.) OTOH, the total openness and vague topics will be a great experiment (which really seems to be the intention) in just how little content and guidance one can get away with.

    For the “real” students, two papers are due, and learning objectives listed, and assessment: For the “outside” students, the course is likely right to assume the kind of people who will join for no credit – I expect this will be a MOOC full of experienced MOOCers talking about MOOCs.

  5. jennymackness September 22, 2012 / 3:04 pm

    Thank you Scott, Mark and LIsa for your comments. I am still thinking about your comments about whether or not we need to design structure into a MOOC, whether or not we need human interaction to learn effectively, whether or not a MOOC is a course or a class – but I was struck by this comment that Lisa has made

    > OTOH, the total openness and vague topics will be a great experiment (which really seems to be the intention) in just how little content and guidance one can get away with.

    I remember when Roy Williams, John Mak and I were researching learner experiences in CCK08, we talked about whether or not it is ethical to experiment on learners. If I remember correctly, we didn’t come to any definite conclusions.

    My view is that it’s fine to design a course in any way you want, experiment on learners or whatever, so long as these intentions are made explicit, so that learners know what they are signing up for. If the information about the course says that it’s an experiment, it will be made up as we go along, or that there won’t be any content, or that the technology might not work, or that only those signed up for assessment will have contact with the course convenor and so on – then by signing up for the course the participant commits to this way of learning. I would see this ‘being up front’ with what the course will entail, as the minimum responsibility of the course convener.

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 )

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s