Learner support in MOOCs. An alternative perspective

One of the panel discussions at the MOOC Research conference held in Arlington, Texas at the beginning of this month was on Supporting Learners in MOOCs. Panelists were Sandi Boga, Amy Collier and Stephen Downes. The recording of the discussion made by Stephen Downes is here .  (As an aside, I think this was the only session that was recorded during the conference– I haven’t seen anything else. The lack of recordings and ‘live-streaming’ of the keynotes etc. was a bit of a surprise).

Stephen has summarized the panel discussion as:

In this discussion a panel of MOOC experts explored questions surrounding supporting learning online. Some widely varying perspectives, ranging from preparing students to work without a curriculum to student support software in an xMOOC.

But he doesn’t, in this summary, mention his own key point and that was to think of learner support in MOOCs in terms of self-organisation. This would mean providing learners with an environment in which they can self-organise and which itself is self-organising. In these terms support isn’t something we do for learners, but something that we support them in doing for themselves – a ‘once-removed’ form of support.

This is a different way of thinking about learner support, which was largely overlooked in the panel discussion, where the thinking seemed to be about what the ‘we’ the MOOC conveners could do for ‘them’ the learners, which is the approach that seems to have been taken by many MOOCs.  So for example Amy Collier in describing her experience with Stanford MOOCs talked of the good practice as being:

  • a well-managed structured environment
  • a coherent sequenced information-centred model
  • great content

I have participated in two Coursera MOOCs and in many connectivist MOOCs, large and small.  The Coursera MOOCs have tried to support learners in fairly traditional ways, e.g. by co-opting teaching assistants to help moderate the forums and answer learners’ questions, and in one case by encouraging study groups and setting up teaching assistant and tutor online office hours. The smaller connectivist MOOCs have gone down a similar route inviting ‘veteran’ MOOCers to join the MOOC and help to support novice MOOCers (See FSLT 12 &13’s work in this respect here and here). This is in line with the early approach taken by Alec Couros  and Lisa Lane where they put out a call for/or invite ‘mentors’ to voluntarily work on their open online courses.

These approaches try to replicate the type of support that is traditionally offered learners in smaller courses, but recognize that with ‘massive’ numbers, one-to-one support from a tutor or even a team of tutors is simply not possibly, hence a focus on peer-to-peer support and calling on those with more experience and expertise to support those with less.

But perhaps traditional approaches to learner support will never be a comfortable fit with massive open online courses. Learning in the 21st century requires some additional and different skills – skills such as being able to:

  • locate, filter and select from vast amounts of information on the web
  • recognise patterns in this information
  • aggregate information from distributed digital sites
  • remix and repurpose to create personal resources
  • connect with people to learn from across the globe

In other words – self organise. As Stephen Downes explained, he doesn’t have it all figured out yet, but he thinks of learner support in MOOCs in the following terms:

  • the course and the learners are self-organising – they develop their own networks
  • the instructors are simply two of the nodes in the network who may or may not be invisible
  • instructors lead by example, participating in the forums. If their modeling and demonstration is of high quality they will be noticed, otherwise not.
  • this mirrors the way the mind is organized and human memory works, i.e. learning is the development of networks, neuronal and social
  • the course content is an attractor around which the course will organise
  • everyone’s contribution is valued
  • learning is not thought of as provision
  • learners learn to provide for themselves

So a key aspect of support is fostering a sense of self-reliance and this might require some ‘de-schooling’. It gets away from the ‘what can we do to support you’ approach, to ‘what can you do to support yourselves’ approach. The support is still there but it takes a different form.

What would this mean in practice? Some of the following thoughts come to mind:

  • Explicit, up front discussion about the meaning of ‘support’ in these terms.
  • Clarity about and discussion of expectations
  • Provision of an environment which is ‘true’ to these principles (such as described by the factors we have used in our research on emergent learning)
  • Provision of tools that maximize the power of individuals to manage their own learning
  • Modelling and demonstration of self-organisation by the course conveners
  • Standing back and letting the learners get on with it, i.e. letting go of control

And perhaps the last point is where the shift might be difficult to make. So much of a traditional course is based on authority and control. Learners will not learn to self-organise unless we ‘let go’, even if that means letting go of traditional ways of thinking about learner support.

17 thoughts on “Learner support in MOOCs. An alternative perspective

  1. Vera Monteiro December 12, 2013 / 12:14 pm

    Great post anf great summary! Thks Jenny! 🙂
    About let it go… let the control, i understand. But at the same time i wonder, wasn’t that one of the reasons so many learners quit the moocs? saying other way,school from initial stages doesn’t develop the kimd of competences learners need to act on moocs. selfconfidence, selforganazing and so on… so the mpc environmemt maybe a bit intimidating to ‘traditional learners’… how to manage / balance these polarities?

  2. Gordon Lockhart December 12, 2013 / 4:28 pm

    Thanks for an interesting post. Yes, learning in the 21st century requires additional and different skills but the Downesian view of self-organising learners seems more of an ideal than a practical proposition for many learning requirements. For example, STEM type topics at an introductory level require understanding of ‘facts’ and mastery of methods that are accepted as the nuts and bolts of the subject. Opinion and debate may have their role but it’s more a matter of reaching understanding and proficiency by tackling well-designed exercises with ‘correct’ answers. There’s certainly scope for mutual assistance by participants in an xMOOC but in my experience this is not so effective as expert guidance, usually by a facilitator, who not only knows his stuff but has the necessary social graces to foster confidence in a diversity of learners.

  3. jennymackness December 12, 2013 / 4:45 pm

    Hi Vera – thanks for your comment. I have similar concerns to you. The teacher in me thinks constantly about what my ‘duty of care’ means and how I interpret that. I agree that early schooling often does not develop the competencies that learners will probably need in MOOCs and so MOOCs will be intimidating environments for these learners.

    So how do we best ‘support’ these learners. The traditional approach, which I have taken often in my teaching career, is to ‘hold their hands’ until they feel comfortable and then let go. But this assumes that being comfortable is good for effective learning.

    An alternative approach is to trust that learners will self-organise if given the opportunity and if their need is great enough. We won’t know if they can, if we don’t give them the opportunity. In parenting, this would be called the ‘tough love’ approach. This assumes that learners can and will ultimately respond positively to this approach if given the chance.

    I suppose it comes down to what we think we are teaching/educating for.

    I do agree with Stephen Downes that to teach is to model and demonstrate – and that learners will learn what we model and demonstrate. So if we model a comfortable environment, they will come to think of learning as a comfortable process where there is always lots of support. I’m not sure that this is good preparation for learning in the 21st century, or if it ever was.

    Looking back on my own history of support provision for learners, I can see that there were various elements at play, related to:

    – power, authority and control
    – retention/completion figures
    – a desire for high grades across the cohort to meet institutional measures
    – appeasing students who feel over challenged ….. and so on.

    In other words, reasons for the type of support given are complex and not all related to the learners’ needs to become effective learners in the 21st century.

    I don’t have any answers to your question – how to manage / balance these polarities? – but it’s interesting to discuss and think through.

    Thanks for the prompt.


  4. jennymackness December 12, 2013 / 5:00 pm

    Hi Gordon – many thanks for your post, which has made me realise that in thinking about support I have been thinking more about the learning process than the content.

    I think this is an important distinction to make for the reasons you have mentioned.

    We have to be clear what we mean by ‘support’. In my mind, I hadn’t thought about the actual teaching of content as support. In those terms Amy Collier’s examples of good practice would seem to support effective learning……

    – a well-managed structured environment
    – a coherent sequenced information-centred model
    – great content

    …… but I’m not sure that this is the same thing as supporting the personal learning process. Is expert guidance by a facilitator a possibility in a MOOC? Will we need to accept that if the learner needs one-to-one tutoring then a different type of course might be needed. And would we also need to accept that in going down that route, the learner wouldn’t necessarily learn the self-organisation skills that might be needed in a future career in the 21st century?

    As Vera said – how do we manage the balance between these polarities?

  5. Gordon Lockhart December 12, 2013 / 11:44 pm

    Difficult to separate the ‘teaching’ from the personal learning support in practice I think. There’s maybe a need for courses on MOOCs per se – how to become an autonomous learner, self-organisation etc.

    One-to-one tutoring is hardly feasible in a MOOC of course but participants appreciate the presence of 1 or 2 friendly experts/ facilitators and this seems to progress learning considerably more than none at all. It needn’t undermine nurturing of self-organisation skills.

  6. jennymackness December 13, 2013 / 12:03 pm

    Gordon, like Stephen, I am still trying to figure all this out – but self-organisation does seem worth aspiring to as a principle of supporting learners. Thanks for your comments.

  7. Scott Johnson December 15, 2013 / 2:21 am

    Hi Jenny,
    It may be that because I always found school an alien place it seems obvious to let MOOCs develop their own characteristics of teaching and learning and we might be better to stand back and listen to and observe patterns and not work so hard on rules. The helper role I’ve tried to play in FSLT and POTCert has been inconsistent and unidentified with a particular usefulness as suits my inexpert but friendly resident of the internet environment role. Surely there’s room for those who don’t excel, fumble their lines and don’t quite get-it even in a group of post-grads?

    We could make the online learning environment a theoretically perfect zone of proximity for the statistical norm with it’s known learning needs and have the numbers to show success. Well structured, it could operate without interruption almost on its own. Except in doing that we have just repeated the wasted talent and abandoned the left-behinds the net was supposed to welcome.

  8. Scott Johnson December 15, 2013 / 6:44 pm

    Thinking about this some more, it came to me that we we might be in a state of redefining who “belongs” where and how they qualify to be there. With education being a giant sorting machine we might no longer know qualities in each other that aren’t counted. We advance and “mature” by qualities that matter not necessarily to us, but the proxy us that performs as an academic.

    Like Gordon’s idea of the “friendly expert” except I’d change expert to something more like companion. Learning how to learn on your own is best a modeled skill in context as participating in something we value (to keep our attention to performance) but also something that suits us.

  9. Kajal Sengupta December 17, 2013 / 7:08 am

    Interesting read. Gradually people are dissecting the nitty gritties of MOOC which is expected. What I find positive about it is that educators are giving MOOCs a chance. Not long ago I found several posts dismissing them entirely. I am a great supporter of MOOCs because I believe deprived learners can not have anything better than this.

  10. jennymackness December 17, 2013 / 7:32 am

    Hi Scott – thanks for these comments. I like this sentence: “…we might be better to stand back and listen to and observe patterns and not work so hard on rules.” It makes sense to me 🙂

  11. jennymackness December 17, 2013 / 7:43 am

    Thanks Kajal for taking the time to comment. I hope you are right about access for deprived learners. There have also been posts which suggest that MOOCs won’t support deprived learners, principally I think, because many deprived learners don’t have access to the internet. We need more research data on this – but, I agree with you that the potential for truly democratising education is great.

  12. Scott Johnson December 20, 2013 / 2:21 am

    Hi Jenny,
    Found this paper on curiosity in learning environments interesting. Taking the approach that people want to learn out of curiosity and personal satisfaction seems to remove a lot of the barriers to MOOCs such as their not qualifying a person in a particular field, or personal interest being a lesser motive than certifications or degrees. Can we have what we call “education” uncluttered with formalities, hierarchies and territories of practice?

    I understand that for an institution like Standford to get all loosey-goosey with the curricular must-presents is a risky step into the unknown for them. But my sense is that educators take a particular joy in questioning their own assumptions and are more trusted to experiment because they have this reputation for not fooling themselves. (Or maybe they just aren’t good at it like politicians?)

    Anyway, I like this dive deeper into MOOCs and rekindling the sense of exploration they represent. If nothing else, MOOCs show curiosity to be stronger than avoiding being driven batty by things that are poorly understood:-) In times of change we can use a kind of adaptability boot camp to try out skills we aren’t sure we need yet.

    The paper: Curiosity, interest and engagement in technology-pervasive learning environments: a new research agenda

    Click to access ETRDfulltext.pdf

  13. jennymackness December 20, 2013 / 11:50 am

    Hi Scott – thanks again for your interesting comments.

    > Can we have what we call “education” uncluttered with formalities, hierarchies and territories of practice?

    I think we can and do have this uncluttered sort of education; once you have got through the school system, then you are free to pursue your own education if you don’t need whatever it is (accreditation and the like) that comes with formalities, hierarchies and territories of practice. There are loads of self-educated people out there.

    Thanks for sharing the paper. I look forward to reading it. I’ll add it to the long list of reading I have promised myself to do over Christmas 🙂

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