#NRC01PL The Connectivist MOOC – Research and Conclusions


In Week 4 of the Personal Learning MOOC (#NRC01PL) “Stephen Downes and Helene Fournier look at the research effort that has followed the NRC MOOCs and PLEs through development and deployment”. I didn’t manage to attend the actual Hangout, but I really enjoyed watching the recording and can recommend it to anyone interested in cMOOC history and research.

It was such a pleasure to hear Helen Fournier talking about her work, research that I have followed since 2008, but this is the first time I have heard Helene speak.

I attended CCK08, the first MOOC conceived and convened by Stephen and George Siemens. It was innovative. Not only was it innovative, but it was driven by a philosophical belief that we need a new learning theory for the digital age. At the time, it was a very new way of working. There had only been one or two open courses before this and they had not been on the same scale. It was an amazing achievement that they managed 2200+ learners, a number that was totally unexpected, which from my perspective was largely due to Stephen’s gRSShopper aggregation software.

Since then xMOOCs have become the ‘name of the game’ but they are not pedagogically innovative. They have simply managed to deliver traditional ways of teaching and learning at scale, which I am not scoffing at. It is no minor achievement to deliver a course to 160 000 learners, but the teaching and learning in the initial xMOOCs wasn’t innovative. Since then there have been many hybrid MOOCs – even within the xMOOC groups. So ModPo on Coursera for example is a brilliant MOOC and there have been very successful MOOCs on some of the other platforms, which try and combine the best elements of innovative cMOOC distributed teaching and learning with traditional xMOOC lecture style courses. EDCMOOC  is probably an example of this, but I haven’t attended that one.

Recently I have been trying to catch up on MOOC research so I have read a lot of papers. It was interesting to listen to Helene in the light of this. What comes through from my reading for me is that it seems to be difficult to think in innovative ways about evaluating teaching and learning in MOOCs. Evaluation of teaching and learning in MOOCs seems for the most part to be based on past research into the best practices in distance and online learning. So for example, in the past research has focussed on what best practices ensure that learners have a social presence and complete the course, meeting the course objectives. But do these practices and measures apply to innovative cMOOCs like CCK08? Which best practices from past research can we drop and which can we definitely not drop?

If learners are going to have their own personal learning environments (and many already do), how is their learning in these environments going to be valued? Do they need it to be valued?

These are some of the questions that interest me.

Footnote: The image at the top of this post has nothing to do with Helene and Stephen’s talk. It is simply the sunset I was watching through my window whilst listening to them.

6 thoughts on “#NRC01PL The Connectivist MOOC – Research and Conclusions

  1. roy williams March 20, 2016 / 11:05 am

    Innovation … most of the important things I learnt about education came from Montessori pre-school classrooms (extended into the home). Angline Lillard (http://www.montessori-science.org/Montessori_Applied_Developmental_Psychology.pdf) identifies 8 principles of Montessori education. The most startling and important one (for a discussion on innovation in education), is principle 4: the “detrimental effects of extrinsic reinforcement on motivation to learn” (see the review, above).

    That’s, in short, is the bottom line. Unless you are prepared to grasp that nettle, you are doomed to repeat the failures of ‘traditional values’ in education (and most xMOOCs),not to mention “external metrics”.

  2. jennymackness March 23, 2016 / 1:41 pm

    Hi Roy – many thanks for this very interesting link. When I was an early years teacher many moons ago, I really struggled with the intrinsic/extrinsic motivation issue. I wanted the children in my class to be instrinsically motivated and many of them were, but others definitely needed the carrot to get going at all. It’s not only the teacher that needs to believe in intrinsic motivation, the context within which the child/learner finds themselves has to support this too. So intrinsic motivation will be difficult to support in a school classroom by an individual teacher if the institutional ethos and/or the home ethos is one of extrinsic rewards and following a strict curriculum.

  3. Roy Williams March 28, 2016 / 7:25 pm

    Context is indeed all. Montessori, like you, faced an almost impossible ‘learning design’ problem – how to design learning ‘carrots’ – in her case for severely disabled children, in her first classroom, with few or no suitable resources, I am sure.

    I suspect that as Italy’s first women doctor, she was being given a ‘poisoned chalice’ here, and expected to fail – as a doctor and as a “woman”, in “women’s work” …(gasp to taste at all the misogynist implications of that).

    … but … she succeeded. She designed self-correcting materials, exercises, probes, learning objects/ environments which her ‘dysfunctional’ learners could use to explore their own senses, arms, hands, fingers, minds, in their own time, at their own pace, and, perhaps most importantly, in their own rhythm (cf. Simone’s recent links on the ways in which ‘rhythm’ is fundamental for so many things).

    for example … a friend recently visited with her toddler-age daughter, who became very busy with putting a set of wooden animals into a toy container, then out, then back in again – in her own rhythm. A neighbour’s (slightly older) child spontaneously joined the task, and ask her the names of each animal, adding one’s she didn’t know, and reinforcing ones she did know (spontaneous collaborative design).

    then … the mother (who wanted to know how Montessori’s principles – as in Lillard, perhaps – see above – could be extrapolated from the Montessori classroom to the home …)

    … the mother wanted to stop her daughter, because they had something ‘important’ to do – i.e. catching a train.

    … oh no! I said, you can’t do that. The child is completing her own self-defined, self-invented ‘learning task’, which has its own content and, most importantly, its own rhythm and integrity (as in: wholeness of content, form, rhythm, and ‘completion’ – the bottom line for ‘internal motivation’ is that a task is defined in terms of what counts – for the learner – as ‘task completion’).

    So … the child must be asked (not told) to ‘complete’ her task (her, own, self-invented learning task), and not interrupted. The integrity of this (very small) person’s newly invented, almost fragile, learning trajectory must be respected – by one and all, but particularly by her parent/s (otherwise there is little sense in taking the child to a Montessori nursery).

    now … all this can also be applied, de capo, to x- and c- MOOCs, to explore the implications of teacher / institutional – imposed task content, form, rhythm, etc, as opposed to learner “embracement” (sorry, words fail me here) of the ‘whole’ tasks that they embark upon.

    … if not, kiss goodbye to intrinsic motivation, and much else besides, and just tell them what to do – but don’t be surprised if they quickly become alienated from what the adult / institutional world counts as ‘learning’.

  4. jennymackness March 29, 2016 / 8:59 am

    Hi Roy – many thanks for all these thoughts. I love the notion of thinking about ‘the design of learning carrots’ – but by saying that, aren’t you also saying that children/adults do need extrinsic motivation, they just need it in a well thought through format?

    I also like your story about the little girl working to her own rhythm and wonder where catching a train fits into this. As always, there are constraints in any system. Maybe children have to learn this too. Could you point me in the direction of Simone’s work on rhythm.

    You’ve probably realised that I am playing devil’s advocate here. I could also immediately see the application of Montessori’s work to x and cMOOCs. It’s interesting to think of all the work on MOOC badges and certificates in relation to this 🙂

  5. roy williams March 29, 2016 / 7:27 pm

    Extrinsic motivation … mmm. The point about Montessori design, or what I would now call ‘probe design’ is that the ‘probe’ (aka ‘learning object’) is an affordance offered to the learner to explore something – internal, sensory, haptic, synaesthetic (as in MEDIATE), external, cultural, abstract (or a mix of any number of the above (e.g. the trinomial cube, with or without 3-colour coding).

    But the operative word is ‘offered’. It is designed, put into the learning environment, and ‘let go of’, to observe what happens when it’s offered to learners.

    So … the decision to engage is the learner’s own, hence intrinsic, albeit that the task, the affordance,can be internal (purely cognitive), heavily sensory (colour sorting, sent sorting), haptic / 1 / 2 or 3 dimensional, abstract (number rods, beads, cubes, base 10), or ‘external’.

    And ‘offered’ in a good Montessori classroom is just what it says. Both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ are valid responses from the learner, who may or may not want / need to explore particular affordances, repeat current affordances, or even regress to previous affordances … it is up to the teacher (aka Montessori ‘directress’) to observe and engage with the learner enough to be able to turn to, and offer, another, different ‘learning carrot’, or (if none of the existing learning carrots are accepted) to design new ones. Not for the faint hearted.

    The neat roles (and hierarchy, but more of that anon, its another whole issue) that separate ‘teachers’ and ‘learning designers’ have to be eliminated. The teacher has to be a creative ‘workshop facilitator’, and be able to design new exercises on the hoof if they are going to be able to observe, respond to, and “follow” the learner. It’s not ‘educare’ (with strong Latin roots of ‘leading’ – I am told), its empirical observation that follows the learner’s stages of sensory, motor, haptic, synaesthetic, cognitive, spatial, and intellectual development, and responds to them by offering other ‘learning carrots’.

    This is teaching/learning design as a chef might approach it, not a ‘cook’ – the point is to expand the repertoire of affordances, not repeat and defend a fixed set of recipes.

    So … perhaps we can define ‘extrinsic’ motivation as the skills that a cook would learn, and ‘intrinsic motivation’ as the skills that a chef would learn. Compliant learning v. creative learning, no?

    All of which does not mean that there is no place for a curriculum, just that the curriculum has to be as emergent as the learning is.

    And catching the train … that’s a real part of the story – the child’s mother did want to stop her completing her inside/outside animal box sorting task in mid stream, as the mother did want to leave to be in time for a particular train.

    That’s as real as it gets … the micro dynamics of respecting a toddler’s internal (creative) motivation, in the face of real train timetables – or not.

    Simone’s link on rhythm is http://rhuthmos.eu/spip.php?article462

  6. jennymackness April 2, 2016 / 8:25 am

    Hi Roy – many thanks again for sharing your thoughts and the link from Simone – which I have yet to read 🙂 I like your thinking about intrinsic/extrinsic motivation which makes sense to me. You still haven’t said though whether the child and mother caught the train. I expect they did simply because ‘that’s the way things normally work’, which raises the whole question of power and constraints in relation to instrinsic/extrinsic motivation.

    The other issue is the idea of the teacher as learning designer. I have noticed in my general reading that there now seems to be a distinction made between instructional designer and learning designer, but I’m not convinced that the separation between learning designer and teacher has been broken down. I agree with you that the teacher is necessarily a learning designer, but think that this maybe means thinking of learning design differently. Perhaps there are already too many prior associations with the word design for it to be the right one. We never talked about design in all my years teaching. We talked about planning and creating plans that could easily be adapted on the hoof. Even the word planning could be the wrong one, but I’ve not idea what an alternative could be.

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