cMOOCs and xMOOCs – key differences

As xMOOCs become more successful and begin to experiment with pedagogies that go beyond the didactic video lecture approach, I have been trying to understand the essential differences between the original connectivist MOOCs such as CCK08 and the current xMOOCs such as those offered by Coursera.

I have now had experience of two xMOOCs – Growing Old Around the Globe (convened by Sarah Kagan and Anne Shoemaker) and Modern & Contemporary American Poetry (convened by Al Filreis). Both these xMOOCs have been very successful. They have reached large numbers of people, established communities of learners around them, promoted interaction and discussion, involved participants in peer review and used teaching assistants to support participants. So if we take these as two of the best Coursera MOOCs, then what are the differences between these and the original cMOOCs such as CCK08, PLENK, Critical Literacies and Change 11? What follows is my current understanding, based on my experience in these MOOCs and what I have recently read and heard from Stephen Downes and George Siemens (see references at the end of this post).

CCK08, the first MOOC, was an attempt to put the theory of connectivism into practice. Connectivism as a theory is still being questioned, but

 ‘at its heart, connectivism is the thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks’. (Stephen Downes – What Connectivism Is).

I am not aware of any evidence that xMOOCs have been specifically designed to test out a given theory.

Connectivist MOOCs  (cMOOCs) are distributed in the sense that they do not run on a single website or with a centralized core of content; the content in cMOOCs is networked. Participants are encouraged to meet in locations of their choosing and organise themselves. xMOOCs are convened on a designated platform; they may offer alternative sites such as Facebook or Twitter, but the course runs principally on the main platform, where interaction takes place in discussion forums. Blogs, for example, are not a big feature of xMOOCs.

cMOOCs are designed as massive networks. The idea is that these networks are neither centralized, nor decentralized, but distributed so that the collapse of a given node or set of nodes does not cause the collapse of the entire network. cMOOCs are based on networked cooperation rather than group collaboration – (See Downes on Groups and Networks)

SD ALT-C slidesharecMOOCs promote diversity, the kind of diversity that comes with a mesh network. xMOOCs encourage a huge diversity of participants, but in cMOOC terms diversity is more than broadcasting the same message to thousands of people, i.e. the model of a centralized network. It involves diversity of approach and resources, i.e. participants are involved in determining the approach and creating the resources.

The original cMOOCs are based on long standing principles of open education and use open educational resources, i.e. they do not create content to go into the course, they use content that is already ‘out there’ on the web and ‘open’ and link to it. This avoids issues of copyright. xMOOCs build their content within the course platform and this is copyrighted, i.e. it cannot be taken and freely distributed outside the course.

cMOOCs connect participants and resources through immersion. They are intended to be disruptive, and to overwhelm participants.

MOOCs were not designed to serve the missions of the elite colleges and universities. They were designed to undermine them, and make those missions obsolete’ (Stephen Downes – The Great Re-Branding)

Through this they hope that participants will learn how to navigate complex learning environments and be critically selective in lines of enquiry they choose to follow. This model of learning is intended to reflect the current learning climate and environment in which we exist, i.e. a complex fast changing world where there is far more information available than we can ever hope to cope with or keep up with. cMOOC instructors model behaviour, but because the cMOOC environment is dynamic and continually changing, students cannot replicate the instructor’s behaviour – they have to self-organise. In contrast xMOOCs have adopted more of a transmission model of instruction.

Key activities in cMOOCs are remixing and repurposing, i.e. that content will be created, ideally co-created, through interaction with freely available open resources. Most xMOOCs do not allow for this, although I think EDcMOOC may be an exception, but I wasn’t a participant and this would need to be confirmed.

In a talk that George Siemens gave last night  ‘What are MOOCs doing to the Open Education‘ –  he said ‘Easy trumps ideology’ and that ‘openness’ is the cornerstone of innovation and creativity, but that the original meaning of openness associated with cMOOCs has become confused by the way in which xMOOCs have been designed. Openness is hard work. It is more than open access. xMOOCs according to George Siemens have taken the easy route. But despite this the advent of MOOCs of all types is disrupting traditional forms of education.  He also quoted Jon Dron’s comment ‘Soft is hard and hard is easy’, which I interpret to mean – it is easy (relatively speaking) to create a platform, such as Coursera, but hard to develop a learning space in which flexibility and creativity thrive.

Ultimately, whether we go down the cMOOC or xMOOC route (or a hybrid route) will depend on our fundamental beliefs of what education is for, either as teachers or learners (our educational philosophy). xMOOCs have attracted thousands of learners, so presumably thousands of learners are benefiting or believe they are benefiting. We still need more empirical research on learning in different types of MOOCs. I have learned from the two xMOOCs I have participated in and appreciate the skill and efforts of the tutors and what I have learned from co-participants, but for me cMOOCs remains the ideal. CCK08 was a transformative experience. It changed the whole way in which I think about education and I am still learning from that experience 5 years later.

Finally, I do not really see xMOOCs and cMOOCs as a dichotomy. For me there are the original cMOOCs which follow the principles clearly laid out by Downes and Siemens, which I have tried to summarise here, and the rest, which can be a whole mishmash of different approaches which offer more to less autonomy, more to less diversity, more to less openness and more to less interaction dependent on the platform they are offered on and the extent to which the principles summarised above are followed.

Further references

Downes, S. (2013). Connective Knowledge and Open Resources: Retrieved from:

Downes, S. (2013). Habits of Effective Connected Learners. Retrieved from:

Dron, J. (2011). The Nature of Technologies. Presentation to Change 11 MOOC. Retrieved from:

Parr, C. (2013). MOOC Creators Criticise  Courses’ lack of Creativity. Retrieved from: – (See also The Article – Full Interview)

Siemens, G. (2012). MOOCs are really a Platform. Retrieved from:

Connectivism principles and course design

There seem to be an increasing number of attempts to design courses based on connectivism principles. In my last post I wrote

To think of a MOOC as being wrong is to think of it as a course. For me a MOOC is the antithesis of a course. The principles on which it is based – autonomy, diversity, connectedness and openness cannot be reconciled with a course.

I stand by this statement, but the fact is that I am often (as an education consultant) contracted to write online ‘courses’ within traditional settings, i.e. Universities. In my most recent contract I have explicitly tried, within the constraints that come from working in a traditional educational setting to apply the principles of connectivism to the course design, i.e. openness, diversity, connectedness and autonomy. This is what I have learned.


We have to decide what we mean by this. Do we mean open as in free course to the whole world? I think most Universities would need a lot of convincing to do this. I would like to know more about how Universities that have done it (e.g. University of Regina and University of Athabasca, USA) have rationalised their costs? What is in it for them? I can see that the recent PLENK course has generated a lot of research. I suppose an open course could also help to market a University – but for Universities which are already high in the rankings what would be the benefit of an ‘open course’?

I do not think that the course I have written will be opened to the whole world. Apart from anything else I personally do not have the required reputation or academic standing – but I think it could be opened to the whole University – staff and students – as professional development. But, in my mind, this does not fulfil the connectivism principle of openness.

If by ‘open’ we mean, transparency in what we are doing and open sharing of resources – yes we can encourage that in the course design – but we cannot enforce it without cutting across the principle of autonomy. And if the course is not open to the world, then the principle of ‘openness’ is compromised from the word go.


We definitely need this for a rich learning environment. In a MOOC this is a given – but how do we get this in a small course of say 20 participants. I think diversity of resources (in the sense of variety) is possible however small the number of participants, but diversity in relation to participants is obviously limited by smaller numbers. On the other hand we have seen time and again that MOOC participants are easily overwhelmed by the diversity on offer. So is it possible to build the principle of diversity into an online course which is not a MOOC? Yes I think so. It might come in terms of the student group (e.g. the course might be for international participants), but if not then we can design for diversity in learning environments and resources. Not the wide diversity offered by a MOOC, but still diversity. So it seems that diversity can exist along a continuum of less to more diverse. Openness can also exist on this continuum, but it can also be one or the other, i.e. open or closed.


At the heart of this lies a belief in social learning. I have thought about this in past, but have been thinking about it a lot in the past few days following Heli’s recommendation in a comment on my last post to view Dr. Brene Brown’s video, where Brene Brown extols the virtue of connectivity. This prompted me to send it to a friend who I highly respect for her ability to ‘think outside the box’. She dismissed it. Her view is that ‘connectivity’ is just one strategy for learning.  Those that choose not to engage in online social networking have a different strategy. This was a wake up call for me. It reminded me that not everyone believes in social learning and that I must be prepared for this in my course design.  So what have I done?  I have built in an introduction to a lot of different technologies (with thanks to Alec Couros for his idea of providing open course participants with tutorials). I have also encouraged people to ‘connect’ where, when, how and with whom they wish, using whichever technology they wish (a la Stephen Downes and George Siemens in their MOOCs), but I have also realised that if the course participants choose not to be connected  or interact with others, then that must be their choice. And this leads me to autonomy.


In designing my course I have realised that when Stephen Downes presented the principles of connectivism as openness, diversity, connectedness and autonomy, he presented them as equals on a level playing field – but I can now see that autonomy ‘rules’.  This determines how open and how connected  learners are and how much advantage they wish to take of diversity.

It also brings a course designer right up against traditional hierarchies, because autonomy means that learners can choose where, when, how, what and with whom to learn – a real challenge for a traditional educational system, particularly if assessment comes into the mix.

In the course I have designed I have tried to be true to the principle of learner autonomy. I have provided suggestions for activities, discussions, readings and assessments – i.e. I have provided learners with some structure – my structure- but have also made it clear that participants can choose whether or not to engage with any of this.  In doing this I am wondering whether I am abdicating responsibility. I have a friend whose PhD is focussing on why so many of her post graduate learners have the attitude ‘Tell me what to do and I’ll do it’ (Carmen also has some interesting thoughts about this in a comment on my last blog post) – and I’m wondering if this will be the reaction to the course I have designed – and it if it is, what I will do about it. So I am aware that by pinning my colours to the ‘autonomy’ mast, I could well end up with a course that appears to fail.


So far I have never worked on a course that has failed. I think this is because I and my colleagues work very hard to keep our students on board – but this brings me back to the ‘autonomy rules’ thought. If we do this – i.e. work hard to keep students on board, chase them, provide them with resources etc. are we diminishing their autonomy? At what point along the autonomy continuum of less autonomy to more autonomy should a teacher/tutor sit? What is our responsibility in relation to autonomy? I have written my course, but I don’t yet have a clear answer to this question.

Now it’s New Year’s Eve and I’m off to enjoy it.

All the best for 2011 to anyone who ventures here 🙂

What’s wrong with MOOCs? Some thoughts

This was a question asked by George Siemens on his blog and discussed by George, Stephen Downes, Alec Couros, Dave Cormier and Jim Groom in an open Elluminate session (around 45 attendees in all) on 20th Dec.

To think of a MOOC as being wrong is to think of it as a course. For me a MOOC is the antithesis of a course. The principles on which it is based – autonomy, diversity, connectedness and openness cannot be reconciled with a course. Why? Because a course implies assessment. As soon assessment enters the equation, then autonomy – the key principle of connectivism – is lost.

That’s not to say that within traditionally assessed courses we cannot – as course designers – consider more deeply the implications of designing our courses to increase the possibility of autonomy, openness, diversity and connectedness. But within the traditional system of accreditation and validation there are considerable constraints on what we can achieve. Anyone who is paying for a course – open or not – is going to have expectations of what they get for their money and that usually means, in my experience,  of the level of tutoring/facilitation they receive.

So the question of  ‘What is wrong with MOOCs?’  has to be considered in terms of whether the course is accredited or not. The answer to the question for each is different. For the accredited course there has already been much research on what makes for a good online course and what makes for good online facilitation. Of course – the ‘massive’ part of MOOC means that the facilitators’ role has to be reconsidered. Alec Couros realised this when he asked for volunteer mentors.

But for an unaccredited course – and I much prefer Jim Groom’s idea that we should be thinking in terms of online learning ‘events’ rather than courses  – then , in my view, the responsibility lies with the learner and the whole ethos and ethics of the ‘event’ changes. As an aside – a question that has occurred to me is how is an ‘event’ different from a conference? There have been many successful online conferences, but I do not see an event based on MOOC principles as being the same thing as a conference. If the ‘event’ is ‘not for credit’, I cannot see much wrong with the way in which they have been designed to date. Whilst there are things we might not like and also contradictions in the way in which the basic principles of open courses can be interpreted (see Mackness, et al – The Ideals and Reality of Participating in a MOOC), the responsibility for learning is ultimately down to the learner.

What I am currently finding interesting is how difficult it is to apply, in practice, the principles of connectivism  – which I see to be the principles of open courses (autonomy, diversity, openness and connectedness) in the traditional settings in which most of us educators probably find ourselves.  I strongly believe in these principles, but find when I try to apply them to course design that they are subject to many constraints, not only externally but also internally, i.e. constraints from my own thinking. If I am honest, it is more difficult to truly change my own practice than I would have thought, whatever my changing beliefs. One of the constraints I encounter – which I think has been raised by Lisa Lane in her blog  – is in the teaching of skills. In the MOOCs I have attended (CCK08, Critical Literacies, PLENK) , the course content, i.e. what we are expected to learn has been loose and within the remit of own ideas and thinking. We have been encouraged to navigate our own way through these ideas and follow our own interests and paths of learning. If we learn skills along the way that is a bonus – but they have not been explicitly taught and they have not been a focus of the course content.

But what if the learning of a skill is the focus of the course – in my case  – the courses I tutor on are for participants who want to learn the skills of e-moderation/facilitation.  Then – whichever way I look at it – however much choice is designed into the course – ultimately the success of the course relies on whether the participants can demonstrate the skills of e-moderation/e-facilitation. And for this they need to be pointed to some activities in which they can demonstrate this. As I write this, I wonder if this is true, but my experience to date is – that it is.

So – to come back to the question of what is wrong with MOOCs – my summary answer would be – not a lot so long as they stick to the principles of autonomy, diversity, openness and connectedness outlined by Stephen Downes.  It is sticking to and interpreting these principles for different contexts that is the difficult bit.

Understanding lurkers

There have been some great points made in the discussion that some have engaged in about ‘lurking’. One of the big problems with this discussion is that it is not representative of the group which is being discussed. How can we hear the voice of people who prefer to ‘observe/read’ rather than ‘talk/interact’? As Carmen asked in a comment on my blog post –

Does the very notion and language implications of “lurking” contain such enormous presuppositions that any research or commentary about it (including my own) is problematic, misleading or moot?

Stephen Downes entered the fray at one point, with a fascinating observation –

And don’t think it isn’t participation – think of it as being akin to the role of scrutineer. My very act of watching has an impact (the desired impact) on the outcome of the proceedings.

This is in line with the Gulati research that Rita writes about on her site:

‘Lurking is not free-riding but a form of participation that is both acceptable and beneficial to most online groups. Public posting is only one way in which an online group can benefit from its members’ (Gulati, 2003, p. 51).

Rita also points to further work by Gulati which suggests that – self-directed learners will fall into the lurking category, and Carmen’s views are along similar lines –

I am inclined toward heutagogical views that suggest effective adult learning is largely achieved through challenging and understanding the self, and suggest that the act of self-challenge, more than any resulting artifact, is a useful and empowering model for others. (comment on blog post)

but Eva Birger (comment on blog post) suggests that lurking leads to a lesser learning experience

An active participant is creating history, a lurker may only nibble at it. More over a lurker has unresolved questions, whereas the active participant can be proud, knowing what a PLE or a PLM is – and in the best case found a PLN. (Here she is talking about learning in PLENK2010)

Another point that has really struck me is this one made by Jakob Nielsen in his blogpost Participation Inequality: Encouraging more users to contribute – where he writes that:

In most online communities, 90% of users are lurkers who never contribute, 9% of users contribute a little, and 1% of users account for almost all the action

but for me more significantly he makes the point:

The problem is that the overall system is not representative of average Web users. On any given user-participation site, you almost always hear from the same 1% of users, who almost certainly differ from the 90% you never hear from.

So what are the issues and why might it be worthwhile to find out more about lurkers? Here are some thoughts –

1.       If open courses – particularly open courses with no associated assessment or accreditation – are to become a route by which increasing numbers of people choose to learn, then course designers and facilitators will need to have clear in their own minds their expectations of participation and be able to justify their stance, which means knowing more about ‘lurkers’ and understanding why 90% of course members might choose to lurk.

2.       But what do we mean by participation? I notice that Rita talks about active participation. Is this different to just participation – and when does participation become non-participation?

3.       Stephen Downes has claimed that the very act of watching has an impact on the course. I have heard this argument before – but how does this happen and how does it affect the active participants?

4.       Perhaps the main issue lies around Jakob Nielsen’s comment about representation. For me it’s quite a thought that the ideas and learning of 90% of course members will not – from their own choosing – be represented. Perhaps this is one way in which they have an impact on a course. What effect does their ‘lurking’ have on the value of what is being learned in open courses by those who do actively post and interact?

5.       How will we ever be able to find out more about how the 90% of people who choose to ‘lurk’ learn, when they are the very people who are unlikely to step forward and tell us what they think?

I’ll be really interested to read the research findings from Rita and Helene’s surveys – but also feel like Carmen that there is scope for a more in depth ethnographic study on the lines of the one carried out by Keith Lyons on participation in sport (thanks to Carmen for pointing me to Keith’s blog post and to Keith for his post).

Is lurking ever indefensible?

I have been thinking about this question since my last post. I notice that discussion on George’s blog has ceased and he has moved on, but the PLENK2010 NRC research team are continuing to pursue the question through two online surveys – one for active participants and one for self-confessed lurkers. The problem is that I don’t see this as an ‘either/or’ issue. More I see ‘active’ and ‘lurking’ as being on either end of a continuum, along which we will move in either direction, depending on the circumstances.

Another difficulty I have with the surveys is that the researchers have already defined what they mean by ‘lurker’ and ‘active participant’, whereas I feel that the discussions that have been taking place have shown that there doesn’t seem to be a consensus about what these terms mean. For example they state that ….

In this context, active participation includes contributions to discussion forums in the course Moodle, blogs, twitter, social networking sites, and in the production of artifacts …

I myself did not contribute to the Moodle discussion forums, Twitter, social networking site or the production of artefacts in PLENK2010, but I did blog – so does that make me an active participant? Lurking is defined by the NRC researchers in this context as

‘passive attention, silent participation, and/or self-directed learning.’

To some extent I did all of these – so does that make me a lurker?

For me it might have been more interesting to learn whether people consider themselves to be ‘lurkers’ and the reasons for their self-judgement and whether or not they can justify their online behaviour, which brings me back to the title of this post – Is lurking ever indefensible?

After much thought since my last post, I have come to the conclusion that the answer to this question has to be ‘No’ – i.e. lurking can always be defended. Why do I think this? Because I believe that learning should be in the control of the learner, which includes a choice of whether to lurk or not – although as a teacher of young children and adults I would always want to point out to lurkers the possible consequences of their choices and actions.

However, as we have seen from George Siemens’ blog post, active participants can find lurkers very irritating, particularly if assessment is involved. In response to my last post ‘In defense of lurking’ , Eduardo asked how we should assess lurkers’ participation. The bigger question for me is – should we assess participation? This has always been difficult, particularly where collaborative assessed group work is concerned – but if we believe that learners should have control over their own learning, why should we force them to work in groups for an assessment when they might prefer to work alone? Why can’t we give them the choice? So my answer would be that we don’t have to assess participation. Assessment should focus on the outcome which meets the learning objective. How learners want to arrive at that outcome should be up to them. As Heli points out in her comment on my last blog post, there are many reasons why people choose to participate in the way in which do and they must be allowed to find their own way.

I think this whole issue of whether or not we should tolerate ‘lurking’ comes very much down to issues of control. This is so ingrained as a teaching behaviour that it is very difficult for teachers to let go of or even fully recognise. Ultimately, lurkers may threaten a teacher’s authority and control. Is this the real issue rather than the lurking per se?

In defense of lurking

A couple of days ago George Siemens made a post to his Elearnspace blog in which he strongly criticised lurkers as follows:

Creation, collaboration, and sharing are the true value points of a PLN. It’s not what it does for me, but rather what I am now able to do with and for others.

Being connected, without creating and contributing, is a self-focused, self-centered state. I’ve ranted about this before, but there is never a good time to be a lurker. Lurking=taking. The concept of legitimate peripheral participation sounds very nice, but is actually negative. Even when we are newcomers in a network or community, we should be creating and sharing our growing understanding.

What George has written seems to me to be a complete contradiction of what I perceive open learning networks or courses to be all about. Stephen Downes has outlined the principles of learning in networks as being openness, connectivity, diversity and autonomy. For me, autonomy lies at the heart of how this works, and has been central to the success of the open courses I have so far attended (PLENK, CCKO8 and CritLit). In other words, a key principle is that we have the choice of how connected, open, interactive or participative we want to be. We can therefore choose to lurk. Actually, I dislike that derogatory term ‘lurking’ and prefer to recognise that in any course, online or f2f, we will have active participants, but also those whose learning preference is to ‘read’ or ‘observe’.

Being connected, without creating and contributing, is a self-focused, self-centered state.

My question here would be what is wrong with that? PLN (personal learning network) is by its very name just that – personal. It is not for George Siemens or anyone else to tell me what being connected means in relation to my personal learning.


Not so, or no more so than in collaborative creation and contribution. And just to remember here that Stephen Downes famously said at the ALT conference in 2005 that ‘Collaboration is the joining together of things that do not naturally want to be joined’. So there are two points here. First is that George’s rant against ‘lurking’ is an example of the ‘Tyranny of Participation’, written about by Ferreday and Hodgson and cited by me in a number of posts. Second is that there is no evidence that ‘lurking=taking’. By its very nature we do not know what ‘lurkers’ are doing. They are not present and therefore we have no evidence with which to judge them in this way. The responses to George’s post list many reasons why people might be perceived as ‘lurkers’. From my own experience of working as a tutor on international online courses, I know that participants may not be present for a whole host of reasons including access difficulties, technology difficulties, illness, significant family or work disruptions/distractions and so on. The best they can do in these circumstances is to read or observe. I also know that whilst these people may not be connected and contributing to my course, they are often heavily engaged elsewhere. It is not for me to make judgments about where their priorities lie. They have the autonomy to decide that for themselves.

The concept of legitimate peripheral participation sounds very nice, but is actually negative.

To throw out a comment like this about a well established theory of learning, without any further explanation is not helpful. My interpretation from reading Wenger’s work is that legitimate peripheral participation is about the development of competency and identity within a learning community and the learning trajectories that people follow to achieve this within a social learning situation. It acknowledges that when people join a community (or, I would suggest, even a network), they join at the edge and gradually develop their identity within it. In addition Etienne Wenger’s more recent work has a lot to say about learning on the boundaries of communities. At a recent conference he suggested that this is where there can be the most powerful learning experiences, where people at the edge straddle the boundaries between different communities and can feed information/learning back and forth across these boundaries. This relates also to Granovetter’s work on the strength of weak ties and suggests that far from being negative, legitimate peripheral participation can have positive consequences.

Even when we are newcomers in a network or community, we should be creating and sharing our growing understanding. (my bold)

Finally, although I have been guilty of this myself in the past, I do not think ‘should’ is a helpful word in relation to learning. Learning in any environment, network, community, course, classroom, is ideally about negotiation and learner empowerment. This also means allowing people to choose whether and when to interact with other learners, whether to read and observe (lurk) rather than be actively interactive and to decide for themselves what connectivity means to them personally.

#PLENK2010 PLEs and learner autonomy

PLEs. Concept or Technology -This was the title of the presentation by Sebastian Fiedler in the final week of the PLENK course. This was a particularly stimulating session as you would expect from the title.  I haven’t had time to read Sebastian’s article yet – so everything in this post is based on my perceptions, understanding, and interpretation of what happened in the Elluminate session.

It was quite a difficult session to follow – should I listen to Sebastian, or follow the chat, which was very active due to the stimulation of Sebastian’s presentation – but it modelled exactly the sort of learning environment we can expect when learners are autonomous in an open course.

Sebastian started by saying that PLE is a counter concept arising from discontent with centralised course management. This is certainly one way of understanding why there is currently such interest in PLEs – but is it perhaps too narrow a view of PLEs?  As I mentioned in my last post, they have always been around, it’s just that the wide range of open source tools available at the moment, means that learners now have greater opportunity to learn independently and autonomously than ever before. Howard Johnson has, though, made the interesting comment that we may be evolving in the direction our tools are leading us.

Sebastian was concerned that we focus only on the personal learner model for adults – which he suggested was one where adults are self-functioning, self-co-ordinating, self-controlling (self monitoring), self-developing and self-projecting. It reminded me of the first headteacher I worked for, who told me that to be a good teacher I would need to first learn how to teach very young children. I was not happy at the time, but I have always been grateful to him for insisting that I do this. And having had that experience, I know that Sebastian’s personal learner model for adults can apply just as well to young children, who can be taught to be self-functioning, self-co-ordinating, self-controlling (self monitoring), self-developing and self-projecting and in small ways can achieve all of these. At the time that my headteacher insisted that I work with 4/5 year olds, in the UK teachers of young children were being urged to take on the High Scope approach which originated in the States. In this approach children planned their own daily curriculum. Their choices were of course monitored. If they were choosing to play in the sand every day without doing any other types of activities, then they would be gently steered to make more balanced choices, but they were beginning to work as autonomous learners.

Which brings us to the question of what we mean by autonomy.  It seems to be agreed that autonomy is a recognised element and outcome of personal learning environments, but whose personal learning environment and what type of environment? One outcome of this PLENK session was that further work is needed to define what we mean by learner autonomy in relation to PLEs.

Hopefully the recording of this session will be posted soon. The thoughts in this post only represent a fraction of what was discussed and a very personal and ‘off the top of my head’  perspective at that.

#PLENK2010 PLEs from a PLP (personal learning perspective)

I’m wondering why the idea of personal learning environments (PLEs) has captured the attention of so many. Surely PLEs have always existed. I have been thinking about my father who died aged 79 and was born in 1914. He helped to install the first computer in his company and as I remember, it was the size of whole room – a large room.  My father did not know computers as we have them today, but nevertheless he had a personal learning environment. I can remember it clearly. It was a roll top desk in a tiny room in the attic of our house, where he did not like to be disturbed. He had a fountain pen and a bottle of ink on the leather top of the desk (which became visible once the wooden lid had been rolled back) and meticulously kept documents in the small wooden pigeon holes that lined the back of the desk. My father also had a public learning environment – a rather grand office in a modern building in a nearby town.  And he had both a personal and public learning network. Networking was very important, even in those days, and for my father consisted of entertaining the right people (my mother achieved this wonderfully well). Those pictures in films of small children looking through the banisters at dinner guests arriving, was more than just fiction for some of us.

So what is the fuss about PLEs and PLNs? It is not that they exist. They have always existed in one form or another, for people of all ages.

We might think from this PLENK2010 that the fuss is about technology. There is no doubt that there are now a wealth of technological tools at our disposal which we can use on a personal private level, i.e. just for ourselves, or on a personal public level, i.e. we can use them for connecting to others, sharing information and resources, discussion and knowledge creation. But perhaps to get too hooked up on the tools we use in today’s PLEs and PLNs is to miss the point –  and that is that the tools change the L in PLE or PLN, i.e. they change the learning or at the very least the approach to learning.

How do they do this? One overwhelming change is in the amount of autonomy they afford us. There are now so many open source tools that we don’t have to wait for an institution to provide them for us – we can go out there, get the tool we want/need and just get on with it. We can also circumvent traditional ways of going about things in education, if we so wish, and can even subvert them if we feel so inclined. We can learn what, where, when, how and with whom we wish. PLE now means something different to what it meant in my father’s day. I suspect I have more choices and more power/control over my learning than he ever did. But I am also probably exposed to far more information than he ever was.

So for today’s learners, a PLE involves using a wide range of tools to connect with a widely dispersed network of people and resources. Navigating this network is a key skill. Managing vast amounts of information is a key skill. Filtering, critical evaluation and selecting information and deciding with whom to connect are all key skills.  Knowing how to aggregate selected information is also a key skill. The autonomy afforded by today’s PLEs and PLNs brings with it many implications for the learner. I think it may be a while before we fully understand what these are.

#PLENK2010 The Tyranny of Teaching Content

A few days ago I made a post about the place of content in teaching and learning, which prompted this response from Chris Jobling

As a lecturer looking to be released from ‘the tyranny of delivering content’, I’d be interested in hearing more about that! But I appreciate that you’d have to charge me 😉

I have interpreted this as a ‘throwing down of the gauntlet’ – which I will now pick up with the return of a wink to Chris 😉

I’ll get the lesser point out of the way first. Chris has said ‘But I appreciate that you’d have to charge me’.  As an independent consultant – ‘Yes, I do charge’ – I have to eat, pay the mortgage etc. like everyone else – but ‘No, I don’t have to charge’. That is the joy of being independent. I can choose whether or not to charge and sometimes I do work for free, particularly on research – but I don’t think I have ever lost out in working for free  – I always gain through the learning I do, and I usually find that there are very worthwhile spin-offs for me.

The second point about releasing lecturers from the ‘tyranny of delivering content’ is a much more difficult topic to discuss, and I have picked up Chris’ gauntlet as I feel I should ‘put my money where my mouth is’ 🙂 – so I have tried to think through the strategies that I myself use. I think teaching is a very personal process, so I can say what works for me, and suggest what might work for others, but I could never stipulate what would work in general terms. It is very context dependent.

My own background is teaching in schools and then teacher training in Higher Education where my subject was science. I mention this as science has a heavily content laden curriculum; the school curriculum is also heavily content laden – so I have come up against the tyranny of teaching content.

In thinking this through, I have realised that release from the tyranny of teaching content is very dependent on attitude and belief. Of course there will always be content in any teaching, but what is it, how much of it is there, who controls it, where is it located, how is knowledge of it assessed – etc. You can probably throw more of these sorts of questions into the mix. A teacher’s answers to them will tell us a lot about the teacher’s attitude to content and belief in its centrality or otherwise to the teaching process.

My personal view is that:

There is so much information out there, which is developing and changing so fast, that I can’t possibly keep up with it, never mind hold it all in my head. The trick is to work out what knowledge/facts I must always have at my finger tips and what I don’t need to hold in my head because I can search for the information on the internet. I also have to believe that it is not essential to commit vast amounts of information to memory and that I am no less of a teacher if I don’t always have the answer to a student’s question.

Advances in technology mean that it is relatively easy to upload the content that students need to a website, where they can access it for themselves. Our role as teachers is to filter the information for them – just as on this PLENK course, we have been given a filtered list of readings. This is how we give students the benefit of our knowledge; this will save them time and allow them space to develop their own lines of inquiry. Although we might upload content, we do not necessarily need to go over all this content with them when we meet them face-to-face, in a lecture theatre, or even in an online course. We can trust that they will access it for themselves. If we are not so trusting or we believe that leaving students to access the content for themselves will not be in their best interests, we can build in plenty of self-assessment tasks and progress indicators so that students are made well aware of the content they have to cover and it is always accessible to them. This provision of content ‘at a distance’ so to speak, means teachers can be released from teaching the curriculum content piece by piece (which for students in universities often means ‘death by PowerPoint’, or in schools the teacher ‘talking too much’) and focus on learning to learn, thinking skills, problem solving, application of content etc. i.e. learning processes, rather than learning facts.

But this approach does require that teachers/lecturers no longer see themselves as central to the students’ learning. This is particularly difficult for teachers whose reputation has been built on their ‘performances’ and whose enjoyment of teaching comes from being at centre stage with all eyes focussed on them. But even this type of teacher can make a ‘performance’ of learning process rather than content. Students more often than not need to learn how to ‘use’ content, rather than learn the content itself.

Finally, teachers need a different attitude towards assessment and feedback. What kind of assessment is needed to promote deep-seated learning, a love of learning and the type of learning where students will know for themselves the essential content that they need? How do we prevent the type of assessment which measures content coverage and memory of facts on one day, only for it to be forgotten on the next day?

Chris was right to throw down the gauntlet. Freeing oneself from the tyranny of teaching content is no easy task. Not only do we come up against traditional academic policies and procedures which appear to obstruct any changes we might wish to make – but we often come up against the students themselves. ‘Just tell me what to do’ they say. In other words, ‘Please don’t make me think’. But as I said in my last post, I think it is possible, little by little to subvert the system. Take a risk, try out new approaches, do things slightly differently, be prepared for things to go wrong. But most of all keep asking the question – Do I really need to teach this content and if so why?

#PLENK2010 The place of content in teaching and learning

Today’s PLENK presentation from Maria Anderson was based on her paper – The Holy Grail of Education: Personalized Learning

Unfortunately, like many others, I hadn’t had time to read the paper before attending the session (Note to PLENK convenors – many of us might need more advance notice of pre-reading  – or did I miss the advance notice?)

There was lots of interest in Maria’s presentation and many avenues I could follow – but I’ll pick one, which is of particular interest to me – and that is the place of content in teaching and learning in a digital age.

Currently my work is always in Higher Education, talking to lecturers about how they could take advantage of technology to enhance their teaching and learning and I often find myself saying  that technology can release you from the tyranny of delivering content (which was a revelation to me when I recognised the idea for myself in my own teaching and learning). I can remember clearly the time when I realised that I didn’t have to cover the ‘curriculum’ in my face-to-face sessions, if I provided the content online (my subject was science for trainee science teachers). Instead, in the sessions we could focus on addressing students’ misconceptions (which relates to Maria’s discussion about Socratic questioning).

Of course, you may say that this approach is all very well with adult learners but it wouldn’t work with children, because as Maria pointed out, many children don’t do any work outside of school – therefore in school teachers need to cover the content.

I can understand where this argument is coming from.  I have taught in schools where children are deprived of any sort of parental support outside of school. I was also teaching in schools when the massively overloaded National  Curriculum was introduced into schools in the UK, and when ‘league tables’ were introduced. This led to schools’ test  results being published so that parents can select schools for children on the basis of these results. This in turn led ( in this competitive environment)  to teachers ‘teaching to the test’.  It was not all ‘black’, as there were many ‘failing’ schools, and these government initiatives made schools more accountable, but they also had the effect of stultifying teacher creativity. I remember one newly qualified and talented teacher saying to me that she didn’t have to be creative, she only needed to ‘follow the script’. In the UK, not only was the curriculum dictated, but also the lesson plans.

Now – I was fortunate in having had experience of teaching before the National Curriculum was introduced. There are some advantages to having reached the higher decades ;-). I remember in those early days (the 60s), a head teacher saying to me – ‘follow the children’s interests’ – if they want to talk about birds nests all week then go for it (this was primary aged children).  Our job was then to find ways of introducing mathematics, science, English, drama, art, geography, history etc. into and around the children’s interest  birds nests. Those were very stimulating times and that experience never left me. For me it meant that when the National Curriculum came in I looked for ways to ‘subvert the system’ so that I could recapture the energy of the ‘birds nest’ scenario.  The interesting thing was that I certainly wasn’t alone. There were other teachers old and young who felt that it was more important to follow the children’s interests than cover the curriculum (although I must stress that this was within a reasonable and measured balance) – but we were not automatons, dancing to the National Curriculum tune.

It is quite a number of years since I have taught in a school, but recently I was reminded of this need to subvert the system in relation to the dominance of content and the National Curriculum, when Gareth Malone presented a couple of television programmes about his attempts to improve the literacy of boys in an English primary school – see . You will see from the comments that there are many perspectives on this and many critical practising teachers, but if we can believe the outcomes of the programme, then he did manage to improve the boys’ literacy scores through – what is currently – an unorthodox approach to teaching, learning, the National Curriculum and content.

So – I wonder whether content is the starting point (I think Maria suggested that learners  need some content to base their learning on – or words to that effect) or whether there is an ‘engaging the learner’ stage, a ‘learning how to learn’ stage,  which precedes or circumvents content  – just as Matthias and I feel that e-resonance precedes online communication, and  whether ownership of learning or personalized learning means making it legitimate for learners to determine their own learning content – although I can appreciate that many learners, young and older, might appreciate guidance and support with this. I am not advocating that we cast learners adrift alone into a sea of unfathomable content and information, but that choice and learner autonomy at all ages might enrich the learning process and make it more effective and maybe this should be the starting point.

PS – With many thanks to Carmen Tschofen for explaining to me how Community Colleges in the US work, which reminded me that I should always be aware of cultural differences, even if we speak the same language (:-)). Her contact prompted me to make this post. Thank you Carmen.