The Direction of MOOC Research

After 2 years of MOOC mania, the time has come for increasing the output of MOOC research. But what direction is that research taking – what direction should it take?

At the beginning of the month George Siemens convened a MOOC conference – (with funding from Bill and Melinda Gates) – which was billed as the MOOC conference of all MOOC conferences – pulling together many of the big names associated with MOOCs. And, by all accounts, it was a great conference – the conversations must have been fascinating.

Given that I couldn’t attend, I have been watching the Twitter stream quite closely and am following the blog posts that are emerging now that delegates have managed to return home after being stuck in Dallas in an unexpected ice storm .

From my reading of some of the follow up tweets and posts it seems that despite the bonhomie, there were some divisions between the delegates, although they may not have been openly discussed at the time.

I was alerted to this first by a tweet from Stephen Downes who wrote:

#MRI13 – seeing more and more the gulf between my own approach to MOOCs and those from the xMOOC perspective…

And then by a blog post from Ralf St.Clair  who has suggested that there were three groups in the conference delegates and these were not necessarily compatible:

The first, and the most fun, are the techno-utopians. These folks believe that the issues of MOOCs are fundamentally technical, and once we have a better [insert tool here e.g. marking algorithm] then we really will have a widespread and powerful democratisation of knowledge.

The second group are the Educational Idealists, who fret about structure and pedagogy and rigour. That’s the group I belong to, through frankly I’d rather be in the first group. They have all the good tunes.

The third group are the Administrative Puritans, focused on return on investment, costs, and monetisation so that MOOCs can pay their (considerable) way.

Bonnie Stewart  also noted that there were groups who did not appear to know how to talk to each other and wrote in her recent blog post

I think ‘what’s next?’ is working out the conversation IN the metaphorical van. Some who see MOOCs as learning focus on the pursuit of its ever-more-finely-honed measurement. Others are more inclined to dismiss measurement as irrelevant to the networked synthesis of ideas that forms the backbone of their approach to education. A hundred more do something in between. We don’t necessarily know how to talk to each other. It became evident around the Arlington bar tables last week that the chasms between practitioners’ varying versions of learning and knowledge are so deep some aren’t even really aware that the rest of us are IN the van.

Then there have been a couple of blog posts from Martin Weller and Martin Hawksey that suggest that the emphasis on big data research might not be exactly what is needed  – It was easy to forget you were talking about learners, and not sales of baked beans. (Martin Weller).

These posts were interesting given that my own research into MOOCs has always been on the learner experience. Whilst there is a lot to learn from big data, we also need to keep the focus on the learner and try and understand the changes that are happening in learners themselves in these new open online learning environments. My experience is that it is difficult to square this interest in the unique individual experience with the massive number of MOOC participants.

There have also been interesting discussions about the role of theory in relation to MOOC research and the suggestion that we are moving from theory-led to evidence-based research – i.e. post-theory  ( See Martin Weller’s blog post and this post by Mike Caulfield). My own thinking is that perhaps we need more theory – not less – and in particular we need more discussion around the proposed theory of connectivism, which only a few researchers have, to date, been prepared to engage in.

Post conference reflections, tweets and blog posts are still coming in and the discussion remains very interesting.  Here are some of the posts that have caught my eye

Bodong Chen – Top Links from the MOOC Research Conference Twitter Backchannel (#MRI13)

Matt Crosslin – Give Me an M! Give Me a C! Blah Blah Blah To All This Theory

Keith Devlin – The MOOC Express – Less Hype, More Hope

Lori Breslow, Donald Clark, Professor Asha Kanwar, Stephen Downes – EduDebate: What Future for MOOCs

Michael Feldstein – Changing the Narrative

I picked up most of these from the conference Twitter stream  (#mri13 )

Identity and the Language Poets


ModPo has been moving too fast for me again. We are already on Week 9 and I am struggling to get to grips with Week 8.

Week 8 focussed on an introduction to Language Poetry. This is how the week was introduced (in part) on the Coursera site:

By starting with Silliman’s “Albany” and Hejinian’s My Life, we focus on ways in which – and reasons why – Language poets refused conventional sequential, cause-and-effect presentations of the writing self. The self is languaged – is formed by and in language – and is multiple across time (moments and eras) and thus from paratactic sentence to paratactic sentence. While this radical revision of the concept of the lyric self (and of the genre of memoir) emphasizes one aspect of the Language Poetry movement at the expense of several other important ideas and practices, it is, we feel, an excellent way to introduce the group.

Other poets introduced in Week 8 were Bob Perelman (Chronic Meanings – a beautiful pre-elegy), Susan Howe (My Emily Dickinson) and Charles Bernstein’s “In a Restless World Like This Is” (my mother used to sing the song – When I fall in Love – that this title comes from, when I was a child. At the age of 88 she can still sing it now). And we were introduced to another Ron Silliman poem – BART – written whilst travelling on the BART – the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transport, which I travelled on a couple of years ago on a visit to California.

I don’t have time to give enough thought to the Language Poets  – week 9 is upon us – so here I will record (and at some stage will need to come back to) – the key idea that came out of Week 8 for me – and that is that:

Language constructs the self

This was discussed particularly in relation to Lynn Hejinian’s work – My Life.

The idea that language is central to the construction of the self and identity resonates with me. This explains the ever-changing self as we continually reconstitute ourselves in response to language and social interaction. I like the idea that every time I speak/write I am involved in the act of constructing/reconstructing myself. It makes sense to me that I can use language to construct my self, but that language will also construct me.

Is the self multiple across time – as mentioned in the introduction to Week 8 above? This would fit with Bonnie Stewart’s work on Digital Identities. I have always felt that although I will inevitably be perceived differently by different people, I have one identity with many facets.  All the facets make up me! But I can see how the language I use and the discourse I engage in creates different perceptions of me. I can also see how language and our use of it influences who we are, and that the self is a fluid construct. But I’m not sure that this means that we have multiple identities. I need to think about this a bit more.

This has been in haste! A marker for future reference. There is lots more to think about and I will have to come back. The week 9 poets are calling!

In what way has this sentence, this blog post constructed/reconstructed my self?

Finding your blogging voice: lessons from Jack Kerouac

This morning I found a pingback on my last post about blogging and conscious incompetence. This came from Lisa Lane’s (online) teaching blog and her post –To Not Speak. Like Bonnie Stewart, Paul Prinsloo, me and I’m sure many others, Lisa has been wondering why some bloggers become tongue-tied and lose their voice.

Lisa has said that she needs ‘inspiration for a completely different kind of analysis of what I do’. I agree and recently, to my complete surprise, I have been finding this through participation in Al Filreis’ Modern & Contemporary American Poetry MOOC (ModPo), which I am finding challenging in many ways, to the extent that it has more than once pushed me out of my comfort zone. I know scarcely anything about poetry and what I do know has been gleaned from the last 7 hard weeks in ModPo.

But thinking about the beautiful blogging voices (Bonnie, Lisa and Paul and others) that seem to be undergoing, as Lisa puts it, ‘a crisis of confidence’, I am reminded of Jack Kerouac’s  Belief & Technique for Modern Prose.  List of Essentials.

Jack Kerouac was introduced to us in Week 6 of ModPo as one of the Beat poets. These were poets of the late 1940s and 1950s, who worked against traditional conventions and standards of writing poetry. They were counter-cultural in all aspects of their lives, experimenting not only with poetry, but also with drugs, sexuality and alternative life-styles. Kerouac, a novelist as well as a poet, was interested in the concept of spontaneous prose. A term used to describe this is ‘babble flow’ and here is an example from Kerouac:

Aw rust rust rust rust die die die pipe pipe ash ash die die ding dong ding ding ding rust cob die pipe ass rust die words– I’d as rather be permiganted in Rusty’s moonlight Rork as be perderated in this bile arta panataler where ack the orshy rosh crowshes my tired idiot hand 0 Lawd I is coming to you’d soon’s you’s ready’s as can readies by Mazatlan heroes point out Mexicos & all ye rhythmic bay fishermen don’t hang fish eye soppy in my Ramadam give

(My spell checker had a field day with this!)

In this ‘babble flow’ Kerouac is experimenting with the ‘sound’ of poetry. He has let go of literary inhibitions and is making new associations. He writes in the moment without censorship or selectivity of expression and without punctuation or other grammar conventions. He doesn’t wait; he allows an undisturbed and incessant flow from his mind. He is true to his beliefs about modern prose and his list of essential techniques.  This is a long list of 30 points, but there are some wonderful messages in the list for bloggers who are ‘losing their voice’ for whatever reason. Here are some of my favourites from the list.

2. Submissive to everything, open, listening

4. Something you feel will find its own form

6. Blow as deep as you want to blow

7. Write as you want bottomless from bottom of mind

9. Be in love with yr life

10. Visionary tics shivering in the chest

14. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition

23. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind

28. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge

29. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it

For me Kerouac’s essentials align closely with Stephen Downes’ reasons for his prolific blogging. He writes (see response to Bonnie Stewart’s post):

like any writer – I know that if I stop doing it, I’ll lose it. Being articulate has to be a habit; if you stop, it’s difficult to pick up again. The world moves on; your own internal mental representation of jargon moves on.

In his supportive response to Bonnie Stewart’s concerns Stephen writes:

…. write, Bonnie write (sung to the tune of Run Forrest Run (though I’ve never seen the film so I’ve probably misappropriated it). Write quickly, write forcefully, paint that map and plan a pushpin into it, stake a position, be wrong! But be clear about it.

That’s not to say that blogging needs always to be fast and furious.  I remember that in 2008 I came across the idea of slow blogging and wrote a post about it.

I think there is still a place for slow blogging. There are times when we need solitude and contemplation away from the incessant chatter of the internet, but what I have learned from Week 6 in ModPo is that if and when I find myself in danger of losing my blogging/writing voice, as I surely will – this has happened many times in the past – then I will remind myself of Jack Kerouac’s list and indulge in some ‘babble flow’ to get me going again.

One can only write if one arrives at the instant towards which one can only move through space opened up by the movement of writing. In order to write one must already be writing. (Maurice Blanchot in The Gaze of Orpheus)

Living in a state of conscious incompetence

learning-path2Source of image:

Thoughts about conscious incompetence came to mind in the light of Bonnie Stewart’s recent blog post – The Story of Education: A Grimm Fairytale  in which she recounts her loss of her blogging voice and how she feels that her voice has been ‘wrong-footed and is shaky’. I don’t want to oversimplify her post. You will need to read and interpret it for yourself, but I did wonder whether her recent entry into the academic world of a PhD student – “I did not fully understand the extent to which my own voice and formal Academic Writing did not/would not mix” had pushed her into the conscious incompetence zone. (This of course raises all sorts of questions about academic writing, but I don’t want to go there just now).

I have heard others speak about losing their blogging voice and wonder if they too have been pushed into the zone of conscious incompetence in some way.

I feel as though I live in a permanent state of conscious incompetence and I wonder how much this is to do with working so much online, having Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Flickr and other accounts, following people’s blogs, participating in MOOCs etc.

It seems that I am constantly reminded of what I don’t know and how little I know, in the face of so much information about what other people do seem to know.

The internet is a great leveler. I have worked for most of my life in education, but only online for the last 14 years or so. Before that I worked either in schools, or with students in Higher Education, and was, for the most part, blissfully unaware of expertise beyond my limited circles. When teaching school children, although I could easily recognize those children who were brighter than me and would definitely go further, I had the advantage of age and life experience. Even with students in Higher Education I had this advantage. But in recent years my work has been ‘out there’ in the big wide world and it is difficult not to be conscious of your incompetence.

At the ALT2013 conference which I recently attended, I briefly discussed this with Stephen Downes, who was a keynote speaker for the conference. His response (one to remember) was that there will always be people ‘out there’ who know things that you don’t, no matter what your reputation and level of expertise, but it’s worth holding on to the fact that you will always know something that they don’t. So maybe this is what is meant by the internet being a great leveler and maybe conscious incompetence in these terms isn’t so bad!