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.

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. http://www.elearnspace.org/blog/2010/12/01/my-personal-learning-network-is-the-most-awesomest-thing-ever/

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.

Lurking=taking.

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.

Openness and intellectual property

This is just going to be a quick post – just to mark something that happened today and which seems highly significant to me to the whole notion of open learning in open networks – if those networks are related to learning in Higher Education.

Today I attended a meeting in which a PhD student asked a question about the meaning of intellectual property. She was concerned that the data that she was gathering and her decisions about what data to collect for her PhD were based on conversations with her work colleagues – so what could she claim as her own ideas and what should she attribute to others – could she claim anything from a dialogue/discussion as her own?

Evidently it is very important in a PhD viva to be able to substantiate work as original and as your own work.

The student was advised at this point to be extremely careful about attributing work carefully, extremely cautious about openly sharing work in progress or ideas, and to be selfish. This should help to ensure that the PhD is accepted as an original piece of work and in addition this approach would help to ensure that anyone then intending working in Higher Education could build up their reputation in high ranking journals, maintain tenure at the university at which s/he works and not risk having their work and ideas ‘stolen’ by others.

This approach to learning is the antithesis of what I am interested in and how I want to learn – but then I am past retirement age, do not need to secure a career and have nothing to lose in believing that we should openly share.  I must say I found I was able to listen sympathetically to the discussion today, whilst at the same time being ‘sad’ that this non-sharing approach is still being promoted in some areas of Higher Education. It occurred to me that this approach is based on ‘fear’. Fear of not being recognised, fear of having your ideas stolen, fear of not ‘making it’, fear of not ‘fitting in’ etc.

Despite all this, I think it is worth thinking about exactly what we mean by ‘open’ in relation to intellectual property and more broadly – a question that has been concerning me for a while. I can see that for a student/new lecturer who is trying to establish a reputation, they have to make their mark somehow – and how do you do this at the beginning of your career and before you become established, if you give all your work away, and/or allow anyone to use it in any way they wish, especially if, as I was told today, high ranking journals, on which tenure is based, require you to substantiate that your ideas are original.

So where does openness fit into this scenario? Is there a continuum from less open to more open along which we need to appropriately position ourselves according to our specific personal context at any given time?

#PLENK2010 Assessment in distributed networks

I have been struggling to clearly identify the issues associated with assessment in PLEs/PLNs – which are probably similar to those in MOOCs or distributed networks.

There seem to be a number of questions.

  • Is it desirable/possible to assess learners in a course which takes place in a distributed network?
  • Is it possible/desirable to accredit learning in a course which takes place in a distributed network?
  • What assessment strategies would be appropriate?
  • Who should do the assessing?

Whether assessment is desirable in a PLENK/MOOC etc. will depend on the purpose of the course and the learning objectives that the course convenors had in mind when they designed the course. PLENK2010 does not include formal assessment and yet has attracted over 1000 participants, many of whom are still active in Week 5. Presumably these participants are not looking for their learning outcomes to be assessed. CCK08 attracted over 2000 participants and did include assessment for those who wished it – but the numbers were small (24 – I’m not sure if the number who could do the course for credit was limited or only 24 wanted it) – so it was not only possible for the course convenors to assess these participants but also to offer accreditation.

Both assessment and accreditation are possible across distributed networks if the numbers are manageable. It is not the distributed network that is the problem, although this might affect the assessment strategies that are used. It is the numbers. Just as it is not possible for course convenors of a MOOC to interact on an individual level with participants, so it is physically not possible for them to assess such large numbers of individuals, and without this assessment no accreditation can be offered other than perhaps a certificate of attendance – but even this would need to be monitored and would be contrary to the principles of autonomy expected in a MOOC.

So how to assess large numbers. Traditionally this been done through tests and exams which can be easily marked by assessors. Whilst these make the assessment process manageable for the tutors, they offer little more than a mark or grade to the students – since very often there is no feedback-feedforward loop associated with the grade. Also tests and exams are not the best assessment strategy for all situations and purposes.

So what better assessment strategies would work with large numbers? Actually this might be the wrong starting question. The starting point should be what learning objectives do we have, what outcomes do we expect these objective to lead to and what assessment strategy will enable the learner to achieve the learning objective as demonstrable through the outcome. There is a wealth of information now available on assessment strategies, both for formative and summative assessment. Focus in the UK has for many years now (from the time of Paul Black’s article, Inside the Black Box, to Gibbs and Simpson’s article – Conditions Under Which Assessment Supports Students’ Learning, to the REAP project and the work of the JISC) been on formative assessment and providing effective feedback. In Higher Education there has been even more of a push on this recently since students are demanding more and better feedback (National Student Survey) – so effective assessment strategies are there if we are aware of them and know how to use them. These include a whole range of possibilities including audio and video feedback-feedforward between students and tutors, students writing/negotiating their own assessment criteria, peer, group and self-assessment. But how can these strategies be used with MOOC-like numbers whilst maintaining the validity, reliability, authenticity and transparency of assessment?

There appear to be no easy answers to this question. Alec Couros – in his open course – is experimenting with the use of mentors – is this a way forward? We know that there are many trained teachers in PLENK2010. Could they be possible assessors? How would their credentials be checked? Would they work voluntarily?

Peer assessment has been suggested. I have experience of this, but have always found that student peer assessment whether it is based on their own negotiated criteria or criteria written by the tutor – often needs tutor moderation, if a grade which could lead to a degree qualification is involved. Similarly with self-assessment. We don’t know what we don’t know – so we may need someone else to point this out.

The nearest thing I have seen to trying to overcome the question of effectively teaching and assessing large numbers of students is in Michael Wesch’s 2008 video – A Portal to Media Literacy – where he shows how technology can support effective teaching and learning of large groups of students – but he is talking about hundreds, not thousands of students and himself admits that the one thing that didn’t work was asking students to grade themselves. This was two years ago – so I wonder if he has overcome that problem.

So – from these musings it seems to me that

  • Learning in large courses distributed over a range of networks is a worthwhile pursuit. They offer the learner diversity, autonomy and control over their own learning environment and extensive opportunities for open sharing of learning.
  • The purpose of these courses needs to be very clear from the outset – particularly with regard to assessment, i.e. course convenors need to be clear about the learning objectives, how learners might demonstrate that those objectives have been met through the outcomes they produce and whether or not those outcomes need to be assessed.
  • There has been plenty written about what effective assessment entails. The problem in MOOCs is how to apply these effective strategies to large numbers.
  • If we cannot rely on peer assessment and self-assessment (which we may not be able to do for validated/accredited courses), then we need more assessors.

Would a possibility be for an institution/group of institutions to build up a bank/community of trained assessors who could be called upon to voluntarily assess students in a MOOC (as Alec Couros has done with mentors).  Even if this was possible I could see a number of stumbling blocks, e.g. assessor credentials, subject expertise, moderation between assessors, would institutions allow accreditation to be awarded when the assessment has been done by people who don’t work for the institution?  – what else?

#PLENK2010 Scaffolding Open Courses

I have just attended the Friday Elluminate session of the Plenk2010 course (will post recording as soon as it is available).

I have been out of touch for more than a week trying to meet research and work deadlines and so it was great to be able to attend this session and also that the session focussed on a topic which is of great interest to me. The question that I honed in on was around the role of educators in ‘massive/large’ open courses. I have missed more than one week’s content of the course, so I am unsure of the context in which this question arose, but since I have participated in at least one other large open course – notably CCK08 – I do have some thoughts about this.

It hit me today that in a MOOC, the massiveness is not a given in that for an open course the facilitators/moderators/tutors (whatever you wish to call them) can have no idea of how many people the course will attract. CCK08 was massive – more than 2000 people signed up. The critical Literacies course was less ‘massive’ in terms of numbers and definitely fairly small by the end. PLENK2010 is massive – more than 1000 participants – many of whom are very active.

But the ‘openness’ is a given. We can attend for ‘free’ – but – we are expected to work autonomously and openly ‘share’ our resources and thinking in a very diverse group. The expectation is that thinking and learning processes will be transparent – but despite these expectations, we can still choose not to – making the whole experience very flexible. This flexibility can be experienced as a double-edged sword.

We found in our research following CCK08 that the more massive the open course the more difficult it becomes to function effectively as autonomous independent learners and the more difficult it is to adhere to the expectation of openness – Also, the more likely it is that participants will congregate in small groups and therefore be liable to ‘group think’ – another problem that was mentioned today – although my personal experience has been that small group work does not necessarily lead to group think, but can instead lead to significant learning as has been my experience with Matthias, John Mak, Roy and other f2f colleagues.

But if we stick with learning in a ‘massive’ network – as a number of people have already noted in PLENK2010 it is easy to feel lost, to find the open course lacking in terms of ‘tutor’ support and scaffolding, to experience the ‘dark side of networking’ as was mentioned in the chat room today.

It seems to me that it’s not possible to have it all ways. Evidently Alec Couros has managed to provide scaffolding in his open course (which I admit I know nothing about so this is second hand information) by ‘recruiting’ mentors to support his online learners. I would have to see this for myself to be able to judge it in action.

My feeling – during the session this evening (UK time:-)) – was that it’s a question of knowing what you have signed up for and what you can expect – and given that these open courses are free, then, as learners, we have a responsibility to check on what we have signed up for and what we can expect.

My expectations would be:

– for a small open course, there would be recognisable structure and ‘tutor’ input (small I would regard as anything under 30 – or possibly 50)
– for a medium sized open course, I would expect less tutor interaction and more peer-to-peer support (not sure about the numbers here, but anything between 50 and 200)
-for a large open course – I would be thinking in terms of ‘networked learning’ rather than course and not expect any personal interaction with the ‘tutor’ at all and to have to rely totally on my peers for support.

The numbers I have put in here are arbitrary – and just to give and idea of what I mean.

However, if I was paying for the course I would expect significant tutor interaction and support, but not to ‘have my hand held’ by the tutor. I would hope that even on a paying course a tutor would be encouraging independent autonomous learning.

I think it’s rather a shame that convenors of a ‘MOOC’ have to justify their approach when they are giving freely of their time and effort. That’s not to say that we and they don’t have a lot to learn about the management of open courses – but it is something we can do together rather than being an ‘us’ and ‘them’ situation.

#PLENK2010 Immediate thoughts

It is interesting that this course has attracted so many people (over 1000?), but the Critical Literacies course attracted far fewer – and I’m wondering why, since a critical literacy must surely be to be able to manage a personal learning environment/network. Is it because the management of a personal learning environment/network is more practically focussed, but consideration of critical literacies is more conceptual/academic?

I have had a quick look at all the readings for this week. I was intrigued by Scott Leslie’s Mother of All PLE Diagram Compilation and thought I had better try and construct my own diagram – which I started to do and even considered using Prezi, until I realised that all this is terribly time consuming and I didn’t see that I would gain a lot. In my head I know which tools I use, why, when and with whom – I use most of them every day. I also know who I am networked with, which communities I follow and which tools I use to meet up with different groups/individuals. Having said that, looking at the diagrams was a spur to activating my Twitter account which has lain dormant since I created it ages ago. Now seems like a good time to test out whether it should be part of my PLE/PLN.

But more interesting for me is Dave Cormier’s blog post – Five points about PLEs and PLNs – Dave Cormier (Blog post) because he is talking about the related issues and why we should think about this at all. Like him I have always been concerned about the confusion between e-portfolios and PLEs (he didn’t express it like this – but this is the issue that his post raised for me). A lot of universities in the UK have introduced e-portfolio systems which are tied into the University’s platform. (Is this because of assessment requirements or am I just being cynical?). When the students graduate and leave the University they have to buy their own portfolio. It all seems very inflexible to me and ties the students to a system which ultimately may not suit their needs, when they move out into the world of work.

But an alternative perspective on e-portfolios is that at least everything is in one place in what is presumably a secure environment.  The disadvantages of open source distributed environments are not too difficult to identify; for example, you may lose your environment, as when Ning suddenly decided that users would have to pay for their previously free site.

There is also a concern lurking in the back of my mind about the effect of distributed environments on the quality of learning – i.e. the old breadth versus depth concerns. I personally find it very difficult to balance these. I have been very fortunate that my experience with distributed networks such as those promoted by the open courses I have attended, CCK08 and Critical Literacies (I only attended part of this one) has enabled me to experience more depth than breadth, in that I have ‘met’ research partners in these courses and have been able to collaborate in research projects which, as an independent consultant, not affiliated to any institution, would have been difficult to organise without these networks.

For me the  personal/conceptual interactions between small groups are more stimulating/interesting/fulfilling than a wide network of connections, but paradoxically I need a distributed network in order to find the resonating connections to lead to the conceptual and personal connections that I value. Resonating connections is very much at the forefront of my mind at the moment since Matthias Melcher and I have just completed writing a paper on this very topic after months of discussion. See The Riddle of Online Resonance – and yes – now that I have realised that there obviously is a link between the issues surrounding PLE/Ns and e-resonance – this is a shameless plug of our paper 🙂

The Riddle of Online Resonance

First instalment (Introduction, e-resonance and F2F communication, Characteristics of e-resonance)  – posted 12-09-2010

Second instalment (Indicators of e-resonance, Affordances of e-resonance) – posted 14-09-2010

Third instalment (Factors that affect e-resonance, Conclusions) – posted on 16-09-2010

PDF of full article – The Riddle of Online Resonancehttps://jennymackness.files.wordpress.com/2010/09/the-riddle-of-online-resonance.pdf

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The subject of this blog post is the result of a discussion that I have been having with Matthias Melcher – and he with me 🙂 – since the beginning of the year. Matthias and I ‘met’ on the Connectivism and Connective Knowledge Course (CCK08) – and through this discovered that we are both interested in how online connections are made and we have been discussing this off and on ever since.

As a result of these discussions we have now written a discussion paper that we would like to share in the spirit of openness that we learned about on the CCK08 course.

This discussion paper explores the nature of online connectivity and, in particular, seeks to better understand how online connections are made in the very first instance of contact. There has been plenty of research on how to develop online connections once they have been made, but the question of how the initial contact is made has not received much attention. What is it that enables a potentially beneficial connection to be made with a previously unknown online communicator? We propose that the answer lies in online resonance, which we have called ‘e-resonance’. In this paper we consider what the characteristics, affordances and affecting factors of e-resonance might be. What sparks it off? What are the key indicators of e-resonance? In response to these questions we discuss the possibility of ‘beyond verbal’ communication and what this might mean for the author and reader of online messages and whether particular skills are needed to be able to benefit from e-resonance. There is no doubt that e-resonance is a riddle, which remains, as yet, unsolved.

Our intention is to post our paper in three instalments and we would very much welcome comment, positive or negative, and discussion about the ideas that we have incorporated in the paper.

We will also be posting a full PDF of the paper at some stage.

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Creative Commons Licence
The Riddle of Online Resonance by Matthias Melcher and Jenny Mackness is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.