PhD by Publication – Making a Contribution

Earlier this year I was awarded a PhD by Publication from the University of Lancaster, UK.   The process is not quite finished yet. I still must submit a hard copy and electronic copy to the library and wear the floppy hat at a ceremony in December. But for all intents and purposes it is a done deed.

Of course, I know of the criticisms of a PhD by Publication and I suspect that several of my colleagues and friends wonder about whether this is a ‘proper’ PhD. In this video, Tara Brabazon states very clearly that a PhD by Publication is valuable, but is not equivalent to a traditional PhD and that she wouldn’t allow a PhD by Publication to examine one of her PhD students who has been down the traditional 3, 4 or more years research route.

This begs the question of whether any one PhD is equivalent to any other PhD. Is a taught PhD equivalent to a traditional research PhD? Is a science PhD equivalent to an Arts PhD? Is a PhD from one university equivalent to a PhD from another university? Is one examination experience (viva) equivalent to another? And following Tara Brabazon’s argument, should a PhD by Publication be examined by a person with a traditional PhD? Surely the measure of the value of a PhD is not the number of years it takes or a question of who examines it, but the contribution to knowledge that it makes. I have read some PhD theses that scarcely mention the contribution made by three or more years’ work. I can understand this. Claiming to have made an original contribution to knowledge felt like the height of arrogance to me knowing, as I do, the work of many, many authors in my field.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, to apply for this route to a PhD I was required to write a supporting statement which

  • summarised each publication submitted,
  • outlined their interrelationship,
  • critically reviewed the current state of knowledge and research in my field,
  • indicated how my work has contributed to the field, and
  • commented on the standing of any journals and the reception of the publications as indicated by citations and reviews

At my first meeting with Professor Paul Ashwin, who would be my supervisor (it was very good of him to check my application before officially being my supervisor) he said that I needed to develop a rigorous, reflexive argument for an original contribution which will endure beyond the individual papers. I wonder how often PhDs result in an enduring, original contribution. My first attempt at writing an application fell flat on its face. Paul said he couldn’t see my contribution in the pages and pages that I had written covering the above listed bullet points. I was therefore asked to write a summary contribution statement before continuing with my application.

This proved surprisingly difficult. What exactly is a contribution?

Do the published papers (21 of them) count as a contribution? – No

Does that fact that the published papers have been cited (one of them 440 times) count as a contribution? – No

Does the fact that my papers have been blind reviewed (in total) by more than 40 reviewers, and peer reviewed by many more, count as a contribution? – No

Do the early empirical papers on the MOOC learning experience, which were amongst the first ever published on MOOCs count as a contribution? – No. Paul’s response to this suggestion was ‘So what?’

Does the fact that some of the papers address (but don’t fill) identified gaps in the literature count as a contribution? – Only in part.

So what will ‘endure beyond the individual papers and is original’? After about six weeks of puzzling over this, feeling like a complete imposter, starting and restarting numerous drafts, I finally submitted a summary contribution statement to Paul Ashwin and received the feedback that ‘PhD shines through your contribution statement’. Phew! I was ready to apply and include this contribution statement – Jenny Mackness Contribution Statement 02-06-16

However this summary statement is not in the final thesis. Ultimately, to avoid repetition, I summarised my contribution further under these headings:

  • A contribution to the literature on learners’ experiences in MOOCs
  • A contribution to understanding complexity in cMOOCs
  • A contribution to changing research processes

I am now confident that my publications have made an original contribution to knowledge, but how enduring this contribution will be I wouldn’t like to say. That is the real test.

Why do a PhD by Publication?

Why do a PhD at all?

I have considered this question many times since I completed my MA in 1997 when I was asked by the awarding University department to continue to do a PhD. I declined. My job at the time was demanding and the MA, despite having really enjoyed it, had been a strain on me and my family’s patience! But a PhD was always in the back of my mind. In 2010, I considered it again and rejected the idea once more . During these years, I continued to work as an independent researcher with a variety of colleagues, producing a number of papers. At the end of 2015 I didn’t have any more research projects planned, so my mind turned again to the possibility of doing a PhD. It seemed it was a niggle that just wouldn’t go away. My eldest son sent me an email saying, ‘For goodness sake Mum, you’ve been talking about it for years – just get on with it.’

Source of image 

(I didn’t discover this book until after I had submitted, but I wish I had discovered it earlier)

There are many reasons for doing a PhD. I have friends who have completed or are working on research PhDs, i.e. they research a topic of personal interest for three or more years, or taught PhDs, where six taught and assessed modules are completed over the first two years, before embarking on a shorter thesis which takes two years or more. Reasons seem to be a combination of personal interest in the chosen topic and career incentives/ambitions and from what I have seen the award of a PhD can lead to new career opportunities. My reasons did not relate to my career, but they did relate to changing personal circumstances.

I have recently reached my eighth decade (70 as of last November to be precise) so a PhD as a career move was not relevant for me. In fact, it might mark the end of my research career. I haven’t decided yet. I needed to do it for myself. Although I knew that it was possible to do a PhD by publication, I thought I probably wasn’t eligible. Many Universities will only take members of staff to do a PhD by Publication.   When I went to Lancaster University in January 2016 to enquire about doing a PhD, I went with the intention of starting a full research PhD. It was Professor Paul Ashwin, Head of Department, who ultimately became my supervisor, who asked me why I wasn’t considering a PhD by Publication. Interestingly the Educational Research Department at Lancaster University, which has awarded my PhD, has no mention of a PhD by Publication on its website , but Paul found out for me that I was eligible at Lancaster University to do this, since I am an alumna (my MA) and I worked for nine years for an associated institution.

I didn’t fully realise until well into my PhD that this was the perfect route for me. Not only was it a wonderful act of retrospective coherence, a pulling together of eight years’ work, but it also came at just the right time and only cost me £600, which now that I am rarely paid for work I do and am living off my pension, was an important consideration. On reflection, although this was not a consideration at the time, it was also important that it didn’t take as long (18 months in total); at my age time is short and I have a lot of things on my bucket list to fit in 🙂

So what did I have to do for this PhD?

PhDs by publication in the UK don’t seem to be very common – and I am not talking about the kind of PhD which is assessed by the papers that are written and published as part of the PhD study. That kind of PhD seems quite common in some countries in Europe and in Canada. My PhD by Publication was different. It involved drawing on existing published papers and making the case for a contribution to the body of knowledge in the field studied (in my case – learners’ experiences in connectivist MOOCs). This act of retrospective coherence was particularly apt for me, since a lot of my research has been into exploring how emergent learning occurs in complex adaptive systems – namely open online learning environments.

Different universities have different requirements both for entry and for the thesis submission, for a PhD by Publication. In my case the application was as much work as the thesis submission, although that was partly my own choice as I decided to try and do most of the work (i.e. the Literature Review and mapping analysis of papers) upfront, leaving me less to do after acceptance.

The application requirements for Lancaster University were as follows:

  • a list of the publications to be submitted: these may include refereed articles, authored chapters, authored books, and edited works. They may not include course readers, internally published material or unpublished seminar/conference papers, and 
  • a supporting paper: this should summarise each publication submitted, outline their interrelationship, give a critical review of the current state of knowledge and research in the applicant’s field and indicate how his or her work has contributed to the field.  It should also comment on the standing of any journals and the reception of the publications as indicated by citations and reviews

In relation to the length of the submission, there are no set word limits for the supporting paper which should accompany the submitted publications. The supporting paper must cover all the areas outlined in section 53(b) of the criteria (bullet points above) and the material submitted must be “sufficiently extensive as to provide convincing evidence that the research constitutes a substantial contribution to knowledge or scholarship.”  

If the application is successful, you would then work with an internal adviser to expand on the supporting paper, so this is not the final submission, basically it’s the starting point in order to ascertain if your work is at the appropriate level, i.e. PhD.

During the PhD I kept a comprehensive journal of all my thinking and progress on a private wiki which I only shared with Matthias Melcher, who was wonderfully critically supportive and encouraging throughout the whole process. What is so amazing about this is that we have never even met face-to-face. Matthias was there at the very start of my research into connectivist MOOCs. We ‘met’ in CCKO8 – the first ever MOOC.

Looking back at my wiki notes I see that I started to think about applying for a PhD in December 2015 and had my first meeting with Paul Ashwin at Lancaster University in January 2016. I submitted my application at the beginning of June 2016 and my thesis (supporting statement) at the beginning of December 2016. My viva was at the end of March 2017 and my final submission with minor revisions in May 2017. These were accepted June 2017. Through most of this time, I worked full time on the PhD.

Now that it is over, my family are proud but relieved that life can finally go back to normal. My eldest son’s response this time was, ‘Well who said you can’t teach an old dog new tricks!’

#NRC01PL The Connectivist MOOC – Research and Conclusions

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

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

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

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

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

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

These are some of the questions that interest me.

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

The Pedagogy of ModPo

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(Click on the image to enlarge it)

One of the things I appreciate about ModPo (the University of Pennsylvania’s Modern and Contemporary American Poetry MOOC ) is that whilst the essential syllabus remains the same from year to year (or has done so far and it is a very extensive syllabus), there are changes to the ‘course’ each year (course in inverted commas for reasons which will become clear below). This year there are two significant changes.

  1. There’s an additional ModPo Plus section. ModPo has a lot of participants who keep returning. This is the second time for me, but some participants are back for the third time. The ModPo Plus section introduces new poems for each week (in a separate section of the syllabus) and encourages people who need to/want to, to move on. I see this as supported differentiation within a MOOC!
  1. A section has been created especially for teachers. The ModPo team realizes that lots of teachers attend the course looking for ideas on how best to teach poetry in their classrooms. They have developed this area of the course to highlight resources that relate to teaching, to share lesson plans and teaching strategies and to facilitate discussion and interaction between teachers. This must be incredibly helpful to teachers who teach poetry.

Within the teaching resource section, I have watched two videos.

  1. The pedagogy of close reading
  2. ModPo and open education

I don’t teach poetry, but I have found both these videos interesting and helpful in relation to my own work as an independent researcher of open, emergent learning environments.

1. The pedagogy of close reading

What I liked about the discussion about close reading was the emphasis on the need to slow down. Close reading cannot be done quickly – unless you are a 600 word a minute person and I do know someone who can do this – and I am so envious!  But for someone like me, it is good to have confirmation that for most people meaning making and understanding requires slow reading. The ModPo team in this discussion shared strategies they use for close reading with groups of students, strategies such as reading aloud, repeating lines, reading backwards, selecting and mapping key words, assigning lines to different students, creating false dichotomies/binarisms on interpretations and so on.

These are strategies that can be used on any text. As Julia Bloch (the lead teaching assistant) said – ‘You can close read a cereal packet’. I know someone who after having done ModPo decided to close read an assignment question with his students – to help prepare them for writing it. I can see that this could be very helpful. Anyone who has set student assignments will know how difficult they can find it simply to read and understand the question.

Al Filreis’ rationale for close reading is that it disperses interpretative responsibility amongst the group – it is more democratic, but also harder than listening to a lecture. The focus in ModPo is on the process rather than the content, although there is plenty of content.

2. ModPo and open education

This was an interesting discussion in which the team discussed their understanding of xMOOCs, cMOOCs, connectivism and where ModPo sits in relation to these.

Dave Poplar, one of the teaching assistants, did a good job of sharing his knowledge and understanding of xMOOCs, cMOOCs and connectivism. He pointed out that ModPo is technically not a cMOOC because in a cMOOC the syllabus is not centralized.

What is a cMOOC? This was how Dave Poplar answered the question. A cMOOC is a connectivist MOOC, structurally created to enable connectivism. (See Stephen Downes’ and George Siemens’ blogs for more information.) This approach recognizes that society has changed. We are confronted with a chaos of information. Knowledge can no longer be possessed by HE institutions and transferred, but is instead the process of forming connections. A cMOOC uses the global communications network to distribute the whole concept of the authority of knowledge and make it accessible to all. In cMOOCs the students drive the direction of the course.

Needless to say this approach to teaching and learning can pose a threat to HE institutions who are committed to the idea that they are the authority, they distribute knowledge and students pay for this. It therefore suited many of them when some platform builders, such as Coursera, Udacity and the like, came along and offered the possibility of taking existing courses and distributing them to huge numbers of people (the massive in MOOC). These then became known as xMOOCs. xMOOCs took the traditional approach to teaching and learning and put it online. Unlike cMOOCs, in xMOOCs there is nothing inherently different to the traditional approach to education.

ModPo doesn’t think of itself as either an xMOOC or a cMOOC. Although it uses the Coursera platform, it doesn’t believe that this platform is inherently a regressive pedagogy – there is nothing inherently lecture dependent about the platform. ModPo believes it is as connectivist as an xMOOC can get. My experience of ModPo would support this.

The ModPo team do not believe that they offer a course or a text book. Instead they offer a set of resources, synchronously once a year for 10 weeks, including links to a huge number of open resources. They have nurtured a dynamic community which helps with the curation of these resources. It is not ModPo’s intention to replace existing courses.

They believe that the most powerful learning in this dynamic environment can be experienced in the discussion forums and through the live webcasts. For them the advantage of the forums is that the discussion cannot be controlled or predicted. Close reading of poetry is an open activity which requires the collective intelligence of lots of people and in ModPo this is the collective intelligence of a global community of lovers of poetry.

Making Sense of the Rhizome Metaphor for Teaching and Learning

This is the second post in a series of four about a presentation Frances Bell and Jenny Mackness will make at the ALTMOOCSIG  on Friday 29th June this week.  One of the reasons for these posts is that it is going to be impossible to cover all this in the time we have available at the conference.

For the first post see – The Rhizome as a Metaphor for Learning

In this post we outline how we will continue our presentation, by sharing what we understand by the rhizome metaphor, a description of the #Rhizo14 course, and an explanation of how we are conducting our research.

1. Making sense of the metaphor 

Slide 2Source of image: Mark Ingham. Boy Pool Rhizome: http://socialdigitalelective.wordpress.com/groups/rhizomes/. (More can be seen at Mark’s website  http://www.markingham.org)

 – Definition of a rhizome in botanical terms

The rhizome in botanical terms is an underground stem, which grows horizontally along or more commonly under the ground and sends out roots and shoots. Examples of rhizomes that Jenny has in her garden are mint and ground elder – so good and bad! If you have ever tried to dig up a rhizome, you will know that it is virtually impossible to know where it started from and that if you break a root in the process, the plant is likely to spring up again somewhere else.

– The rhizome as a metaphor

Many Rhizo14 participants valued the metaphor of the rhizome for teaching and learning. Quoting from survey responses, participants of the Rhizo14 course thought that teaching and learning based on this metaphor is ‘subconscious’, ‘subterranean’, ‘subversive’, ‘a non-linear, multi-directional underground web of connections’. Learning is ‘haphazard’, ‘messy’, ‘serendipitous’, ‘esoteric’, ‘dynamic’, ‘unbounded’, ‘unpredictable’, ‘adaptive’, ‘self-organising’ and ‘non-hierarchical’. This is what these survey respondents valued about it.

But there were also some participants who recognised potential negative aspects of the metaphor and described the rhizome as:

‘A pernicious, pervasive weed, rooted in a lot of dirt and ‘SH***”’; ‘….a ‘thug’ and can be very badly behaved’; ‘Part of one big family/plant – joined at the hip’. ‘Clones of the ‘same damn plant’. 

These quotes illustrate the most common interpretations of the metaphor in response to the survey questions. Only 4 (out of 47) respondents referred to Deleuze and Guattari’s work when explaining their understanding of the rhizome as a metaphor for teaching and learning.

2. #Rhizo 14 – A MOOC with a difference 

Slide 3 Source of image: Jenny Mackness: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jennymackness/13388466333/in/set-72157642869468164

– Rhizo 14 was a cMOOC

It was possible to recognise the principles of the original cMOOCs (e.g. CCK08) in the design of #Rhizo14  – principles of working across distributed platforms (e.g. P2PU, Facebook, Twitter, Google +), learner autonomy, diversity, openness and interaction. There was also the understanding that the activities would be those of a CCK08 type of cMOOC – aggregation, remixing, repurposing and feeding forward, and these activities were in abundance. The other key similarity was that it was an open and free course.

– How was #Rhizo 14 different to other cMOOCs?

This has been a recent topic of lengthy discussion in the Rhizo14 Facebook group, which is still active four months after the end of the course. One of the differences was in the mix of people that Rhizo14 attracted. Right from the start there was a mix of ‘old guard’ MOOCers and ‘new kids on the block’.  This was noted by a survey respondent:

The gap between novices and experts seemed very vast, and scaffolding seemed difficult with these extremes. At the same time, the approach to topics seemed to be a bit unworthy of the in-depth knowledge of “veteran” cMOOCers, and an increasing frustration with this seemed to creep into the blogs.

For Dave Cormier, the key difference was that he was attempting to run a course with no content.  Each week there was a very short introductory video  (av. 3 mins in length) which introduced an opening provocative question, e.g. Cheating as Learning (Week 1), Is Books Making us Stupid? (Week 4)  – and that was it. Unlike CCK08 there were no recommended readings.  Rhizo14 was also different in that it was literally ‘home-grown’, with Dave Cormier running the MOOC in his own time, often from his own home and convening weekly Hangouts in the evening, sometimes whilst trying to get his children to bed. Despite this, his intention was that there would be no centre to the course – the course convener would be one of the participants.

Another clear difference in this MOOC is the very active Facebook group which continues to discuss rhizomatic learning and related topics after the course has ended. This group thinks of itself as a community and believes that the community is the curriculum.

– Arising question (this is a big one, too big to discuss in any detail here)

The majority of respondents were positive and excited by the course. For example, one survey respondent wrote:

The significant aspect for me was finding others that were willing and able to play freely, have fun and then be reflective and metacognitive of the activities. I enjoyed the banter, tease, create, steal, mix, mash, present, prod, challenge, rework, share, admire, learn, dive deep, surface often, spiral-on action of our poetry building, reflecting and sharing.

However, this was not the experience of all respondents and some were not so positive and questioned whether there was or was not a centre to the course, and whether the course should or should not have had more ‘content’. For example one respondent thought of the course in terms of concentric circles with Dave Cormier at the centre and a core group around him. There has also been a recent discussion in Facebook about whether Rhizo14 resulted in a clique gathered around Dave Cormier.

But another respondent had a different view:

I’m quite pleased that Cormier was able to step back, for the most part, and allow the rhizome to work.

With respect to content, or the lack of it, a survey respondent commented…

 At best it [rhizomatic learning] might let academia realise that learning isnt about content, but reflection, discussion and creativity.

Whereas another respondent seemed to suggest that more content and leadership might have been helpful.

The point has been the connections formed, the conversations generated. The problem perhaps would be for those not already confident in their own academic capital. Who may not feel they have much to offer – or who may feel that they need more guidance through content – or who may feel that they are continually missing that important blog post… who may want to have some sort of over view from which to diverge or to which they can add the contingent. It could also be difficult for those who do not feel central to the conversational groups that sprout(ed). If connectivity and conversation becomes the point – who are you if you do not feel that you have not connected in that way?

There are many more comments like these in our data which exemplify the diversity of opinion on all aspects of the course – and indeed whether this was a course at all.

In MOOC research, given the number of people who either drop out or are ‘silent’ participants, it is difficult to judge the accuracy of the balance between positive and negative responses to survey questions, but for this research survey responses were both positive and negative in respect of most of the emerging themes, with there being more positive than negative responses.

3. Our Research 

Slide 4Source of image: Paul Rodecker: http://paulrodecker.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/tangled-mess-c2011.html

 

 – How have we carried out the research to date?

We participated in the MOOC as fully engaged participants and have collated resources from the MOOC on a private wiki. These resources include Facebook threads, Twitter streams, annotated readings, discussion, survey results, links to videos and our own participant observation/reflection.

Following the MOOC we created a Survey Monkey survey related to a botanical drawing of a rhizome in which we wanted to elicit qualitative rather than quantitative data. The survey included 4 questions:

  • How does the image of a rhizome relate to your prior experience of teaching, learning?
  • How does the image of a rhizome relate to your experience of learning during Rhizo14?
  • How might the image of a rhizome represent your future practice?
  • If the above questions did not allow you to fully explain your learning experience in Rhizo14, then please comment in the box below on those aspects of the course which were significant for you, and what kept you in the course or caused you to leave early.

We posted the link to the survey on Facebook, in the Google + group, on our blogs and on Twitter. The link was also sent to all P2PU participants by Dave Cormier.

In an attempt to ensure that we reached as many participants as possible, not only those who were still active at the end of the course, we identified non-registered participants and bloggers and sent them individual invitations to respond to the survey. Most importantly, the survey allowed for anonymous responses.

It is difficult to know exactly how many people the survey reached, but we received 47 responses and more than 30,000 words of data. Within the last month we have sent out further questions by email to 35 survey respondents who agreed to receive these follow up questions.

 

– Difficulties we are wrestling with

As fully engaged participants in the MOOC, the potential for bias and subjectivity in the way in which we interpret and report our findings is an ever-present concern and one which we fully acknowledge. An additional concern has been to work ethically, given that there is little guidance on how to conduct research into MOOCs ethically. As such we considered and openly shared the way in which we would use the data we gather, created a document and sent this out attached to the first survey. The details of this are posted on our blogs. See:

This blog – Jenny Connected and Frances’ blog – Francesbell’s blog

Finally there has been the issue of what is an appropriate method and methodology for this type of research and this subject. Will it be impossible to get at what we mean by rhizomatic thinking and learning by using traditional research methods? Some respondents have already raised this issue in response to the email interview questions.

Academic research functions mostly as a territorializing process, crystalizing an identity for the assemblage

I don’t want to further “territorialize” the experience [by engaging in research], preferring instead to keep it open, unformalized, and unanalyzed to some extent.

Hopefully this post provides a taste of where we are up to with our research and what our presentation for the ALTMOOCSIG will try to cover, albeit very briefly, but we are not done yet. There will be two more blog posts.

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This Creative Commons License applies to this blog post and supercedes the one that normally applies to this blog, which can be found in the sidebar.In publishing interim findings to our blogs, we are cautious about how we publish what could ultimately be part of a journal article. For this reason, the license under which we publish these posts relating to our presentation is different from the one normally applied to our blogs.

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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: http://halfanhour.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/connective-knowledge-and-open-resources.html

Downes, S. (2013). Habits of Effective Connected Learners. Retrieved from: http://youtu.be/lEFkKko4BA4

Dron, J. (2011). The Nature of Technologies. Presentation to Change 11 MOOC. Retrieved from: http://change.mooc.ca/week11.htm

Parr, C. (2013). MOOC Creators Criticise  Courses’ lack of Creativity. Retrieved from: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news/mooc-creators-criticise-courses-lack-of-creativity/2008180.fullarticle – (See also The Article – Full Interview)

Siemens, G. (2012). MOOCs are really a Platform. Retrieved from: http://www.elearnspace.org/blog/2012/07/25/moocs-are-really-a-platform/

Power and control in ModPo

I am now, 3 weeks into ModPo, very aware of the differences between the original cMOOCs (e.g. CCK08 – the very first MOOC run by Stephen Downes and George Siemens) and xMOOCs – and I think it relates to this slide that Stephen Downes recently talked us through at the ALT-C Conference

SD ALT-C slideshareWhat are cultures of Learning – http://www.slideshare.net/Downes/2013-09-12-altc

xMOOCs might be either A) Centralised or B) Decentralised but they are not C) Distributed, i.e. not in the same sense that CCK08 and subsequent MOOCs such as Change 11, run by Downes and Siemens, were.  Although xMOOCs such as ModPo do have a Twitter stream and a Facebook group, they do not encourage people to find and create their own discussion groups in locations of their choice, as the original cMOOCs did.

ModPo for me is very centralized – with the centre being Al Filreis and to a certain extent his TAs. No Al Filreis – no ModPo. He is the ‘sage on the stage’. And it seems to be working well for most people. Al is charismatic. There are hundreds of discussion threads and Al Filreis and his team of TAs are very visible in there. They must be exhausted.

I am loving the poetry in ModPo – all new to me – and the video discussions which model and demonstrate how to close read these poems are very engaging. Even within one week I felt I had learned a lot, not least that some poets resonate and others do not.

But, despite this, there are elements of ModPo that I find disturbing and they are mostly to do with the assessment process, which on a professional level (as an educator) have concerned me.

I have already mentioned in a previous post  that I can’t see any value in having to post to discussion forums as an assessment requirement. Now there are three other points related to assessment that I find troubling.

1. The assessment criteria (peer review instructions) were not posted before people submitted their assignments and this does make a difference – because, for example, the reviewers were asked to judge whether assignment writers had understood Emily Dickinson’s use of dashes in her poetry. Whilst dashes were discussed at length in the videos, they were not mentioned in the assignment writing guidance. Participants/students should always know the criteria they are being assessed against.

2. The fact that all the assignments, once they have received one peer review, are automatically posted to one of the Coursera forums, i.e. all the 30 000 participants can see the submitted assignment if they have the time and energy to wade through the 75 (at the last count) that have automatically been posted.

Assignment writers were not asked whether they would be willing for this to happen.  In an Announcement to the class they were told that “This enables everyone to participate, at least a little bit, in the reading and reviewing of essays” – but frankly all it does it load even more discussion threads to the forums, which are already overloaded and – more significantly – takes the control and ownership of the assignment and learning process out of the hands of the learner more than is necessary.

For me a successful adult learning process relies on learners having as much autonomy as possible (another principle from the early cMOOCs, but also one backed up by research into adult learning). All it needed was consent from the assignment writer.

3. The third point is the worst. A participant has been publicly named and shamed for plagiarism in the assignment submission forum mentioned above. Her assignment was automatically posted as explained – so she had no choice over the matter. The reviewer had not noticed the plagiarism (a section copied from Wikipedia) – but to the title of her post has been added (Note from Al: this essay has been plagiarized).  At the beginning of the course there was a stern warning in the initial announcement about plagiarism – although I can’t find it now – and participants submitting assignments are asked to tick a box saying that the work is their own.

It could be argued that public naming and shaming of a participant serves as a warning to all other participants – but I think it is cruel and ultimately destructive. I know from experience that foreign students often have difficulty understanding what plagiarism means and as far as I can see there is no advice on the site about citing sources. However you look at it, I don’t believe a student should ever be publicly named and shamed. She should have been contacted privately by email. That would have been enough – especially since she may not get the certificate anyhow, since she hasn’t made any discussion forum posts. Did anyone bother to check?

These exhibitions of power, control and centralization are a long way off the original conception of MOOCs.