My experiences of the E-Learning 3.0 MOOC to date

First a bit of background

The task for this week in the E-Learning 3.0 MOOC is related to the topic of Community in the distributed web.

This is the task as created by Stephen Downes:

As a community, create an assignment the completion of which denotes being a member of the community. For the purposes of this task, there can only be one community. For each participant, your being a member of the community completes the task.

And this additional text was posted in one of the daily newsletters:

This week’s task is deliberately open-ended. It requires the formation of a community, but only one community, with tangible evidence of consensus. How to do this? How to even get started? That’s the challenge…

Some people may ask, “What’s the point?” Well, as we discussed in this week’s conversation (also in this newsletter) it’s a challenge to create consensus without deferring to an authority – a trusted source, if you will. In a course like this, that’s usually the instructor. But not this time. This is – on a small scale – the same problem we have on a larger scale. How do we create consensus with no common ground?

This task is challenging on several fronts. Can a community be created at all? What is there are competing communities? How many participants can the community actually encompass? How do people join at all? The conditions for succeeding in this assignment are very simple – be a member of that community. But the manner in which this is to be accomplished is not clear at all.

Roland Legrand quickly proposed how we might complete this task. I could immediately see that this would work and accepted. This is what he proposed:

I suggest we all post about our experiences in this course. It would be a short or long piece about the content, the way it’s being organized, the way the learners did or did not interact with each other or how we reacted in blog posts and on social media.
Such a post seems like a natural thing to do, there are no good or bad posts, yet it would affirm our being together in this thing – #el30.

There have been some alternative suggestions and, as yet, no evidence of real consensus, but I am going to follow Wikipedia’s advice to ‘Be Bold’ and just go ahead with this. This doesn’t mean to say that I am not open to other suggestions. If the consensus becomes clearer and shifts to somewhere else, it wouldn’t be impossible for me to shift too. Roland’s suggestion makes for a useful task, whether or not there is consensus about it. So here is my contribution.

My experiences of this course

When I saw the course advertised, I wasn’t sure if it would be for me. The topics looked too ‘ed tech’. I am not an educational technologist, and whilst I am not debilitatingly technophobic, my technical skills leave a lot to be desired. To be honest, I am just not sufficiently interested. I tend to develop technical skills as and when I need them, but of course I realise that not having good technical skills means that there’s a lot I am not aware of.

I have been surprised at how interesting I have found this course, despite the heavy emphasis on ‘tech’ stuff, which I doubt I will ever use, not because it’s not useful, but because of the stage of life I am at, i.e. retired. (Maybe that’s an erroneous assumption and it certainly won’t apply more widely to other retired people). The glimpses into what the future might hold in relation to learning are fascinating, and there are many associated philosophical questions about the nature of teaching and learning, and why we are interacting on the distributed web at all, which have kept me engaged. (When I am not working on this I am delving into more philosophical topics about the meaning of life etc., something that I haven’t had time to do until now.)

There has only been one point in the course, so far, when I lost motivation – and that was last week. The topic was ‘Recognition’.  I have been a teacher all my working life, and have experience of all phases of education, i.e. from very young children in Reception classes to post-graduates in Higher Education. I have always been troubled by the emphasis on extrinsic rewards as opposed to intrinsic motivation. As such, the emphasis on the award of badges last week sapped my energy a bit, even though I could see that it fits in a course about the distributed web. All the other topics have been great, and I particularly enjoyed the week on Identity, and the fact that I was able to enter into some deeper and broader discussions with a few participants about ideas such as ‘betweenness’, that are of particular interest to me at the moment.

Design of the course

I like the course design and the fact that Stephen Downes ‘walks the talk’ and has been true to his educational philosophy as expounded in his theory of connectivism.

Although there is a course site, where information relating to the course is aggregated, participants have been encouraged to engage from their blogs.  Interaction also takes place on Twitter (#el30) and to a lesser degree on Mastodon. If there is activity elsewhere I am not aware of it. The point is that participants exercise their autonomy in choosing how they want to participate. I have always preferred working on MOOCs from my blog. It is calmer and more manageable than discussion forums, although there are no discussion forums in this course. Twitter is useful for quick access to information, but I rarely use it for discussion. Interaction on blogs requires more effort, which is difficult to sustain over a long period of time, but for me, both the writing of and commenting on blogs leads to deeper learning. It can also be difficult to keep a track of blogs, but one of the first tasks in the course was to aggregate all the blogs’ RSS feeds into a reader of our choice (I use Feedly). This has made it easier.

In this course, each topic is introduced with a Synopsis and some initial readings. The Synopsis for each week has been there from the start of the course, which means we do not have to wait for them and can move ahead if we wish. These are very helpful advance organisers.

The weekly video conversations with invited guests are always interesting. One or two have been a bit too technical for me, but I have learned something from them all. Stephen also creates a video at the end of each week as a summary, as well as providing a written summary, which he openly drafts on a Google Doc so that we can each contribute if we wish. I see this as exemplifying what we should expect from open online teaching practice.

I have surprised myself by enjoying the weekly tasks. They have focussed attention on the key concepts of the given topic and the doing of them has, for me, resulted in learning and increased clarity about the subject. I have succeeded in completing most of the tasks, with one notable exception. I feel I should be able to complete this task and might go back to it. I would be able to complete it, if I knew a bit more html, but I am not going to ask someone to do this for me. That would rather defeat the object.

I have not completed all the reading, and some of the resources, e.g. those about Blockchain, Jupyter notebooks etc., have gone right over the top of my head. But at least I am aware that they exist and what the significance of them might be.

Things I have really appreciated so far

I am grateful to Stephen for being so willing to openly share his knowledge, experience and expertise. He has also been willing to share his practice, letting us see how he works things out as he goes along. This fits with his belief that the role of the teacher is to model and demonstrate.

It has been intriguing to see the course being written as we go along. This is so unlike my own way of working. I am always planned well in advance. It must take a great deal of confidence in your own expertise to be able to work it out as you go along and in response to participants’ contributions.

I have also appreciated course participants’ thought-provoking blog posts. I don’t know how many people are ‘observing’ this course from the side-lines, but there are only a few fully participating. This suits me. I prefer the ‘front porch’ discussions to the ‘market place’ as Matthias Melcher once described it.

Stephen has commented (and I can no longer find the comment!) that in this course we are working at the ‘leading edge’ of developments in E-Learning. This is what I have so enjoyed, whilst at the same time finding it challenging. The last time I had this feeling was in 2008, in CCK08 The Connectivism & Connective Knowledge Course (the first MOOC of this type).

I could probably write more, but this seems quite enough for now, and I’m sure we will be asked to write something similar at the end of the course. For now, I’m leaving this here as a draft. If this is the task we all agree to, I might edit it. If another task is agreed then so be it; I can still leave this here as a record of how I have experienced this course up to now.

Breaking out from ‘Enforced Independence’ – #rhizo14

rhizo Screen_Shot_2013-09-17_at_8.51.41_PMWhen I saw the title for the Week 2 topic – Enforcing Independence –  my immediate thoughts were ‘Oh no – here we go again – another one of Dave’s provocative statements’,  and ‘Of course you can’t ‘enforce’ independence’.

Other people in the P2PU forum seem to have had similar thoughts, some people have dismissed the idea out of hand and others appear to have completely ignored it, going off down their own rhizomatic paths. But Dave has given us an example of what he means by ‘enforced independence’ by sharing his syllabus for his f2f course ED366 Educational Technology and the Adult Learner, which he says is an example of how he tries to balance the enforcement.

Having read this document, I find myself, as with the topic ‘cheating as learning’ last week, not opposed to the underlying reasoning, but thinking that both ‘enforce’ and ‘independence’ are once again the wrong words.

By independence I assume we mean ‘capable of thinking or acting for oneself’ . Well yes we want learners to be able to do this. How would this be exemplified?

The thought that immediately comes to mind is that in nursery school we want little children to be able to put their own coats on, take themselves to the toilet and so on. But more than this we want them to be capable of deciding when they need to put a coat on and when they need to go to the toilet. And beyond this we want them to have the freedom to make their own choices and take the consequences of those choices, and this is what I would call learner autonomy – which I see as different to independence and more what I would aspire to.

Dependence is not necessarily a problem. Some learners, for example those with special needs, will always need to be dependent on others to support them, but they can still be autonomous – free to make their own choices.

And as some have already mentioned in the P2PU forum, we don’t necessarily want learners to be isolated from each other, but rather learn to learn through interdependence.

In Dave’s course that he has shared with us, learners seem to have some autonomy, some choices that they can make, but is there scope for more?  That would be my question. Ultimately we want learners to be able to make their own choices. This might mean that the learner chooses not to comply with course requirements if the learner thinks that is in his best interests. This level of autonomy is very challenging for teachers, who even when they build choices into the curriculum, still tend to have some sort of a surround safety net which they hope learners will not fall through. I used to admire those students who were able to say – ‘Sorry, but this is not for me’, recognized their own autonomy and acted on it removing themselves from the course – but of course this autonomy had a negative effect on my programme’s retention figures! Just in this one example you can see the tensions that autonomy can raise for a teacher.

Despite this, I would prefer the aspiration of autonomy rather than independence. Independence implies cutting the apron strings, but autonomy is not about casting adrift – more about freedom.

And I don’t think autonomy can be enforced – otherwise it wouldn’t be about choice!

I don’t think Dave has ‘enforced independence’ on his students. I think what he has done, as he is doing in this course, is to create the conditions in which learners have opportunities to exercise their autonomy. Autonomy is not black and white, but comes in degrees on a scale of less to more. We can’t make people autonomous or independent. Any attempt to do this would be to consolidate the teacher’s position as based on a whole set of power structures, further creating a reliance on the teacher for setting objectives, assessing progress and giving direction.

But we can model what we mean by independence and/or autonomous learning, as Dave is doing in this course. We can provide the opportunities and learning environment in which autonomy is fostered, but then we have to let learners make their own choices. You don’t need mature learners for this. One of the best places to see this interdependence and autonomy in action is in a nursery classroom, where the teaching approach is based on a High Scope Curriculum  and where

The most important segment of the daily routine is the plan-do-review sequence, in which children make choices about what they will do, carry out their ideas, and reflect upon their activities with adults and other children.

So autonomy and interdependence are the words for me – not ‘independence’ nor ‘enforce’.

 

 

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.

Openness

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.

Diversity

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.

Connectedness/Interaction

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.

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.

However….

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 🙂