Is structure counter to cMOOC philosophy?

This was a question that came out of our FSLT12 Research Review meeting today. We were discussing what we have found out about the ways in which people participated and learned in the FSLT12 MOOC  –  and the extent to which this was constrained by the structure and curriculum we designed into the MOOC.

These questions have been timely for me. I have been pondering for quite a few days now about the approach taken by George Siemens and Rory MGreal to their Openness in Education MOOC, which I signed up for.

I was completely baffled at the start of the MOOC on September 10th when there was nothing on the site. Apparently this was down to technical failure, but I’m wondering how many other people were contacting ‘friends’ to find out what was going on. To what extent is communication a part of structure and curriculum? But even now that the MOOC has got going and has been explained as follows …..

This course is based on a connectivist model of learning that Stephen Downes and I have been developing since 2008. We will provide some readings each week, but the course is really driven by learner contributions and resources. Which means that if no one blogs, the course gets pretty boring :). Once you’ve submitted your blog, please include the course tag (oped12) in your posts and they will be aggregated into a daily newsletter. Please be patient as it typically takes a day or two to get ramped up with the course.

We don’t have a central discussion forum set up…learning happens in many places, sites, and tools. More on that here: If you feel a place of interaction needs to be created, please create it and share with others using the course tag.

…. it’s quite difficult to find the content and it seems that there are not going to be any synchronous sessions, where people could gather/connect if they so wished.

David Wiley has made similar comments in a blog post, but brainysmurf  has responded in the comments on his blog

It’s really up to us as participants to decide what to do with the facilitators’ content (if anything), to develop our own live sessions if we want to and to share our resources as we see fit. That shift in power/control/effort is going to rattle more than a few people, I bet!

Am I rattled? Well, not rattled, but certainly questioning whether this extremely ‘hands off’ approach is in the best interest of learners.

Which comes back to the question of just how much structure and support should MOOC conveners provide. I know there are no right or wrong answers; and to come back to the initial question, I’m not sure how much or in what ways a structure/curriculum constrains learning, but then I’m also not sure how much a lack of structure/curriculum constrains learning.

Is structure counter to cMOOC philosophy? I don’t think so. I don’t see that the principles of connectivism – autonomy, diversity, openness and interaction across distributed platforms, or the key activities of cMOOCs – aggregate, remix, repurpose, feedforward, necessarily militate against structure or a curriculum.

Open learning advance organisers

The opening synchronous meeting for the Critical Literacies course was very interesting, as unlike for CCk08 where we just pitched in and sank or swam, here we were given advice on how we might go about learning on this course.

The overall message was the same. It is an open course. We can and should pick and choose when, where, how, what and with whom we learn – all as in CCK08. We can come and go as we want – but Stephen suggested that we take part in 4 activities:

  • Aggregate
  • Remix
  • Repurpose
  • Feedforward

Aggregate: gather content using Google reader ( The course newsletter (The Daily) is an example of aggregation. I don’t use Google reader. Perhaps I should. I have found in the past that it just fills up with stuff that I never look at. Perhaps I am not using it correctly.

Remix: Pick and choose from the content and find a way of recording/keeping track of this, e.g. using an online bookmark tracker such as Delicious, or create a blog, or take screenshots and post on Flickr or record yourself on video. I have a Delicious account, but its another thing that I tend to put stuff in and then never look at again. I already have this and two other blogs. I also have a Flickr account but I do not use it for work purposes. Me and video do not go together. I am camera shy!

Repurpose: Recreate content for your own purposes. There are 4 major ways of repurposing

  • Describe/description – ( the simplest kind of critical literacy)
  • Infer/ argumentation, inference, drawing conclusions, responding – taking what you have and moving beyond it
  • Explain/ explanation – to go beyond appearance – identify underlying forces that make things the way they are
  • Define – to assign meanings to words (this is needed for all the others)

All 4 things play a different role. They form all of your cognition – every sentence – everything you think falls in one of these 4 things.

Critical Literacies are not simply critical – they are creative – they are about adding value to content

Feedforward: Presentation of work and sharing rather than competing. Produce learning materials for other people to aggregate, remix, repurpose and feedforward, so starting the cycle again.

This seems to me a useful way of thinking about how to work online.

Ethics and the Learner Voice

With increasing research into the learner experience comes increasing need to consider the ethics of this type of research. The only two questions we received about the two papers we presented at the Networked Learning Conference in Aarlborg, were both about ethics.

The first question was ‘What are the ethical considerations that need to be taken into account when ‘experimenting’ on learners?’ This was in relation to the CCK08 course in which George Siemens and Stephen Downes attempted to destabilise the notion of a course. Our Ideals and Reality of Participating in a MOOC paper concluded that there needs to be more research into the ethics of running massive open online courses – so this question was not a surprise and unfortunately the 20 minute slot that we had for presenting the paper and answering questions did not allow time for discussion.

The second question related to our Blogs and Forums as Communication and Learning Tools in a MOOC paper. The question was whether it is ethical to aggregate blog posts from course participants. As far as I can remember (in CCK08) participants were were asked to tag their blog posts with #CCK08, so that they could be easily located.  Most participants would also have been familiar with Stephen Downes’ OLDaily – so I’m not sure where this leaves the ethics question.

To learn more and hear what others say, I will attend the ELESIG Webinar On Wednesday of this week (May 19th)

Webinar: Doing It Right! Methods, Ethics and Hearing the Learner Voice.

Joint HE Ethics and Web 2.0 SIG & ELESIG, with John Traxler

Wednesday 19 May 2010

11:00am – 12.30pm

Speakers (not necessarily in this order):

Dr Roy Williams, University of Portsmouth, “Paradoxes of Audio Narratives”

Liz Masterman, Oxford University Computing Services, “Ethical issues associated with an extended e-mail interview technique: what we called our “Pen-Pal” Method”

Amanda Jefferies, University of Hertfordshire, “‘Using student constructed video diaries – reflections from the STROLL project”

Karen Fitzgibbon, University of Glamorgan, “Helping to shape and enhance the student experience”

Ali Messer, Roehampton University, “Appreciative enquiry as a method in part for ethical reasons”

Adele Cushing, Barnet College, “Do’s and Don’ts’ from a mobile learning project – experiences and personal accounts”

For more information see:

All ELESIG events are free. The only requirement is that you become a member (this is also free!)

Online overload

This is a response to Mike Bogle’s comment on my last post – 

Mike has commented on the difficulties that students have in finding time to keep up with online work and on the difficulties that tutors have in balancing the workload for students.

When students are taking several courses with online components this can become a huge problem, because if everyone is under-representing the amount of online work it can grow into a huge commitment for students – especially when they’re working. For that matter, it’s not unusual for work online to come in addition to face to face work, rather than instead of it.

This is absolutely my experience and having thought about it a lot and how to overcome it, I think it’s down to a lack of joined-up thinking and the fact that academics tend to work individually. This is my experience, but has also been commented on in research, e.g. by Katz and Martin who discuss the difficulties academics have in collaborating.  

Katz, J.S. and Martin, B.R. (1997) ‘What is research Collaboration?’ Research Policy, Vol. 26, pp.1-18.

Why are some academics so reluctant to work holistically/collaboratively on a programme? Is it just a question of time? I don’t think so. It’s probably more to do with culture and a history of ways of working, academic priorities, lack of knowledge and understanding of the student experience of working online, and something to do with a ‘fear ‘of  or reluctance to embrace openness. Academics might think – Will I, as an academic, maintain ownership of my materials and control over my work, if I enter into this collaborative way of working? Ultimately this is more important to me than the student experience?

I think there’s a long way to go in breaking down existing norms and cultural hierarchies in Higher Education.

Engaging learners with technology

How do you ensure that learners engage with the technology?

This is the second question from my list and my immediate response is similar to my initial thoughts about the last question. My primary concern, as a teacher, is to engage learners with learning. Technology is only a tool – a means to an end.

Most of my career has been spent in teaching face-to-face and I have taught all ages from four year olds to fifty-four year olds and older. I like to think that I have been a successful teacher, although teachers are never satisfied with their work. But I was never a ‘performer’ type of teacher – so I didn’t engage students through the sheer weight of my personality. So how do I engage my students with learning?

Sometimes we just can’t engage our students – we and they for some reason are together in the wrong place at the wrong time. But mostly I think teachers can engage students through their own passion and enthusiasm for and expertise in the subject, through always having the students’ learning interests at the forefront of everything we do, through recognising learners as individuals and building mutually respectful relationships (although this is tough with large numbers of students, it is not impossible) and through ensuring that the activities we plan for them are worthwhile. Humour, or a sense of fun is also very useful!

So how do we do this, if we can only meet our students online? First we need to establish an online presence and obvious though it may sound, we can only do this by being online. It still surprises me how many tutors will set up online courses and then disappear, leaving the students to get on with it. These tutors then complain that their students won’t engage online. I think it is possible for tutors to take a back seat once the course has become established but not at the beginning!

Overall we have  to be there as much as we would in a face-to-face situation. I always think that the beginning of an online course is critical – that’s the time when I work the hardest to engage the learners – I model and demonstrate (Stephen Downes’ definition of teaching – see Slide 36); I ensure that students get all the technical and ‘wayfinding’  (Darken and Sibert) support that they need (100% access throughout the course is paramount to a good learning experience), both through my actions and through the information I provide; I negotiate and so make explicit the norms of the online learning community; I socialise and build relationships and encourage students to socialise and build relationships with each other; I do a lot of ‘back channelling’, checking on students who haven’t come on line, asking if there is anything I can do to help; and I recognise that for some students they will be doing two things – getting to grips with the subject matter at the same time as becoming comfortable with an unfamiliar environment. I also have to ensure that all this happens within worthwhile and meaningful activities, so that students don’t think – this is a waste of time – and go away never to return!

Writing this has reminded me that when I used to teach school children, I would allow at least one week and sometimes two at the beginning of a new term for this process of familiarisation with my expectations – introducing the classroom norms, my expectations of how we would interact, negotiating classroom rules and learning about their expecations. When I moved on to teaching undergraduates, I would spend  the first session doing this – although sometimes their initial behaviour wasn’t a lot different to that of school children and I would need to spend more time establishing norms!

Engaging students with technology is similar to engaging them with the library, or introducing them to the students union activities, taking them on a campus tour and so on. We need to do the same things online, because without time spent on this famialiarisation process students will not feel safe enough or sufficiently comfortable to engage fully with the learning process.

So have I answered the question? To summarise – the key points for me are:

  • focus on learning before technology
  • use all the strategies that you would in a face-to-face situation

But a final additional point is  that I wouldn’t dream of using a technology that I wasn’t familiar with myself, unless I had negotiated with the students first that we needed to learn about it together – and for that to happen, the technology would need to be at least as important as the subject being taught, or enable the learning of the subject to be enhanced.

I think I have rambled a bit. Hopefully I will be more concise and succinct when I am actually asked this question!

CCK08 revisited

George Siemens is reflecting on the CCK08 experience with a very interesting blog post. There is lots in this post to think about – not least because a CCK09 will be offered. I responded to George’s post and am copying my response here for my own records.

George asks – What concerns do we have with the model he presents. This is my current thinking, which I posted as a response on George’s blog.

I have recently (with a colleague) submitted a research paper which highlights how difficult it is for participants to learn effectively in a course which simulates an experience rather than offer the ‘true’ experience. I think this was also the case in CCK08 and I blogged about it at the time.

It seems to me that there is a tension between the nature of an accredited course and the type of learning environment, that CCK08 aspires to – one of openness, diversity, autonomy and interaction/connectedness. To be true to these four characteristics of connectivism, the course ‘tutors’/facilitators (whatever you wish to call them) need to take a ‘hands off’ approach, and that is where I think CCKO8 experienced the most problems. These problems were related to the fact that

– some people were seeking accreditation and therefore needed a ‘tutor’ at the very least to assess their work
– many people still have very traditional views of what we mean by course and the role of a tutor within a course
– the tutors were sometimes inconsistent in their approach – so we could view the lack of intervention in ’sparring’ that went on in the forums as a ‘hands-off’ approach, but then the choice of exemplary posts to be included in the ‘Daily’ is a very ‘hands-on’ approach.

I’m not sure that there is a straightforward answer to this dilemma. A ‘simulated’ experience is not the same thing as a ‘real’ experience and I’m not sure how you can reproduce a ‘real’ experience of autonomy, diversity, openness and connectivity in an accredited course.

The course continues to stimulate my thinking – so thanks for that!

Blogs and forums again!

I have spent some time today thinking about this, reading and trying to ‘get a handle’ on the differences. Having written this I can also see that it would be good to ‘get a handle’ on the similarities but I haven’t done that yet.

Anyhow – here are my first thoughts, which I will continue to think through.

People choose to blog in preference to posting to discussion forums because

People choose to discuss in forums in preference to blogging because

They are more personal

They are familiar – the easy option

They are more distributed

Communication is faster/rapid fire

They are less teacher-centric

People feel a greater sense of proximity to other forum posters

‘Loud’ voices who drown everyone out can be more easily side-stepped

Forum posting is less effort than blogging

There is less criticism

Forum posting is more linear than blogging

There are fewer disparaging comments

There is a greater community presence in forums

There is a greater sense of personal control

Conversation is more flexible/diverse

There is a greater sense of belonging to a community

There is more sparring/challenge

There is more time for reflection

The quality of posts is higher

There are greater opportunities for self-expression

They are more like a conversation

There is greater opportunity for self-assessment

You can find information more easily

Relationships are closer and deeper

You get more feedback

There is more crafting of writing

It is a more efficient way of making connections

There are higher levels of mutual trust and respect

There is less ‘navel gazing’

There is less posturing and pontification

You are more likely to receive feedback on your opinions

There is a greater sense of freedom

It takes too long to get a blog up and running

I’m sure there will be many different perspectives on this, which I’m looking forward to exploring. It’s not a new topic, but the answers still don’t seem that clear and for me, more clarity around the similarities and differences would help me with online course design.

Going with the flow of non-linear learning

I have just read Renata Phelps’ article – Developing Online From Simplicity toward Complexity: Going with the Flow of Non-Linear Learning.

It is interesting from a variety of perspectives and has certainly made me think.

1. I don’t find all aspects of the article very clear. The development of a non-linear course structure is described. The author presents a non-linear curriculum as one that is not presented in a linear format, that can be accessed in a non-linear way by the learners and that is open to choice about how much and what is studied.

2. The article describes the development of a teacher training course – ICT in primary and secondary education. I don’t think enough is made of the fact that the context is ICT education, as I do think that when talking about non-linear learning, going with the flow and that the ‘curriculum becomes a process of development rather than body of knowledge to be covered and learned’, the context is important. I suspect that some subjects can have a more flexible curriculum and course structure than others. I’m not so sure how selective a trainee medic can be about curriculum. 

3. The article doesn’t really evaluate the success of changing the curriculum from a linear to a more complexity-based model, other than to quote two positive remarks from students. In the 60s it was very fashionable to ‘go with the flow’ in school classrooms in the UK. I remember on being appointed to a new job and asking for the maths syllabus (so that I would have some idea of what we should cover in the term), being told by the headteacher that they didn’t teach in that way in his school – they followed the children’s interests, so if the children wanted to talk about birds’ nests all week,  they could.  The very strictly linear National Curriculum was introduced in the UK to combat the massive gaps that were becoming in apparent in children’s knowledge as a result of ‘going with the flow’ and ‘discussing birds’ nests for a week’ at the expense of time spent on the 3 Rs. My experience suggests that a curriculum is actually a good thing, so long as you don’t expect learners to learn in a linear way. You only have to observe young children learning mathematics to know that they don’t and won’t.

3. The article then equates learning objectives with domination, control, reductionism and an undermining of emergent learning. I have always thought about learning objectives as being about clarity of forward thinking and about knowing what to assess. I don’t see that learning objectives need to control or undermine emergent learning.  Assessment isn’t mentioned in the article and that seems to me to be a big omission.

4. There is a lot in the article about ‘authentic’ and ‘problem-based’ learning that encourages reflective and self-directed learners. This is not new. Donald Schon’s book on the reflective practitioner was published at least 10 years before this article was written and my teaching colleagues have been discussing how to encourage learners to become independent, motivated, self-directed and reflective since the 60s and I’m sure previous generations of teachers have done the same.

So although any article which promotes this way of working is welcome, I don’t think the ideas presented in terms of learning are particularly new. However, it is interesting to think about to what extent you want your curriculum to be ‘flexible, open, disruptive, uncertain and unpredictable ….accepting …tension, anxiety and problem creating as the norm’.

I would be interested in knowing whether a course structure such as the one described in the article would work for a curriculum such as medicine.

Connectivity/life balance

I have just read Steve Sorden’s post about the difficulty of keeping the balance right in relation to how much time we spend on this course.

This reminded me that I wanted to make a note of Stephen’s post (or was it George?) on how many hours we should be spending on this course. 8 hours a week.

From what I have read I expect people have spent more than I hour on their assignment – probably much more. 

Some additional time that might be needed depending on your prior experience would be for setting up your blog, or other aspects of your personal learning environment. This could take quite a lot of time

Beyond this, what is needed are the skills to save time – so multi-tasking skills, ability to skim read and so on will all save time. I think Stephen or George said on the Ustream call that it was expected that people signing up for this course would have the basic technical skills, but as Stephen also said, typical internet behaviour is to sign up and then wonder if it’s the right course for you after signing up. A pre-course skills/technical skills/computer spec type of checklist might help to prevent people just jumping on the bandwagon – but on the other hand if I’d completed a checklist I probably wouldn’t be here now 😉

The course does seem to be all consuming though. If I’m not actually online, I am thinking about it and relating it all the time to other areas of my work. I can see that it will leave a hug gap once it is ended, but I think this is a common experience with online courses.

Understanding norms

I wasn’t able to attend the Ustream session on Friday – so I’ve just listened to the recording. These sessions are really valuable in providing an overview of the week and Dave Cormier does a great job in hosting them.

The session started with Stephen talking about his view of what this course is offering. ‘This is not an instructor led course. The point is that people learn to manage their own learning.’  Dave doesn’t disagree with this and neither do I – but Dave follows this up by asking – ‘At what point does this mean, just go to the internet to learn?’ This was a good question.

Stephen answers that this obviously is a course  (more than just going to the internet to learn)- but not the sort of course that many of us are used to. It’s very easy to see the structure – and Stephen was able to point this out very clearly when talking about The Daily, Moodle, the wiki, the readings and so on. I don’t think either Stephen or George need to justify the structure. It’s very obvious. Stephen pointed out that it ‘s also a course because the University of Mannitoba says its a course with associated accreditation and assessement criteria.

I think that possibly some people’s problems have not been with the structure, but with understanding the norms. Stephen feels that we have a culture of learned helplessness, where many expect to be led to the learning and told what the learning is. I don’t think that people necessarily want to be led. What is most important is finding the conversations and feeling connected. For me this has been particularly difficult on this course and I think its because I didn’t understand the norms quickly enough. I am used to traditional online courses with a facilitator, and to online communities with community leaders and mentors. I have for a long time known that I can find out whatever I need to know from the internet. I suppose what is new for me, is the degree of autonomy that is offered by this course – not just offered, but expected. This is a norm on this course which I have needed to understand.

Understanding norms is a critical part of the learning experience. It’s interesting that one of the norms here is that you would have an understanding of the norms associated with open courses before starting the course. Isn’t this a bit of a tall order, given that the whole concept of open courses is new?

Thinking aloud again. If these posts are coming across as criticisms, I’m sorry – they are not intended to be. I am fascinated by how this amazing course is working – what makes it successful, where people are struggling and so on. By the end of the course, I hope to be clear in my own mind about how education in the future might change and how I might change my existing practice.