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.


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.

#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 – Breadth versus depth – an illusion?

This is a response to Dave Ferguson’s and Stephen Downes’ comment’ on my blog post . Well actually more of a reflection than a response.

I understand Dave’s response. I can see that he is coming from the same place as I am in concerns about balancing depth and breadth in online courses, i.e. the practicalities of knowing how to manage the breadth of information we are exposed to on an open online course and knowing where to focus. This is a common concern. For example in her blog post Linn – talks about trying to avoid being ‘overfed’. Others have talked about feeling overwhelmed as George has noted – in his Moodle forum post (Making sense of (in?) abundance – in the General Discussion Forum). These feelings are very common, so is the depth versus breadth problem an illusion as Stephen claims?

To quote Stephen in full – he writes:

It occurs to me that the depth versus breadth problem is an illusion. One person’s breadth is another person’s depth. It’s an artifact of how we divide the world. If we divide it by discipline – computer science, physics, art – depth looks like one thing. But if you divide it by function – saving lives, educating children, building bridges – depth looks like something very different.

My experience with thinking about depth versus breadth has always been in terms of the ‘overload’ problem discussed above and ‘recognised’ by Dave. This is a real problem so in that sense is not an illusion – it is something experienced by many learners and something that many teachers think about in trying to select a curriculum for their learners – and it has become more of a problem now that we have so much ready information and networks at our finger tips. How do we know where to focus? This ability to filter, select and focus is a critical literacy skill that will be important to develop. This was discussed in the Critical Literacies course and Matthias and I have also discussed it in relation to e-resonance.

But Stephen’s point gives us a different perspective which is also very relevant to the networked world. I think my own experience of looking for depth has been in going deeper into a given discipline – but I can now see that the links/connections that you can make as a result of being part of a large learning network can also enable a depth of knowledge and understanding that might not be achievable through a single discipline.

This reminds me that Etienne Wenger often talks of the value of learning that takes place at the boundaries of communities of practice – i.e. where there is overlap between different communities. Paul Lowe has also made reference to Etienne Wenger in his blog post – The PLE as a roadmap of the landscape of practice. I can see links between these ideas and those related to balancing breadth and depth in learning.

I can also see that in this age of PLEs, PLNs and networked learning it will be important to be able to gain depth of knowledge and understanding both through digging deeper into a given discipline and through being able to exploit the diversity and breadth of our networks. But the question still remains of how best to keep this breadth and depth in balance and avoid losing out on both counts through an inability to manage information overload.

#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 🙂

Learner Autonomy and Teacher Intervention

I am sorry that I missed Paul Bouchard’s talk. I see that the recording has finally been posted today, but I have not yet had a chance to listen to it (so I am more than a week behind now in the Crit Lit course) – but I had to make a long train journey today, so had the time to  read his article…

Bouchard, P. (2009). Some factors to consider when Designing Semi-autonomous Learning Environments. European Journal of e-learning, Volume 7, (2),June 2009, pg. 93-100. Available from http://www.ejel.org/Volume-7/v7-i2/v7-i2-art-2.htm

… which offered some perspectives on learner autonomy that I haven’t previously though about.

For the most part his article reflects my own experience. Online/distance learners often equate the flexibility offered by the environment with ‘easier’, ‘less-time consuming’ etc.  which of course isn’t true – and – as he says/writes, it’s up to the course convenors to make this explicit at the start.

However, I was surprised by the generalisation that distance education equates with excessive teacher control. My experience is that instructional designers may tend to do this, not with the intent of controlling the learner, but because they get carried away with the design and technology and lose sight of the learner. Also from my experience, online teachers/course designers can get carried away with the possibilities offered by online resources/information/technology. Again, they don’t necessarily want to control their learners. Rather it may be that they think that the web offers their learners increased choice in the resources available and therefore increased autonomy in choosing which resources to select, so they overload the course with resources and hyperlinks. In doing this they assume that the learners have the skills to filter and select from the wide range of resources that they upload, or even understand that that is what they are supposed to do.

Alternatively online teachers may be concerned that they need to support their learners and they cannot do this unless they can see them visibly online, so unwittingly subject them to the tyranny of participation in discussion forums, in the belief that this is a form of support.

So I suspect it is not so much a matter of teachers/instructors wanting to control the learning, but more that they may lack understanding of how learning occurs in an online environment, what learner autonomy means and that learner autonomy can be a double-edged sword.

One thing I am having difficulty with in Bouchard’s article is where he writes that the teacher/instructor should not participate on a level with the students. Bouchard doesn’t explain or justify this. For me this assumes a distinction (possibly hierarchical) between teacher and learner and that the teacher can’t learn from discussion with the learners or that the learners wouldn’t know, understand or want this. This does call in to question again, who is the teacher and who has the expertise?

Jean Lave in her article Teaching as Learning in Practice (1996) Vol.3, No. 3. Mind, Culture and Activity, about apprenticeship learning, gives us lots to think about. She discusses the case of apprentice tailors in Liberia and apprentice lawyers in a mosque in Egypt, where there is is a lot of self-directed learning, but it is clear who the ‘experts’ and ‘masters’ are – and the experts/masters do intervene. Jean Lave emphasises the benefits of situated and social learning. Is it possible to have an apprenticeship model of learning at a distance and does having a clearly identified ‘master/expert/teacher’ militate against learner autonomy?

So the two key questions that come out Paul Bouchard’s article for me are:

1. Is there a common understanding of what learner autonomy means?

2. Does teacher intervention militate against learner autonomy?

Elluminate v. Networked Learning Conference

Heli has made yet another interesting post in her blog reflecting on the CCK08 experience following our Elluminate session yesterday in which George Siemens kindly invited us to share our research paper – The ideals and Reality of Participating in a MOOC.

The link to the recording of this session is here – http://www.elearnspace.org/blog/2010/07/05/elluminate-vs-networked-learning-conference/

After my Networked Learning Conference hiatus (as a friend has called it) I really had no expectations that anyone would attend the Elluminate session, especially since it was only advertised a day or so before (although George and Stephen do have huge networks and just a word from them can make all the difference) – I emailed Roy and John saying that I thought we would be speaking to ourselves!

It’s ironic that I spent over £1000 of my own money getting myself to the Networked Learning Conference where we had  just 20 minutes to present our paper, were allowed time for only one question, where the session was attended by less than half the people in yesterday’s Elluminate session and where there was no follow up discussion ….. and yet yesterday for the Elluminate session, I could sit in the comfort of my own home, with a cup of coffee, seated in a comfortable chair, incurring  no additional expense and discuss our research with 40 people! I know which I prefer and I want to thank everyone who attended. There were lots of names that I recognised in the participant list.

I do rather wish I had been a participant in the Elluminate session though. I have never been able to follow the chat and the whiteboard (contrary to popular belief not all women are good at multi-tasking!), so having to focus on speaking and answering George’s questions, meant that I didn’t follow the chat, so I sincerely hope that it didn’t appear that I was ignoring people. Fortunately, Roy and John agreed beforehand that they would keep an eye on the chat. It was unfortunate that Roy’s audio was not working as he would have offered an alternative perspective, as did John through the questions he asked. Just because we worked together for all those months doesn’t mean that we agreed on everything 🙂

Despite the limitations imposed on what I could follow by having to take the microphone, I know there was a lot of chat in the chat room. No-one wanted to take the microphone, apart from John and George, but that didn’t mean that people were ‘silent’. How different from the Networked Learning Conference, where we sat in silence and listened to presentations – although I suppose the equivalent there was that a few people were on Twitter. I don’t know a lot about Twitter, but I doubt it’s the same experience as being involved in a fast moving energetic chat room.

In Elluminate I was aware that whilst I was presenting/speaking, many people, perhaps even the majority were holding conversations of their own, possibly on unrelated subjects. I should imagine that I was only listened to by some of the people for some of the time, but this somehow felt much more satisfactory than my experience at the Networked Learning Conference. In the Elluminate session, people were engaged, active, energetic – there was a palpable ‘buzz’ in the room – or perhaps it was just the buzz of my nervous system jangling 🙂

This experience of presenting in Elluminate has caused me to reflect again on the role of the ‘teacher’ and the extent to which a teacher should intervene or take control in a classroom situation. This appears to be an unresolved dilemma in open courses, particularly massive, open, online courses. As someone said in our research, in these courses, where teachers/instructors necessarily have to take a ‘hands off’ approach because it is simply impossible to interact with each participant in a large open network, there is a tendency for the ‘kids to take control of the classroom’. I think the ‘kids were in control of the classroom’  in the Elluminate session – not complete control because ultimately any one of the moderators could have pulled the plug, but certainly in control of the conversation. This seems to be the accepted norm in online conferencing, so why does it seem more difficult to accept in different educational settings?

Some questions that arise for me in considering the teacher’s changing role are:

  • Does the teacher need to control or direct the conversation/learning? – always, sometimes, never?
  • Is the teacher necessarily the expert in a given learning situation? Who is the expert? How is expertise defined?It’s interesting that the discussion that attracted most interest in the Critical Literacies course was the one on “the evolving definition of ‘expert’ ”.
  • Does the teacher need to intervene in the learning process? When? Why? How much?
  • Is the teacher accountable  for the learner s learning? Always? Sometimes? Never?
  • Does the teacher need to build a relationship with a learner? What might be the ethical consequences of this relationship?

Judging from some of the discussion in the Elluminate session, these questions remain unresolved for teachers moving into massive, open, online learning environments.