The challenge of ‘openness’ in small MOOCs

An interesting discussion on the Pedagogy First course blog has sparked off further thoughts about issues around ‘openness’.  This post is, in part, a response to some of the thoughts posted by Alan Levine, and the responses of others, which have provoked this further thinking.

Martin Weller has said that ‘Openness is a state of mind’.   Overall I agree with this, but is openness context dependent? My mind isn’t your mind, my experience might not be your experience, my location won’t necessarily be your location and so on. How we understand and experience openness is individual to each learner. Carmen Tschofen and I discussed this in our paper  –  Connectivism and dimensions of individual experience.

No place is  it more important to remember this, than in a small course/community/MOOC in which novice learners are working alongside ‘expert’ or experienced learners and where the topic is learning to teach.

FSLT12  was such a course, and so too is Pedagogy First – they are both small open online task-oriented MOOCs  focusing on developing learners as teachers/lecturers/facilitators, with an emphasis on developing an understanding of pedagogy. In addition, both these courses are offered for assessment, so, for example, an assessment requirement of the Pedagogy First course is for regular blogging and open sharing of completed tasks; the first task for assessment in FSLT12 was open reflective writing.

‘Openness’ in these circumstances is no mean feat.

Experiences of learners new to working in online environments have been well researched (Sharpe and Benfield, 2005). Feelings of over-exposure, isolation, inability to cope with navigating the online environment, inability to cope with the abundance of information, the lack of visual cues to support interpretation of others’ comments, feelings of disorientation, not knowing how to balance time on and offline, feelings of anxiety and intense emotional responses – are all common examples of how people new to the online environment might feel.

But in an open course we have people with these experiences working alongside ‘veteran’ MOOCers who are familiar with the chaotic complexity and hustle and bustle of the open MOOC market place. These veterans enter an open network knowing what to expect.

So how do we bring these two groups together?  In the Pedagogy First course, there has been a call for mentors, meaning that there is an expectation that experienced MOOCers will support novice MOOCers.

As part of the Pedgaogy First programme we have been asked to buy the book –  Susan Ko and Steve Rossen (2010) Teaching Online: A Practical Guide (3rd ed) Taylor and Francis – and I am looking forward to reading what it has to say about initiating newcomers into an online course. My copy is in the post!

In the meantime I am revisiting my well-thumbed and very familiar copy of Gilly Salmon’s book ‘e-Moderating: The Key to Teaching and Learning Online’. In this she presents a 5-stage model for facilitating online learning.

Gilly Salmon 5 stage model

In my experience, following this model helps to avoid a lot of the pitfalls associated with online learning. Salmon recommends starting with ensuring access, as has been done in the Pedagogy First course, and focusing to begin with on socialization, which she says helps to ensure the success of an online course.

Socialization will of course continue throughout the course, but it is necessary at the beginning to develop the sense of belonging and trust needed to enable later, weightier and more challenging discussions. Salmon says these discussions happen at Stage 5 –  ‘different skills come into play at this stage. These are those of critical thinking and the ability to challenge the ‘givens’ (p.48).

So how does this relate to ‘openness’ in small connectivist MOOCs such as FSLT12 and Pedagogy First? My thinking following discussions in Pedagogy First is

  •  ‘Openness’ as a ‘state of mind’ takes time to develop. It is not a given and cannot be assumed. It should not even be expected, if we believe in the autonomy of learners, i.e. freedom to choose. But if we want it in our MOOCs (thinking here of MOOCs as ‘courses’ as in the case of Pedagogy First) then we should allow time for ‘novices’ to work through the 5 stages of Gilly Salmon’s model.
  • Veteran MOOCers may need to hold back, or at least carefully consider how their posts might be interpreted by novices. This doesn’t necessarily apply to an open network or even to a MOOC such as CCK08, but I think it does apply to a MOOC that has been designed for novices and where there is a recognition that novices will need mentoring.
  • For me when I facilitate or convene an online course/MOOC I hope that the course design/environment will encourage the development of autonomous and connected learners who embrace openness, alternative perspectives and diversity, and engage in critical thinking, stimulating dialogue and reflective learning. This will not happen if they ‘drop out’ in the early stages. One of the criticisms of MOOCs is the high drop out rate.

Stephen Downes has said, to teach is to model and demonstrate, and to learn is to practice and reflect.  So maybe modeling and demonstrating, practicing and reflecting on Gilly Salmon’s model is not a bad place to start for small task-oriented MOOCs.

And finally, perhaps in the case of small MOOCs it is easier to think of them as open courses rather than open networks. Maybe this would bring a different perspective to the way we work in them and what our expectations might be.

Collaboration online

Many online courses now require students to collaborate, but we know that just putting people together in the same space isn’t enough? What should a tutor do to prepare students for collaborative tasks?

Gilly Salmon’s 5-stage model provides very good guidelines on how to prepare for collaborative tasks online. These are usually designed into Stage 4 of the model after it has been established that everyone has successfully accessed the learning environment (Stage 1), participants are socialising easily and the learning community norms have become apparent (Stage 2) and  information is being freely exchanged and a culture of open sharing exists (Stage 3).

Up to Stage 3 activities centre around helping participants to feel stimulated by and comfortable in the learning environment. Relationships are beginning to be established. Students who are not comfortable with each other and the learning environment will not be able to collaborate effectively, so it is worth spending time on the early stages of accessibility, socialisation and information exchange.

Tutors also need to decide whether the collaborative groups will be self-selected or whether students will be put into groups by the tutor. My personal view on this is that it depends on whether the collaborative group tasks are to be assessed and assessed for what, and whether it is a short course or a longer course. If the task is to be assessed, then if I was a student I would want to be in control of the outcome of that assessment as much as possible and therefore choose my own group. If it is the ability to work in a group that is being assessed then maybe random mixing of students is appropriate.

Nowadays I often work on online non-assessed short post-graduate professional development courses. In these courses there isn’t a lot of time for students to get to know each other, but as a tutor, having done quite a bit of ‘back channelling’ and being able to see the student log in statistics, its fairly easy to create groups made up of a mix of very active participants and lurkers – so that these student characteristics are evenly distributed across groups. Even then a tutor only knows what s/he has been told by the students, so there’s no way of knowing whether a very active student who you are relying on to get a collaborative group going, is, for example,  going to be on holiday or away from the course at the time of the collaborative task, unless that student tells you. So your carefully planned groups can still go awry.

Once the students have started the collaborative task, a tutor can do a lot to help them be successful by making the norms of online group collaboration explicit – so ask the students to inform each other about when they will/will not be online, when they will/will not be able to work on the task, what roles they would each like to volunteer for and so on. Encourage them not to be ‘backward in coming forward’ and not to be shy of taking the lead.

Having worked on online collaborative tasks myself as a student in the past, I know what powerful experiences these can be. It’s surprising how well you get to know each other in these circumstances, even though you are only meeting online and have never met each other face-to-face  – but often these collaborative activities do lead to long-term working relationships.

But I also know from personal experience that group work can be a ‘nightmare’. On my face-to-face Masters degree we had to do a group presentation and I remember having to argue for an educational philosophy to which I was  opposed simply because I was the only person in the group to hold the opposite view (this was about intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation and the use of rewards) – and everyone else wanted to do a presentation on something I didn’t believe in – so groups do require a lot of compromise.

This raises an interesting question for tutors about whether you would allow a student to opt out of a groupwork assignment and do an individual assignment instead, if they could make a sufficiently persuasive case, or should we insist that all students engage in collaborative group work.

I once heard Stephen Downes – at the 2005 ALT conference, describe collaboration as – “the joining up of things that do not naturally want to be joined up”, which challenges the whole notion of collaborative learning. But then David Jacques and Gilly Salmon’s have published a quite substantial text on Learning in Groups: A Handbook for face-to-face and online environments which really promotes groupwork.

So is it possible to collaborate online – Yes, of course and very definitely. Can tutors prepare students for this – Yes, of course – good teaching doesn’t change just because it’s online. Obviously there are things that you can do face-to-face (like a science field trip to study rock pools on a Northumberland beach) that would not be possible to capture in exactly the same way online, but an awful lot of what we do face-t0-face can now be done online.

The question is not whether we can get students to collaborate online – the question is whether we should. Are we asking them to do something that is worthwhile and that will enhance their learning.  Are we offereing them opportunities that they would otherwise not have? What is it that students can get from collaborative learning that they can’t get from individual learning? What specific challenges does online collaboration bring?

I don’t think there are necessarily any right or wrong answers here. If you want students to collaborate online, then there are tried and tested ways of making this a successful learning experience, but if you don’t then there will be equally effective alternatives that might suit the situation, context and culture better.