Learner support in MOOCs. An alternative perspective

One of the panel discussions at the MOOC Research conference held in Arlington, Texas at the beginning of this month was on Supporting Learners in MOOCs. Panelists were Sandi Boga, Amy Collier and Stephen Downes. The recording of the discussion made by Stephen Downes is here .  (As an aside, I think this was the only session that was recorded during the conference– I haven’t seen anything else. The lack of recordings and ‘live-streaming’ of the keynotes etc. was a bit of a surprise).

Stephen has summarized the panel discussion as:

In this discussion a panel of MOOC experts explored questions surrounding supporting learning online. Some widely varying perspectives, ranging from preparing students to work without a curriculum to student support software in an xMOOC.

But he doesn’t, in this summary, mention his own key point and that was to think of learner support in MOOCs in terms of self-organisation. This would mean providing learners with an environment in which they can self-organise and which itself is self-organising. In these terms support isn’t something we do for learners, but something that we support them in doing for themselves – a ‘once-removed’ form of support.

This is a different way of thinking about learner support, which was largely overlooked in the panel discussion, where the thinking seemed to be about what the ‘we’ the MOOC conveners could do for ‘them’ the learners, which is the approach that seems to have been taken by many MOOCs.  So for example Amy Collier in describing her experience with Stanford MOOCs talked of the good practice as being:

  • a well-managed structured environment
  • a coherent sequenced information-centred model
  • great content

I have participated in two Coursera MOOCs and in many connectivist MOOCs, large and small.  The Coursera MOOCs have tried to support learners in fairly traditional ways, e.g. by co-opting teaching assistants to help moderate the forums and answer learners’ questions, and in one case by encouraging study groups and setting up teaching assistant and tutor online office hours. The smaller connectivist MOOCs have gone down a similar route inviting ‘veteran’ MOOCers to join the MOOC and help to support novice MOOCers (See FSLT 12 &13’s work in this respect here and here). This is in line with the early approach taken by Alec Couros  and Lisa Lane where they put out a call for/or invite ‘mentors’ to voluntarily work on their open online courses.

These approaches try to replicate the type of support that is traditionally offered learners in smaller courses, but recognize that with ‘massive’ numbers, one-to-one support from a tutor or even a team of tutors is simply not possibly, hence a focus on peer-to-peer support and calling on those with more experience and expertise to support those with less.

But perhaps traditional approaches to learner support will never be a comfortable fit with massive open online courses. Learning in the 21st century requires some additional and different skills – skills such as being able to:

  • locate, filter and select from vast amounts of information on the web
  • recognise patterns in this information
  • aggregate information from distributed digital sites
  • remix and repurpose to create personal resources
  • connect with people to learn from across the globe

In other words – self organise. As Stephen Downes explained, he doesn’t have it all figured out yet, but he thinks of learner support in MOOCs in the following terms:

  • the course and the learners are self-organising – they develop their own networks
  • the instructors are simply two of the nodes in the network who may or may not be invisible
  • instructors lead by example, participating in the forums. If their modeling and demonstration is of high quality they will be noticed, otherwise not.
  • this mirrors the way the mind is organized and human memory works, i.e. learning is the development of networks, neuronal and social
  • the course content is an attractor around which the course will organise
  • everyone’s contribution is valued
  • learning is not thought of as provision
  • learners learn to provide for themselves

So a key aspect of support is fostering a sense of self-reliance and this might require some ‘de-schooling’. It gets away from the ‘what can we do to support you’ approach, to ‘what can you do to support yourselves’ approach. The support is still there but it takes a different form.

What would this mean in practice? Some of the following thoughts come to mind:

  • Explicit, up front discussion about the meaning of ‘support’ in these terms.
  • Clarity about and discussion of expectations
  • Provision of an environment which is ‘true’ to these principles (such as described by the factors we have used in our research on emergent learning)
  • Provision of tools that maximize the power of individuals to manage their own learning
  • Modelling and demonstration of self-organisation by the course conveners
  • Standing back and letting the learners get on with it, i.e. letting go of control

And perhaps the last point is where the shift might be difficult to make. So much of a traditional course is based on authority and control. Learners will not learn to self-organise unless we ‘let go’, even if that means letting go of traditional ways of thinking about learner support.

New Special Issue on MOOCs published today (JOLT)

Today has seen the publication in JOLT  of a paper I worked on with Marion Waite, George Roberts and Elizabeth Lovegrove from Oxford Brookes University, in which we examined learning in the First Steps in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education MOOC (FSLT12).

Waite, M., Mackness, J., Roberts, G., & Lovegrove, E. (2013). Liminal participants & skilled orienteers: A case study of learner participation in a MOOC for new lecturers. JOLT

In a brief overview of ocTEL which Martin Hawksey gives in the video below, he mentions that one thing they would like to address in the next run of ocTEL is learner support.

In FSLT12 we were also concerned about this. We noted in our research into participation in FSLT12, that whilst many of the participants found themselves in that liminal zone of uncertainty about who they are, what they should be doing, how to navigate the environment, how open to be and so on, there were also many experienced MOOCers, who we called ‘skilled orienteers’. These participants voluntarily took on the role of supporting participants new to MOOCs and this way of working in the open. In the following run of the course, FSLT13, alumni from the previous course were invited to act as ‘expert’ participants, with the expectation that they would support those new to MOOCs and also provide feedback on the outcomes of the course activities.

Martin Hawksey is running a session today at ALT-C on Tues 10th Sept, 1.55 -2.55 pm, Horses for Open Courses: Making the Backend of a MOOC with WordPress – experiences from ocTEL .

The main thrust of this session will be, as the title suggests, the design of the course using WordPress. The design of the ALT-C website, which Stephen Downes has decribed as ‘masterwork’  is a development of the design for the ocTEL MOOC.

I’m looking forward to Martin’s session and hearing not only what he has to say about the ocTEL WordPress platform, but also his plans for future developments in relation to participant support.

I’m also looking forward to hearing what Stephen Downes might have to say about learner support in MOOCs. I remember, as a participant of CCK08, being aware that I was very much in a ‘sink or swim’ environment. My perception at the time was that this was an intentional part of the course design, and since I ended up ‘swimming’, but not without difficulty, I didn’t see this as a bad thing. But I do still wonder how much learners should be expected to sink or swim. Is there a conflict between the principles for learning in cMOOCs – autonomy, diversity, openness and interactivity/connectedness – and learner support, i.e. can the principles be constrained by support and if so to what extent?