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.

The Direction of MOOC Research

After 2 years of MOOC mania, the time has come for increasing the output of MOOC research. But what direction is that research taking – what direction should it take?

At the beginning of the month George Siemens convened a MOOC conference – (with funding from Bill and Melinda Gates) – which was billed as the MOOC conference of all MOOC conferences – pulling together many of the big names associated with MOOCs. And, by all accounts, it was a great conference – the conversations must have been fascinating.

Given that I couldn’t attend, I have been watching the Twitter stream quite closely and am following the blog posts that are emerging now that delegates have managed to return home after being stuck in Dallas in an unexpected ice storm .

From my reading of some of the follow up tweets and posts it seems that despite the bonhomie, there were some divisions between the delegates, although they may not have been openly discussed at the time.

I was alerted to this first by a tweet from Stephen Downes who wrote:

#MRI13 – seeing more and more the gulf between my own approach to MOOCs and those from the xMOOC perspective…

And then by a blog post from Ralf St.Clair  who has suggested that there were three groups in the conference delegates and these were not necessarily compatible:

The first, and the most fun, are the techno-utopians. These folks believe that the issues of MOOCs are fundamentally technical, and once we have a better [insert tool here e.g. marking algorithm] then we really will have a widespread and powerful democratisation of knowledge.

The second group are the Educational Idealists, who fret about structure and pedagogy and rigour. That’s the group I belong to, through frankly I’d rather be in the first group. They have all the good tunes.

The third group are the Administrative Puritans, focused on return on investment, costs, and monetisation so that MOOCs can pay their (considerable) way.

Bonnie Stewart  also noted that there were groups who did not appear to know how to talk to each other and wrote in her recent blog post

I think ‘what’s next?’ is working out the conversation IN the metaphorical van. Some who see MOOCs as learning focus on the pursuit of its ever-more-finely-honed measurement. Others are more inclined to dismiss measurement as irrelevant to the networked synthesis of ideas that forms the backbone of their approach to education. A hundred more do something in between. We don’t necessarily know how to talk to each other. It became evident around the Arlington bar tables last week that the chasms between practitioners’ varying versions of learning and knowledge are so deep some aren’t even really aware that the rest of us are IN the van.

Then there have been a couple of blog posts from Martin Weller and Martin Hawksey that suggest that the emphasis on big data research might not be exactly what is needed  – It was easy to forget you were talking about learners, and not sales of baked beans. (Martin Weller).

These posts were interesting given that my own research into MOOCs has always been on the learner experience. Whilst there is a lot to learn from big data, we also need to keep the focus on the learner and try and understand the changes that are happening in learners themselves in these new open online learning environments. My experience is that it is difficult to square this interest in the unique individual experience with the massive number of MOOC participants.

There have also been interesting discussions about the role of theory in relation to MOOC research and the suggestion that we are moving from theory-led to evidence-based research – i.e. post-theory  ( See Martin Weller’s blog post and this post by Mike Caulfield). My own thinking is that perhaps we need more theory – not less – and in particular we need more discussion around the proposed theory of connectivism, which only a few researchers have, to date, been prepared to engage in.

Post conference reflections, tweets and blog posts are still coming in and the discussion remains very interesting.  Here are some of the posts that have caught my eye

Bodong Chen – Top Links from the MOOC Research Conference Twitter Backchannel (#MRI13)

Matt Crosslin – Give Me an M! Give Me a C! Blah Blah Blah To All This Theory

Keith Devlin – The MOOC Express – Less Hype, More Hope

Lori Breslow, Donald Clark, Professor Asha Kanwar, Stephen Downes – EduDebate: What Future for MOOCs

Michael Feldstein – Changing the Narrative

I picked up most of these from the conference Twitter stream  (#mri13 )