Caught between a MOOC and a hard place

The title of this post is a tweet that has just been posted by Lisa Lane. It so perfectly describes what is happening on the Pedagogy First programme that I have pinched it for this post.

The Pedagogy First programme has only just started and I already find it to be full of contradictions.

Lisa has described it as a MOOC – actually a SMOOC (i.e. a small MOOC),  but I’m beginning to realize that this is misleading. The actual course site doesn’t refer to MOOCs. It is in fact an open online course, so more structured, more teacher led, more prescribed, less messy etc. than my understanding of MOOCs.

The programme has been designed to be open, but I’m also beginning to realize that a ‘constrained’ and ‘structured’ openness is what is required. There are good reasons for this, mainly related to helping ‘novices’ to settle in.  It seems that ‘open’ in relation to this course has a specific meaning, i.e. open and free to the world to join in, but not ‘open’ enough to cope with the diversity of opinions presented by a diverse mix of novices and experienced online learners. Experienced online learners are nowadays very likely to have ‘MOOC’ experience and be influenced by this, whereas novices will have neither online experience nor MOOC experience.

The programme requires a weekly blog post, tagged with ‘potcert’ which feeds into the course site. In a recent blog comment Lisa describes her blog as ‘I try hard to keep in mind it’s my blog, like my house. People can stop by, but they don’t live there like I do’.

This is how I think of my blog – my domain to write what I want, but it seems that there are restrictions on what we can write if our post is to feed into the Pedagogy First course site, for example, we are urged to keep our posts short, to not use ‘jargon’, to not discuss things that might be ‘jumping ahead’ in the syllabus, to focus only on the tasks required by the syllabus, to not post anything controversial. If we want to do this, then we should not tag our posts with ‘potcert’ even if we think the topic is related to online pedagogy.

I have worked on enough online courses and MOOCs to understand the dilemma and to recognize that novices can easily be scared off.  In my last post I wrote that veteran MOOCers may need to hold back a bit – but that has to be their own decision. My decision following this discussion and now that I understand how the Pedagogy First course works, is not to tag my posts with ‘potcert’.

I don’t think it works to tell bloggers what they can do on their own blogs, particularly if they have been blogging for many years. Also should we expect some to limit their thinking and writing while others catch up? How would you feel if your child was experiencing this at school?

Maybe a better approach is to focus on the novices, i.e. get the mentors working with them from the word go (my understanding is that the mentors haven’t started yet), make posts which explicitly state what the nature of open courses is, tell them to expect to be confused and find it overwhelming, tell them to pick and choose and so on.

Only two days in and this course has already raised so many issues. I think Lisa is right – the course is currently between a MOOC and a hard place.  I wouldn’t be surprised if many online courses begin to experience this as MOOCs become more commonplace.

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

http://www.atimod.com/e-moderating/5stage.shtml

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.

The Case for SmOOCs

On reflection #fslt12 was a SmOOC – a small open online course. I suspect that just as the number of Massive Open Online Courses of the Stanford type will proliferate – at least in the short term – so too will SmOOCs.

SmOOCs have a lot going for them, principally in terms of the relationship between size, diversity and openness.

We had 151 people register for FSLT12 and 168 register for the Moodle site.  Canada, USA, South America, Africa, Europe, India, the Far East and Australia were all represented and at the time of writing 60 people have accessed the Moodle site within the last 3 weeks. We haven’t yet examined the data in any detail, so these are just rough estimates and we don’t know how many people accessed the Moodle site as a Guest. We had 28 people add their blog to the course WordPress site, but again we don’t yet know how many people blogged about the course, without aggregating their blog.  12 people completed the assessment activities.

So in my terms, compared to some of the MOOCs I have been involved with, this was a small MOOC.

As a result of this experience, my perception is that in SmOOCs, ‘openness’ is safer. It was interesting to observe this in FSLT12, which was open enough to ensure diversity, but small enough to ensure that ‘cliques’ didn’t form and that there was a very good mix between novice and experienced participants, different ages, disciplines and cultures. This in itself is interesting, as in the early days of MOOCs it was thought that large numbers were required for diversity. I have thought about and discussed this before – see

Mooc principles and course design

Change 11- massiveness and diversity

For me the question remains as to how massive does a MOOC have to be to hit the ‘sweet spot’ of diversity and openness. In 2012 Roy Williams, Sui Fai John Mak and I published a paper about the Ideals and Reality of Participating in a MOOC, where some of these tensions were discussed.

In FSLT12 I was surprised at how much diversity there can be in a much smaller MOOC – and equally surprised at how this did not lead to sub groups or cliques but to an apparent genuine desire to interact with this diversity.  In past MOOCs I have been involved with it has been the different cultures and resources that have offered the diversity, but in this MOOC, although it was enriched by different cultures, it was the mix of experts and novices that worked so well. This was particularly evident in the microteaching activity where both novices and experts engaged, supported and learned from each other. My feeling is that this was made more possible because of the smaller numbers and also because the smaller numbers made the learning spaces (Moodle and Blackboard Collaborate) feel more intimate, supportive and safe.

So I can see that SmOOCs can offer diversity with relatively ‘safe’ opportunities for connectivity, interaction, autonomy and openness, but do they avoid ‘group think’? This is something that I need to think more about.

Open Educational Resources and Pedagogy

Dave White’s presentation to FSLT12 yesterday included a number of thought-provoking ideas.

In the past I have heard Dave speak a number of times about ‘Visitors and Residents’ in the online environment. You can find out more about this on his TALL blog – Technology Assisted life-long learning – TALL for short  (his joke – not mine :-))

But this week’s talk took a different focus. It centred on the relationship between open educational resources (OERs), open academic practice and changing pedagogy. The title of his talk was even longer than this:

OER: The quality vs credibility vs access vs pedagogy vs legitimacy vs money debate

Click here for the recording of the session.

As Dave pointed out, OERs come in all shapes and sizes and Creative Commons  licensing of these is very important in determining our use of them.  But despite being in all shapes and sizes, we can take the iceberg metaphor and categorise them as

  • those above the water-line, visible, above board, properly licensed – the kind of resources produced by an institution to market itself
  • or those below the water line – where licensing is not so important.

These below the water line resources are easy access , free and easy to remix and repurpose, without much attribution.  This happens a lot below the water line.

Slide 6 - Dave White presentation

(Slide 6 from Dave White’s presentation)

But perhaps the most important point/question raised by Dave is 

What effect has access to OERs, above or below the water line, had on the way we teach and learn?

I remember when MIT first opened access to their educational resources, this was accompanied by a statement to the effect that it was not an issue for them to open their content to the world – because the educational value and quality they provide is not so much in their content, but in their teaching and learning. To get this we have to pay to go to MIT.

So as Dave said, when thinking about OERs we cannot neglect ‘contact’. It is not all about ‘content’. So how do OERs ‘drive pedagogy back into what it’s meant to be’? (quoting Dave from the presentation). For me they do this in a number of ways:

  • Now that we have more clarity around what we are allowed to do with OERs (through Creative Commons Licences), we can remix, repurpose and feed-forward OERs (to quote Stephen Downes). We can be more creative.
  • Perhaps OERs also enable us to challenge the ‘status quo’ – in the sense that ‘credible, quality’ content might no longer always be in peer reviewed journals, articles and academic sites, but might instead be on ‘John or Jane Doe’s blog’ or deep below the water line (iceberg metaphor).
  • They do tend to force more critical thinking and the framing of critically relevant questions, e.g. what is a credible, quality resource? How do we recognize it?  And this in turn raises the whole question of whether learners have the skills to navigate the web to find the quality resources.
  • And from the teacher’s perspective, as Dave pointed out, we will have to come up with assessment tasks that don’t allow the student to simply find the answer through an easy access easy to find OER. This has always been a challenge for teachers, but even more so now.

Dave’s final slide quotes Harouni (2009).

“I must value not answers but instead questions that represent the continued renewal of the search. I must value uncertainty and admit complexity in the study of all things”

For me living with uncertainty is the big paradigm shift we might need in today’s digital world. Roy Williams, Regina Karousou, Simone Gumtau and I have been exploring this in our papers about emergent learning  – and Dave Cormier raised this as a key point in his presentation to the in the ‘New Places to Learn’  – NewPlacesEvent HEA event held at the Said Business School in Oxford in April of this year.

Hopefully discussion about how OERs affect pedagogy will continue in the FSLT12 Week 4 Moodle discussion forum  There is still lots to talk about.

The Benefits and Risks of Academic Openness

 

Yesterday Frances Bell made a presentation to FSLT12 MOOC on

The role of Openness by Academics in the Transformation of their Teaching and Learning Practices

This was a thought provoking session. Frances didn’t throw content at us, tell us what to think or how to think, but challenged our thinking with the questions

  • How can openness benefit my practice?
  • What risks are presented by open academic?
  • What impact is your participation in #fslt12 having on your personal network?
  • What role can openness play in learners’ practice?

Of course there are no right or wrong answers to these questions. It’s all a matter of perception. Frances states

I prefer to think of openness as a default option that can be turned off, not as a zealot’s precept

But when  I recently wrote a blog post raising the question (in response to a post by George Veletsianos)…..

Is openness becoming a ‘tyranny’ that we are all just drifting into? Or is openness essential to the future of education and scholars?

…. Stephen Downes emphatically responded ‘Yes’ it is essential to the future of education and scholars’, but ‘No’ it is not becoming a tyranny. He feels that we have the autonomy to decide whether to be open or not and writes

First, nobody’s imposing anything here; if you want to go back to your structured formal education, where you pay a substantial fee, there are thousands of institutions who would be happy to help you. Second, the openness (and the rest of it) is the result of a critical examination. As I have argued with respect to the principles of successful networks, if you want your social organizations to be effective at all, you need to embrace things like autonomy, openness, interatcivity and diversity.

This was on the 18th May and I have been thinking about it since because I have a great deal of respect for Stephen, but for me the answers to the questions are less clear cut.  I think in the context of Higher Education the problem is that we are in structured formal education, where, if we want to keep our jobs, we sometimes do have to conform to the institution’s requirements – and that may or may not include a requirement for openness. I should say here that I am not in this situation (I am an independent consultant), but I have been in the past and I know from experience that resistance to an institution’s principles might mean handing in your notice, which is probably not an option for many people – although I have done this twice in the past, and fortunately on both occasions was able to move straight into another job. So I think in certain circumstances, openness could be imposed if you do not have the autonomy to resist it.

But I do agree with Stephen that openness is the result of critical examination – which I think fits with Frances’ statement that openness can be thought of as a default option. As she said in today’s session it will not be for everyone in every situation. We each, individually need to decide how open to be, when and where.

So what might be the benefits? I know that the benefits can be considerable, although I think I benefit more from others’ openness than being open myself. I get access to free information and a wide range of alternative perspectives. More importantly I receive support and encouragement from people I may not even have met. People’s generosity through openness on the web and indeed in this FSLT12 MOOC never fails to amaze me.

But I am equally aware of the risks. Openness necessarily means a certain degree of exposure. For introverts and private people in particular this can be difficult. I think I’m in this category. For novices it may be even more difficult. As Stephen says, we don’t have to be open. We can choose not to be. But first we have to have the freedom to make this choice and second we have to have the skills to weigh up what is gained and what is lost by being open or not open, what we should be open about and what we should keep to ourselves – and then of course we need to decide who to be open with – the whole worldwide web, or just a small working team? As Frances has said in the Moodle discussion forum

I really don’t understand why anyone would want to be open (different from honest in that we can choose not to say certain things) all the time – some remarks are better kept from the public gaze.

Openness is not straightforward. It clearly means different things to different people according to their context and it may be something that we cannot take a stance on in the moment. I suspect it may take considerable experience and time to determine what openness means on a personal level and how that understanding will be reflected in our personal practice.

#fslt12 Week 2 is underway

There is loads of great discussion on the FSLT12 MOOC Moodle site  and there have been a number of fascinating blog posts which have been aggregated on the FSLT12 MOOC WordPress site

As with all MOOCs – even if you have plenty of time – it’s difficult to keep up with everything – if possible at all. A couple of my colleagues have both in the past, when I complain about feeling overwhelmed, reminded me of the importance of not trying to cover everything, but focussing on the bits that interest me and following those through. Good advice, but often easier said than done because its ALL interesting 🙂

Click on the diagram to see the course schedule more clearly

Last week the focus of the FSLT12 MOOC was on reflective practice and this generated wonderful examples of reflective writing in practice, not only from those participants being assessed. These can be found in the Moodle site and on various blogs. There was less discussion of open academic practice (which was the parallel theme for last week), but I’m sure that will be sparked off by Frances Bell’s presentation tomorrow

Frances Bell, “The Role of Openness by Academics in the Transformation of their Teaching and Learning Practices.” Wednesday 30 May 2012, 1500 BST 

Link for the session here

Check your time zone here

Frances has asked that we do some reading before attending the session. See The Role of Openness by Academics

A parallel theme this week is the Teaching of Groups and discussion has already got going in the Week 2 Moodle forums  in response to Mary Deane’s audio about this in relation to Belbin’s team roles

What are your personal experiences of group work and how do you manage group work if using it as a teaching strategy? If you are interested in these questions, then do join the discussion.

Finally, a new activity starts this week. This will be explained in the second half of the live session tomorrow, but there is also information about it on the Moodle site

There is so much going on that I will definitely be filtering and carefully selecting the threads I want to follow this week – but the good thing about MOOCs and open courses is that the information remains online long after the course finishes, so hopefully allowing time to fill in the gaps later.

Scholarship and the ‘Tyranny’ of Openness

There have been some great comments by George Veletsianos, Mark McGuire and Fred Garnett on my blog post, which asked the question ‘What is a Scholar’ –  prompted by George’s presentation to ChangeMooc.

In George’s comment he asks

Are we are attempting to impose our values (of openness, sharing, online learning as the future of education, etc) without a critical examination of what that means for practice and for individuals who are part of social organizations?

This is a very timely question. There has been a lot of discussion on the web over the past 12 months or so about what we mean by openness. According to Martin Weller it is a ‘state of mind’. I agree…..

….but whose mind? As Carmen Tschofen and I discussed in our paper – Connectivism and Dimensions of Individual Experience  – openness means different things to different people – ‘learners may vary greatly in their desire for and interpretation of connectivity, autonomy, openness, and diversity

On p.137 we write

This inner state of openness offers a significantly expanded perspective from the much more externalized “sharing” definition of openness and the “no barriers” definition currently articulated in connectivism. It leaves room for the speculation, for example, that legitimate peripheral participants may be experiencing “openness” in relation to connective learning by being attentive in a mindful and non-judgmental way.

An understanding of psychological openness and its relationship to connectivist principles and process also introduces a potential connection between creativity and connective learning. The personality trait of openness to experience is linked to curiosity, exploration, creativity, and unusual ideas. These elements may be significant in gaining insight into MOOC “early adopters” and in understanding the challenges and rewards of promoting and conducting such unusual learning ventures. By the same token, learners who express discomfort in learning networked environments, calling, for example, for more structure, may be closer to the “more cautious” end of the openness spectrum, with greater preference toward the familiar, including learning conventions and traditions. Questions remain as to how connective learning can best accommodate learners throughout this spectrum.

So I agree with George that we need to critically reflect on what we mean by ‘openness’ and how this might affect our expectations of scholars and influence their scholarship. And I think I understand where he is coming from when he writes ‘I am worried about imposing a single worldview that we view as “correct” on others. Freire talks about the oppressed becoming oppressors, and I find that without an uncritical examination of our practice we might be heading towards that direction.’

I also understand where Mark is coming from when he writes about the dangers of becoming institutionalized

‘in the process of working within an institution, we become institutionalized. We internalize the values, assumptions, and practices of the institution of higher education as it is currently constructed, and we take on the mission statements, strategic plans, and objectives of the organization that pays our salary.’

‘becoming institutionalized is like becoming acclimatized or acculturated — it is an induction into a particular set of habits, histories and beliefs that we come to accept as natural and right. If we wish to develop new ways of organizing our labour and our learning using more open networks, in keeping with shifts elsewhere in contemporary society, we must be prepared to examine and critique our institutions and our place within them.’

It seems to me that both Mark and George are making a strong case for critical reflection on and critical examination of the meaning of openness. Is openness (like participation) becoming a ‘tyranny’ that we are all just drifting into? Or is openness essential to the future of education and scholars?

I’ll be interested to hear what Frances Bell has to say about this when she talks to #fslt12 MOOC on Wednesday 30 May


Frances Bell, “The role of openness by academics in the transformation of their teaching and learning practices.” Wednesday 30 May 2012, 1500 BST