Is structure counter to cMOOC philosophy?

This was a question that came out of our FSLT12 Research Review meeting today. We were discussing what we have found out about the ways in which people participated and learned in the FSLT12 MOOC  –  and the extent to which this was constrained by the structure and curriculum we designed into the MOOC.

These questions have been timely for me. I have been pondering for quite a few days now about the approach taken by George Siemens and Rory MGreal to their Openness in Education MOOC, which I signed up for.

I was completely baffled at the start of the MOOC on September 10th when there was nothing on the site. Apparently this was down to technical failure, but I’m wondering how many other people were contacting ‘friends’ to find out what was going on. To what extent is communication a part of structure and curriculum? But even now that the MOOC has got going and has been explained as follows …..

This course is based on a connectivist model of learning that Stephen Downes and I have been developing since 2008. We will provide some readings each week, but the course is really driven by learner contributions and resources. Which means that if no one blogs, the course gets pretty boring :). Once you’ve submitted your blog, please include the course tag (oped12) in your posts and they will be aggregated into a daily newsletter. Please be patient as it typically takes a day or two to get ramped up with the course.

We don’t have a central discussion forum set up…learning happens in many places, sites, and tools. More on that here: If you feel a place of interaction needs to be created, please create it and share with others using the course tag.

…. it’s quite difficult to find the content and it seems that there are not going to be any synchronous sessions, where people could gather/connect if they so wished.

David Wiley has made similar comments in a blog post, but brainysmurf  has responded in the comments on his blog

It’s really up to us as participants to decide what to do with the facilitators’ content (if anything), to develop our own live sessions if we want to and to share our resources as we see fit. That shift in power/control/effort is going to rattle more than a few people, I bet!

Am I rattled? Well, not rattled, but certainly questioning whether this extremely ‘hands off’ approach is in the best interest of learners.

Which comes back to the question of just how much structure and support should MOOC conveners provide. I know there are no right or wrong answers; and to come back to the initial question, I’m not sure how much or in what ways a structure/curriculum constrains learning, but then I’m also not sure how much a lack of structure/curriculum constrains learning.

Is structure counter to cMOOC philosophy? I don’t think so. I don’t see that the principles of connectivism – autonomy, diversity, openness and interaction across distributed platforms, or the key activities of cMOOCs – aggregate, remix, repurpose, feedforward, necessarily militate against structure or a curriculum.

#fslt12 MOOC – first reflections

Tomorrow we have our first Review Meeting – we being the team – about the FSLT12 MOOC experience. There is every intention to run the MOOC again next year. I think the intention is to offer it for credit. I may not be involved next year – but whether or not this is the case it is worth thinking about lessons learned from this first offering of #fslt12.

(Click on the image to enlarge it)

I thought it would be useful to make a note of these lessons that I have learned before tomorrow’s meeting, i.e. before being influenced by the others.

Overall, my perception is that the MOOC was a success, although I haven’t seen any of the evaluations yet. Feedback in blogs and in Blackboard Collaborate has been positive – but of course this is only the feedback from those who participated, not from the many who didn’t. It is almost impossible to reach the people who registered but then didn’t visibly interact. We don’t know whether they were ‘lurking’ or simply not there. And if not there, why did they sign up and then not engage?

For me it has been a wonderful opportunity to be ‘on the other side of the fence’ – so to speak, i.e. working with Oxford Brookes to convene the MOOC, rather than be a participant. I have been a participant in five other MOOCs before this one. What have I learned from working in this one as a convener?

–       First – it is a lot of hard work – so hats off to Stephen Downes, George Siemens and Dave Cormier who started all this off. I hadn’t realized that despite the ‘hands off’ approach that they appear to adopt, quite how much hard work goes on behind the scenes. I would imagine that this was particularly so for CCK08 and that is maybe why they changed the format slightly for subsequent MOOCs.

–       Having a good handle on the technology is absolutely essential. In a recent Slideshare presentation Stephen wrote that his law of MOOCs is that if connectivity is not distributed then it is not a MOOC . But this requires a degree of technical expertise that cannot be taken for granted. Fortunately for us we had three wonderful technologists – Joe Rosa, who sorted out the Moodle site for us, Sylvia Currie who not only ‘lent us’ her Blackboard Collaborate site, but also managed it all for us and Liz Lovegrove, who uploaded presentations, videos and resources to our Moodle site. And of course George created the WordPress site. So we did encourage distribution of connectivity across different technologies – and in that sense, according to Stephen, we were a MOOC.

–       but we were not a ‘massive’ MOOC and for me this gave it all more of an ‘open course’ feel. Ultimately, after the initial surge of interest, we had the assessed participants and a few non-assessed participants fully interacting in the forums and Blackboard Collaborate. How many others were ‘watching’, I don’t know, but maybe there are some analytics there somewhere that George and Joe have seen. But what I learned from this is that it doesn’t have to be ‘massive’ to ensure diversity. We had a wonderfully diverse mix of learners from experienced to novice, across very diverse disciplines. My perception was that this was an excellent opportunity for novices to learn from experts and for experts to have their eyes opened by the novices. This for me was the most rewarding aspect of the MOOC.

–       I was reminded once again that online, those who are committed to learning put in more than 100% of effort and therefore breadth and depth issues need to be balanced very carefully. In Week 5 Greg Benfield provided some excellent resources on evaluation, but these were not discussed because both assessed and non-assessed participants who were still with us were completely focused on the microteaching activity. On reflection this is no more than you would expect.

–       And I was reminded once again about how hard it is to get assessment right, so that feedback is constructive and leads to further learning. The type of assessment that we were offering was through personalized feedback. This involves developing a relationship with the ‘to be assessed’ participant. For ‘massive’ MOOCs, this simply does not scale up – so there is a lot to learn about how much learners can learn from the Stanford type of MOOC  and ‘mechanised’ feedback, as opposed to the one-to-one type of feedback we offered. Which offers the best learning experience? This would be worthy of a research paper I think.

–       And finally I experienced the troubling thoughts of whether I should be a ‘traditional teacher’ in this MOOC, or whether MOOCs require a different type of interaction. I alluded to this in my last post. What I like about MOOCs as a participant is that I don’t have anyone ‘watching over me’. I can do my own thing. But as a MOOC convener I’m not sure how far my ‘watching over’ responsibility should extend. I have been a teacher (in the traditional sense) my whole working life and I now feel a dilemma between being responsible for the learners I work with and the autonomy that MOOCs promote. I haven’t sorted this out in my own head yet – but I do know that I have played a ‘teacher’ role in this MOOC – which suggests to me that it hasn’t quite fitted with what I perceive a MOOC to be.

–       Finally I learned a lot about working in Blackboard Collaborate – mainly due to Sylvia Currie’s openness in sharing her expertise, but also because I have never before had the opportunity to be a Moderator for so many sessions in a row. This was very valuable and I will probably write another blog post about what I learned in relation to this.

I’m looking forward to our review meeting tomorrow to hear what others think.

The philosophy of MOOCs

There are currently lots of blog posts around, asking yet again ‘What is a MOOC?’ and about the different types of MOOCs  –  see for example

Osvaldo Rodriguez blog

George Siemens’ Elearnspace blog

Stephen Downes’ Half and Hour site

John Mak’s Blog

MOOCs are even being discussed on a German blog which I could only access through a translation. Unfortunately since I do not speak German,  I was not able to participate in the discussion in the comments.

All these discussions are very relevant to my current situation in which I am working with George Roberts and Marion Waite of Oxford Brookes University to plan a new MOOC for May/June – First Steps into Learning and Teaching in Higher Education.

The first question in my recent post about planning MOOCs – was ‘What is a MOOC’? and there was another question for planning a MOOC (Slide 7) about deciding on ‘What kind of MOOC”? They sound such simple questions, but the discussions on the web have shown that they are not easy to answer.

I am clear in my own mind what a MOOC is for me – but I also know that others interpret it differently. I tend to agree with Matthias Melcher that the original idea of MOOC is becoming watered down and now MOOCs seem to be all things to all people. Even those who have never participated in a MOOC feel qualified to comment (just as those who have never qualified as teachers feel qualified to comment on how to teach). Stephen Downes has ‘shrugged’ his shoulders and said this is inevitable.

For me a MOOC is what CCK08 offered and succeeding MOOCs designed on similar principles offer.  Yes it was a massive, open, online course – but it was also more than that. It offered a new and explicit perspective on learning in the 21st century.  The other day I found myself saying a MOOC is one thing but the Stanford AI course  is just a massive open online course. Wow – how bizarre does that sound, but maybe people who recognize the CCK08 philosophy understand what I mean.

For me a MOOC is not simply a massive, open, online, course – it is based on the explicit principles of connectivism – the principles of autonomy, diversity, openness and interactivity – which we have shown through research  are not easy principles to aspire to or achieve. It is also based on the activities of aggregation, remixing, repurposing and feeding forward the resources  and learning that are part of the MOOC experience.  A MOOC design, in the terms that I am describing it, also takes a specific stance on the relationship between teacher and learner – a stance in which the word ‘teacher’ might be considered redundant.

In a way it’s a shame that the term ‘MOOC’ was coined.  On the one hand it is good that it is a term that has attracted a lot of attention (both negative and positive), which at least means that educators are beginning to think about the extent to which traditional approaches to teaching and learning might need to change.   On the other hand, all the MOOC variations that are being spawned may have resulted in a blurring of the original intention and meaning. That’s not to say that other open online courses, even other massive open online courses don’t have value. If the success (in terms of numbers attending and completing the course) of the Stanford AI course is anything to go by then they obviously do. But the original MOOC had a clear well defined philosophy, which was a break from traditional ways of working and was designed to address the issues that anyone working in education has to deal with in relation to the global changes in connectivity, information sharing and knowledge creation that we are seeing in current times. I hope the principles on which CCK08 was founded will not get lost in this variation.

What new term could we come up with which would keep the original MOOC philosophy intact and distinct from the many variations of MOOCs that are now being created, if indeed it is important to do this?

Connectivism and ‘Ah-Ha’ moments

Do you understand what connectivism is? Sometimes I think I do. I read Stephen’s blog post for example, and it seems to make sense. But then someone raises a question like what is the difference between constructivism and connectivism – as John Mak did and even being familiar with George’s diagram –   I begin to question my understanding all over again and doubt it.

For me understanding usually only comes with application to practice. So I feel  OK with constructivism and social constructivism. I used to be a science teacher and always believed that my approach to teaching was one which recognised social constructivism, because I focussed on challenging students misconceptions through modelling, demonstration and discussion.  I believed that my students came to my sessions with their ideas pretty firmly fixed based on their prior life and learning experience. For example, most students believe that if a heavy object is dropped at the same time from the same height as a light object, then the heavy object will reach the ground first. This is a very common misconception.  A constructivist approach involved challenging this deeply set misconception through physically demonstrating that heavy objects do not reach the ground before light objects. I believed that the physical demonstration had the effect of deconstructing the student’s existing thinking and reconstructing it or replacing it with the correct thinking. The student had an ‘Ah-Ha’ moment which was individual to the student whether or not the student discussed it with others (social constructivism). I have seen this happen many times, for many different misconceptions.

So if I took a connectivist approach how would I understand what was happening – what might I do differently or how might I think differently? This is where I have surprised myself in finding Matthias’ diagram/map so helpful (I usually cannot relate to these types of diagrams – Matthias knows this so I am not insulting him).


This diagram (and discussions I have had with Matthias about this) shows me that thinking about this in connectivism terms is not about changing what I do or how I teach, but changing what I believe is happening and how it is happening. So if I embrace Matthias’ diagram in relation to challenging students’ physics connections, I need to recognise that what is happening to the student is a culmination of all their connections, both prior and existing, however weak or strong those connections might be.  As a tutor I am unlikely to know what all those connections are; all I can do is see the outcomes in the students’ understanding and behaviour – but a belief in a connectivist approach means that I cannot see myself as responsible for their understandings – this lies within the network and their connections. My role is to recognise this and contribute to the network connections.

So this has implications for the ‘Ah-Ha’ moment in learning, which I know Jeffery Keefer has blogged about in the past. ( I can’t find the exact post – but here is a related one – ) Can they happen? Yes they can – as can breaking down students’ misconception,   but Ah-Ha moments are not a ‘bolt from the blue’. They are influenced by a myriad of past and present  connections.

I’m wondering if, first, have I finally understood this?  and second – if I have – then why has it taken me so long? And I am still uncertain as to how connectivism offers anything new/different in relation to networked learning.

The Selfish Blogger Syndrome

‘Selfish Blogger’ – This jumped out of the page of Tony Bates’ blog post .  He has been bemoaning the fact that there has been little discussion around his presentation to Change MOOC  – and that the discussion that there has been, has been distributed across people’s blogs and he has had to go out and find it to collate it on his blog. As an aside – I’m not sure that we could class people individually posting to their blogs as discussion. Tony asks:

  • Could I have done something that would have resulted in more comments, more discussion and more integration of the discussion in this MOOC?
  • Or is the topic itself the problem – just not of interest to most people in this MOOC?
  • Or are people just too busy to go beyond the webinar and a short response?

I think the answer to all three questions is ‘No’. I think it is a problem of the design of the MOOC, which actually promotes ‘the selfish blogger syndrome’.  I should say at this point that I am a self-confessed selfish blogger and likely to remain so. Roy Williams, John Sui Fai Mak and I explored people’s preferences for blogs and forums in our paper, which we presented at the Networked Learning Conference in 2010 –   – so I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on being a ‘selfish blogger’.  In my own defense (do I need to defend myself?), I like to think that I am making a contribution, albeit small, in other ways – but perhaps this is over-rationalization 🙂

I should also say that I recognize the effort required to synthesize and analyze ideas from distributed blogs – that is why I am staying here in my blog. If I make my own comments and observations here, then at least I know where they are. So despite Tony’s comments, I am still not inclined to go to his blog and post there. I would rather keep a record of what I think at this point in time here. Sorry Tony!

It does feel to me though that this MOOC is missing potential for some deeper discussion. In line with being a selfish blogger, I am not desperate to get involved in discussion forums, but I do like to be a ‘lurker’ in forums – and there are always plenty of people in a MOOC who like to engage in them – which makes it even easier to lurk and not feel guilty. I have recently been reminded of the benefits of engaging/lurking in discussion forums through the Networked learning Conference Hot Seat – where the depth of discussion was very rewarding.

The other thing that is constraining the potential for in depth-discussion in this MOOC, is the speed at which the topics are changing. We get a new speaker each week –  and they have all been great so far – but we scarcely have time to get our heads around one speaker’s issues – and they are big issues – when we move on to the next. This is a shame. Each of the speakers has clearly put such a lot of thought and work into their presentations and have provided us with carefully designed and interesting tasks. It’s just a pity that we haven’t had more time to engage with them.

Then there have been the consistent weekly technology problems. These haven’t bothered me particularly but I can see how they detract from getting into the nitty gritty of the subjects being discussed.

Frankly, it’s all I can do to keep up with being a selfish blogger. I had sort of promised myself that I would make one post each week related to the topic – but when the topic is new, there is little chance of posting anything significant within the week. All I can do is put down some sort of a marker and I am wondering this week whether I will be able to keep up with this minimal engagement.

I have participated in enough MOOCs to know that this is the way it is and also that there is no expectation that we engage with every week’s speaker, but I find myself thinking that the speakers deserve better. I am also even clearer in my own mind that I don’t see blogs as a discussion tool, for the average person like me. They might be a discussion tool for people like Tony Bates, Stephen Downes, George Siemens and others who have a well-recognized reputation and likely a lot of hits and comments on their blogs. But for people like me, my blog is not a discussion venue. It’s a place where I post my own reflections. If others are interested in them, then that is great – but I really am a ‘selfish blogger’ 🙂

I have read this through a few times. I don’t want it to sound like a moan about ChangeMOOC. I continue to be impressed by the work that Stephen, George, Dave and others are doing in trying to change the ways in which we think about teaching and learning. I have learned and continue to learn a lot – which is why I hang on in here despite not always being able to keep up 🙂

Change MOOC starts Mon 12th Sept 2011….

….. with an orientation week. For those who don’t know, a MOOC is a massive open online course. Details about this particular MOOC about  Change: Education, Learning and Technology can be found here and the weekly schedule can be found here: Change MOOC Schedule

Stephen Downes has posted this presentation:

How to Organize a MOOC

As someone who attended the first MOOC run by Stephen Downes, George Siemens and Dave Cormier, I am particularly interested in how their ideas have been developed and refined since 2008. This is evident throughout this presentation, but my attention was drawn to slides 60 – 67, where Stephen Downes outlines the principle characteristics of MOOCs –autonomy, diversity, openness and interaction.

It is interesting to compare how these characteristics were described in the 2008 slideshow  Connectivism: A Theory of Personal Learning (2008) (slides 63-67) to how they are described in the slideshow How to Organize a MOOC  recently presented … and then again  … how they are discussed in this blog post – Connectivist Dynamics in Communities – in 2009.

From my perspective and recognising that everyone will have a different perspective on this, particularly Stephen himself, there have been the following shifts:

  1. Diversity: has shifted from being about the diversity of the environments to the diversity of individual perspectives
  2. Autonomy: a subtle but important slight shift from managing your own learning to including recognition of individual values
  3. Openness: less of a shift here, but an indication of moving from a view of openness as being about inclusion (no barriers to being in and out) to being about openness as flow of information (no barriers to flow of information)
  4. Interaction: The idea that knowledge is in the network, not in the individual remains, but the shift seems to be in dropping the word connectedness – perhaps assuming that this is a given in people’s understanding?

These shifts in the way in which language is used are important. For me they are reminiscent of the process of nominalisation that scientists work through when refining their ideas and searching for more economic ways of representing them. For example when Newton was working on the concept of force and shifted from talking, thinking, writing about objects pushing and pulling each other to the word ‘force’ to describe these actions. (I think I have written about this before somewhere – it often crops up).

Here it is not so much about nominalisation (the words autonomy, openness, diversity and interaction are still the same ones as were used in 2008 and before), but it is about refining our understanding of them. If MOOCs are going to become a common phenomenon, which seems to be the case, then we will need to continue to unpick, refine and share our understanding of their basic principles.

More information about Change MOOC 2011 can be found in this slideshow:


The Value of Literature Reviews

There’s an interesting discussion on George Siemen’s blog about the problem with literature reviews –

As we have seen from the comments on his blog post, anyone who has had to write a Masters or PhD dissertation recognises the problem. Maybe even some under-graduates come up against it too.

The points made include:

  • A literature review is tedious to produce and read – I don’t think this is a given in all aspects of a literature review. Coming across a good paper can be highly stimulating.
  • For a given topic very similar reviews will turn up in a variety of papers. I would agree with this. I have certainly seen this quote from Etienne Wenger ‘Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly – in many papers and I have used it myself. Some authors simply write in a way that is difficult to improve on 🙂
  • Literature reviews look backwards and don’t bring new ideas to the table – Yes of course – the nature of a review is to look backwards – but the review might lead to new ideas
  • Literature reviews follow existing streams of thought – Yes, that is to be expected – it’s what’s said/written after the review that is important. When I read journal articles I usually read the Abstract and Conclusions first. If I find them interesting I then try and find out whether anyone else is also interested and what else has been said about the topic.
  • A literature review is a controlling, heritage-preserving system. Again – I don’t think this is a given. I think it depends on whether you take a glass half full or glass half empty view of literature reviews. They can be stepping stones to ‘greater things’ 🙂

And George finishes up with this:

Perhaps what we need is periods of writing without literature reviews. Write for the sake of having a new or novel idea. Grad students in particular would benefit from periods of writing for newness. Who cares if someone has had it before? Who cares if it doesn’t line up with existing research? Sometimes, we need to get passionate about a new idea or dream of a new creation. A literature review is a paint-by-numbers scheme that tells us what has been done and gives us a sense of which little areas our research can fill in. In times of change, we need a blank canvas to guide our thinking, not a largely-filled in “normal science” view of the world.

I personally find digging into the literature can be stimulating. However I do find it very time consuming and also that I need to get ‘steeped’ in it to get anything useful out of it. I can’t just dip in and out. I need a concentrated period of uninterrupted time to follow through from literature review to literature review to get a feel for what the general consensus of opinion is, what the evidence base is and from that what do I think of the ideas.

Perhaps it’s not the literature review that is the problem, but how people interpret them and react to them. I personally find that I need to review the literature even if I don’t write about it. How do I know that my idea is ‘new’ or ‘novel’ unless I have had a good look round first? In fact it is usually the case that someone else has always already thought about what initially for me might be a ‘new’ idea. I have my doubts about whether genuine ‘new’ ideas exist.

A literature review prevents me from ‘jumping in with both feet’ and ‘getting egg on my face’ – making claims that can’t be substantiated, offering opinion instead of evidenced ideas. Even with a literature review I still fall into these traps. George has written – Grad students in particular would benefit from periods of writing for newness. Who cares if someone has had it before? – I think this must be a ‘slip’ because obviously we can’t be writing for newness if someone has had the idea before.

So overall I think I am in favour of literature reviews for the learning process – and somehow we need to find ways of sharing and evidencing what we have found with our readers without our writing becoming tedious and boring as a result.

Perhaps what is needed is not to get rid of literature reviews or the process of reviewing the literature, but to explore new ways of presenting the information gathered from literature reviews that would more readily engage and inform readers. I suspect though that it will be difficult to break the traditional patterns of presentation, and I’m not promising to be able to do this myself 🙂