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 )

Pedagogy, practice and learning theory

When I was a teacher trainer, we used to debate whether trainee teachers should be introduced to learning theory before or after they went into the classroom to teach.

On the Pedagogy First programme (an online course to learn how to teach online) learning theory comes very near the end of the 24 week course (at Week 21), perhaps reflecting a view that theory follows practice, or that theory needs to be understood as a culmination of prior learning. Quite a few participants have struggled to keep up with the course, so only a small number have engaged with the week on learning theories, although those that did made interesting posts. (See the Pedagogy First course site )

As luck would have it, Claire Major, a participant on the course, is writing a book on how teaching online changes our work as teachers and so has a particular interest in learning theories – and this led to some great discussion and outcomes.

Claire bemoaned the fact that what has been written on learning theories seems to be a confusing mess and said she needed a diagram to pull it all together. I agreed.

Donald Clark wrote a series of 51 blog posts, each about a different learning theorist. Here is a screen shot taken from his first post in the series about Socrates.

Screen shot 2013-04-28 at 08.39.22


Source of screenshot:

But this is not the diagram that Claire was looking for.

However, inspired by Claire to hunt for a diagram I found this cMap by Richard Millwood for the Holistic Approach to Technology Enhanced Learning Project.

Screen shot 2013-04-28 at 08.45.39

Source of screenshot:

But ultimately Claire took up the challenge herself and produced this presentation which she has shared as her final presentation for the Pedagogy First course.

What a great final outcome to a 24 week course!

Theory-informed TEL and Connectivism

This week I met Seb Schmoller  who recommended that I have a look at the ocTEL MOOC , a 10 week open course in technology enhanced learning which is being run by ALT (Association for Learning Technology) here in the UK.

Seb is a former Chief Executive of ALT. I was vaguely aware of this MOOC, but had put it to the back of my mind, because for me there are just too many MOOCs about at the moment – it’s difficult to know where to focus.

But Seb’s prompt made me have another look and ‘Yes’ ocTEL does seem well organized with some interesting discussions and useful resources. However, I don’t think I will be getting fully engaged as I am already committed in part to FSLT13  due to start on May 8th 2013 – and Growing Old Around the Globe   due to start on June 10th 2013.  More of them later in other posts.

So far in the ocTEL MOOC I have checked out the Week 1 resources and listened to the recorded presentations .  One slide from Liz Masterman’s presentation has stuck in my mind.

Liz Masterman

Liz Masterman interviewed academics in Higher Ed and asked them which theories informed their use of technology in their teaching. This Wordle is the result. The two tiny words are ‘constructionism’ and ‘behaviourism’. This slide resonates with me because I was recently asked to create a presentation about learning theories for Lisa Lane’s Pedagogy First Online Teaching course. Whilst I am familiar with everything that is on Liz Masterman’s slide (although there are some models in there as well as theories), I only mentioned a few of these in my own presentation. Maybe I should have tried to take a broader brush, but at the time less seemed more.

For me an omission from Liz’s slide and therefore from the interviewees’ thinking and experience of technology enhanced learning in Higher Ed is ‘Connectivism’ or anything to do with networked learning – although communities of practice can be thought of in terms of networked learning.

In terms of the slide I don’t think it matters whether or not we think of Connectivism as a theory, since some of the other items listed on the slide are not theories – but could its omission be a ‘telling’ statement on where academics are in Higher Education in relation to their understanding of learning in new landscapes of practice?

A Social Theory of Learning, Schools and Landscapes of Practice

The title of the introductory chapter in Etienne Wenger’s 1998 book is ‘A social theory of learning’ – not ‘A social learning theory’.  Does this slight change in order of the words make a difference? I think it probably does.

There was an interesting discussion at the Academic Betreat about the relationship between theory, practice and learning. Whilst theory, practice and learning are closely entwined, I came away from the BEtreat reminded that I have always used theory to ‘inform’ my existing practice, rather than use theory to ‘form’ my practice. This question of which comes first, theory or practice, has often been the subject of discussion in my teaching career and particularly when I was a teacher trainer. Should we teach trainee teachers about learning theories before we send them into school and let them loose on children, or should we send them into school and engage them in practice, before we introduce them to learning theories?  If we believe that meaning making is grounded in practice and identity, which in turn is ongoing and never perfect, then the latter would be seem to be the better option.

A social theory of learning is based on a belief that learning is social and is driven by meaningful membership of a community of practice. So another question that was raised in the Academic BEtreat was  – is a school classroom a community of practice?

This led to an interesting discussion. A school classroom is not a community of practice – it’s a piece of institutional design, a space in which a community of practice might grow. A school classroom and the school itself are landscapes of practice, within landscapes of practice, in the sense that communities of practice are people sharing their practice around an identified domain.

‘As communities of practice differentiate themselves and also interlock with each other, they constitute a complex social landscape of shared practice, boundaries, peripheries, overlaps, connections, and encounters’ ………. ‘the texture of continuities and discontinuities of this landscape is defined by practice, not by institutional affiliation…….’ (p.118 Wenger, E. 1998. Communities of Practice. Learning, Meaning and Identity. Cambridge University Press)

Within a classroom there will be different communities of practice, and the school will be located within a landscape of different communities of practice. A classroom is a social learning space. Thinking of it like this, as a learning space within learning spaces, rather than questioning whether or not it is a community of practice leads us to think about what this learning space might offer and the teacher’s role in this.

Will the teacher be able to motivate children to learning? Will the teacher create learning spaces for children with different learning styles? Will the teacher create a learning environment where children can discover themselves as learners? Teachers’ interventions will be different if they take on a social learning approach and will be affected by the other theories that they might ‘plug and play’ into the social theory of learning – such as motivation theory or learning styles which are not in the social theory of learning.

A teacher’s intervention will also be affected by their role. ‘Role’ is not a technical term in the social theory of learning, but a given role does have an affect on identity and might even conflict with identity. ‘Role’ is a reified function. Reifying a role is not always a good thing as you then have to live up to the role. Reification is a powerful tool and like all powerful tools is a dangerous one. It is always a simplification. The problem arises when it takes over. The danger of reification is when it gets removed from the practice – a salutory message for teachers.

So my thinking at this point in time, just after the Academic BEtreat, is that we don’t need to think about classrooms in terms of labelling them as communities of practice or not. It’s more useful to think about them as learning spaces in landscapes of practice, in which social participation as a process of learning can be facilitated through the components of meaning, practice, community and identity (p.5 Wenger, E. 1998. Communities of Practice. Learning, Meaning and Identity. Cambridge University Press)

07-08-12 Postscript

I am still processing my Academic BEtreat experience and in doing this came across this recent video of Etienne speaking to PGCE students at Manchester University. It covers some of the ideas I have reported from BEtreat discussions in this and other posts.

Etienne at his best 🙂

​Learn by unlearning; see by unseeing

I am just back from a couple of days at a conference at Stirling University  Scotland.

Roy Williams, Simone Gumtau and I presented a paper and ran a theory clinic (see  here for details)

As with all conferences for me – it’s difficult to come away and clearly articulate the conference’s value, or what I have learned, or been provoked into thinking about and exploring further (at least in the short term). And as with all conferences, I went to some sessions that ‘left me cold’, but to others which left me knowing that there is lots I need to think about further. The Stirling conference (overall) fulfilled the latter more than the former. I was introduced to lots of new ideas.

Recently I wrote a post about being a glass half empty person . After this conference I realize that is not quite correct – but that my interest in learning is stimulated by ‘unlearning’ and by ‘unseeing’ – an idea further stimulated by a paper presented by Jason Thomas Wozniak, Teachers College, Colombia University, USA.

I was lucky that this was the last session I attended, as for me it pulled together ideas from some of the other presentations that had been simmering in my depths somewhere and also related to our own papers in unexpected ways and particularly to the idea that what is not present is as important as what is present – which I first began to think about after reading a paper about 6 months ago by Terrence W. Deacon (2011).

This idea of ‘The Other’, learning not from what is, but from what is not, also seems critical to avoiding echo chambers and ‘group think’, a topic which has been discussed many times by MOOC followers. Jason Wozniac reminds us that

‘There is a long history of ancient and modern philosophers like Seneca and Foucault who sought to defamiliarise themselves with habitual manners of perceiving and thinking in order to acquire new approaches to reality.”

Wozniac’s work with learners in Brazil has sought to encourage learning through ‘making the world strange’. Paul Standish, another speaker at the conference, seemed to be aligned to this idea, albeit through different expression, when he urged us to ‘reclaim the concept of the amateur in a positive way’. I take this to mean that we have much to learn from the amateur and unexpected ways of thinking. Standish pointed out that teachers often close down dialogue and said that teachers need to learn how to be an authority without being in authority.

Wozniac also writes “Habitual perception conceals or makes us numb to many aspects of the world. We become in essence de-sensitized, and our participation in the world is impoverished’ … and he quotes Ginzburg, 2001, p.13) ‘To understand less, to be ingenuous, to remain stupefied: these are reactions that may lead us to see more’.”

Wozniac’s team attempted this with Brazilian learners, i.e. to encourage learning through unlearning and seeing through unseeing, through a series of exercises involving art, poetry and dialogue. This reminded me of when (years ago) I attended life drawing classes and for weeks we were not allowed to draw the figure as we saw her, but instead each week had to draw her from different perspectives, e.g. the figure as a mathematical representation, the figure as a landscape and so on. We, along with Wozniac’s adult teachers and students, were developing ‘negative capability’ (Keats 1935, p.72, quoted by Wozniac) .

‘That is to say that these teachers were ‘capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” (Wozniac, 2012).

This idea of promoting uncertainty and mystery in learning is very closely related to the work I have been doing with Roy Williams and Simone Gumtau on emergent and embodied learning ….. And it seems to me that a focus on uncertainty necessitates consideration of what is not there, or ‘The Other’.

For Julie Allan (keynote speaker) this ‘Other’ was expressed as ‘Aporias’. She encouraged us to think in terms of expressions of doubt, e.g. How can we raise achievement and promote inclusiveness , or how can we promote autonomy and support collaboration (which seems very relevant to the FSLT12 MOOC ).

And our second keynote speaker Tom Popkewitz  talked of ‘double gesture’ i.e. by considering what is – you also necessarily identify what is not. For example he writes:

Today’s the “urban” family and child has new classifications of “troubled youth” and “the dropout”. Without too much effort, it is easy to realize that there is no “troubled” or “dropout” without theories about the child who is not troubled and who is different from the child “drop-in”.

According to Popkewitz you can’t understand the self without understanding ‘The Other” and trying to control the future has never worked.

As Paul Standish said, the aim of education is to lead to freedom. What I learned from the conference, is that this is the freedom to see things as we have never seen them before, to think things we have never dreamed possible, to embrace uncertainty and ‘strangeness’ and to welcome defamiliarisation. This freedom will no doubt feel like strange and unfamiliar territory, but to quote Michel Foucault

‘There are times in life when the question of knowing if one can think differently than one thinks, and perceive differently than one sees, is absolutely necessary if one is to go on looking and reflecting at all.’


Deacon, T.W. (2011) Consciousness is a matter of constraint- My New Scientist
Magazine issue 2840.

Ginzburg, C. (2001) Making it strange: The prehistory of a literary device. In Wooden Eyes: Nine Reflections on Distance (pp. 1-23). (Martin Ryle & Kate Soper, Trans.). New York: Columbia University Press)

Keats, J. (1935) The Letters of John Keats (p.72) New York: Oxford University Press

Popkewitz, T.S. (2012) Is there an Option: Theory as an Empirical Fact.

Wozniak, J.T. (2012) Exercises in Making the World Strange: Cultivating new ways of perceiving the world in teacher education programs and adult literacy and philosophy classes.

World Autism Awareness Day

Today is World Autism Awareness Day

In the last couple of years I have found myself doing more and more work related to autism. This has mostly been with Birmingham University’s Autism Centre for Education and Research (ACER) where the work has involved

  • working on writing online training materials, such as those currently being produced for the Autism Education Trust ,
  • working with Scottish Autism  to support the development of a community of practice to share best practice across distributed services, and

At the same time, the way in which children on the autism spectrum learn in a responsive environment designed especially for them (MEDIATE) has featured as a case study in both the most recent research papers I have been working on with Roy Williams and Simone Gumtau.

One – Synaesthesia and Embodied Learning has just been submitted to The Future of Theory in Education Conference, due to take place at Stirling University in June of this year.

Williams, R., Gumtau, S. & Mackness, J. (2012) Synaesthesia and Embodied Learning. (Paper accepted for ‘Theorising Education 2012: The Future of Theory in Education: Traditions, Trends and Trajectories Conference which is taking place 7-9 June 2012, at University of Stirling).

The second – a paper on complexity, learning environments and emergent learning – will be (fingers crossed) submitted within the next month, although we are also presenting a workshop (clinic) on this at the Stirling Conference.

What has been interesting for me in all this work is to get a glimpse into how people on the autism spectrum learn and reflect on how this informs teaching and learning with other groups. There are some intriguing links and challenges.

What is Academic Rigour?

This is a question that was raised near the end of Tom Reeves  very interesting presentation to ChangeMooc this week.

Recording for this session

The focus of Tom’s presentation was educational research and the lack of impact of educational technology research on educational policy and practice. To address this problem he has worked with colleagues to develop a model – Design-Based Research. in which the focus is on researching a problem.

Tom emphasised the importance of academic rigour, but this led to the question – what is academic rigour? There was no ready answer or consensus in the session.  Some answers to this question from Tom and participants were:

  • not for the faint-hearted; takes effort and commitment (Tom Reeves)
  • unchanging, in the sense that ‘rigorous’ means performing the same (type of) study every time, conforming to the same (set of) principles etc. (Stephen Downes)
  • more likely to lead to the truth (but what is truth?) (Stephen Downes)
  • disciplined, measurable, stands up to scrutiny by others (brainysmurf)
  • can replicate the methods (Tom Reeves)

None of these answers quite satisfies me and this dissatisfaction has led to some further thinking and discussion.

It seems to me now that there is not an absolute concept of academic rigour – but rather there are degrees of it depending of the closeness of research to known theory, whether or not the research is supported by known theory and the credibility of the data from which inferences are drawn.  This can be thought of in terms of the following diagram:

What is Academic Rigour?

Following a given model or a systematic process won’t necessarily lead to academic rigour or even reliable success.  I was interested in Stephen Downes’ comment that he is more a follower of Feyerabend in being “Against Method” and that ‘there is great liberation in understanding that ‘method’ is based on sociological desire for conformity rather than scientific desire for truth’.

Finally, there was the question of whether or not research needs to start with a problem – the Design-Based Research Model states that it does …..

… but this wouldn’t account for ‘Eureka’, ‘Ah Ha’ moments or accidental findings . This would suggest that ‘academic rigour’ is not always needed for good research.