MOOC ‘Jam’: Highlights from a Jam on Digital Pedagogy

This post includes takeaways from a ‘MOOC Jam’, a synchronous discussion online I participated in with a group of educators about digital pedagogy. 

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‘Jam’ by John Wardell (Flickr)

“What is a Jam?  A Jam is an asynchronous, typed, online discussion designed to work around your schedule. The goal of a Jam is to gain perspective and solicit ideas that inform the community. After the Jam is over, you can read the exchange and the posted resources, which will remain available for several weeks.” MOOC Jam II, Digital Pedagogy   (The three threads of asynchronous discussions in this jam are: 1) Competencies for teaching online, 2) Developing Faculty Competencies, and 3) Learner Analytics for Faculty)

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Screen Shot of participants online during the Jam participating in the threaded discussions (only partial shot of participants)

This past Tuesday, I participated in a  MOOC Pedagogy Jam via the website Momentum, a platform created for stakeholders to discuss critical issues related to education, sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The purpose of the platform is to provide a space to host online events about topics related to online education, with the ultimate goal of the Jams ‘to gain perspective and solicit ideas that inform the community’.  I participated in the first MOOC Jam this past November. The topic, “Peer Review of a Framework for MOOCs” hosted by George Siemens, focused on the design of the MOOC Framework. Siemens, creator of the Framework, sought input from the community of participants.

The topic of this Jam, [which turned out to be more of a synchronous discussion] was digital pedagogy, divided into the three threaded discussions as mentioned above. Each discussion featured a moderator, responsible for responding to participants and furthering the discussion, and another moderator summarizing key themes of the discussion each hour. I chose to participate in ‘Competencies for teaching online: describing effective pedagogy’ given its description— “An exchange on how information is delivered to students, how they are engaged as active learners and community is built and how learning is assessed”.

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Screen shot of one the three threaded discussions of the Jam held on the Momentum platform

Digital Pedagogy: Themes and Highlights
Following are my insights from the discussion on digital pedagogy and I’ve included comments from other participants. (Jam II, Momentum, Digital Pedagogy).

The discussion was rich with ideas, insights and provided a glimpse into the issues and challenges with online instruction. Though the title of the Jam featured ‘MOOCs’, much input from contributors pertained to closed, online courses which created an interesting discussion by highlighting one of the primary challenges in online education—the application of appropriate pedagogical methods, which will vary depending upon the learners, the delivery method and goals of the course.

Themes:

1)  Part of the discussion was devoted to the contrast and challenges between learner-directed and instructor-directed learning. The fact that much discussion focused on this issue highlights one of the challenges with MOOCs; a MOOC, due to its scale and format lends itself to be learner-directed. It’s not surprising then that MOOCs attract learners that already know how to learn, are motivated and educated. Several Jam participants discussed methods to get learners involved in learning, how to encourage students to engage and participate [typically in the context of closed online classes].

“I’ve done something similar to engage students in action research with me. I was teaching Web Development and was not happy with the development framework we were using. So as a class we researched the pros and cons of various frameworks and decided as a class (with my approval) which one to use. This worked well – they had “buy in” as we used to say.  Beyond that, I set basic specifications as to what they were to include in their work product, but allowed them to choose the subject matter (content). I also had to give approval before they began coding.”

I see the above challenge highlighting two opportunities: 1) to provide support to students to learn how to be self-directed, and 2) to provide skill development for educators and course designers in how to be flexible and adapt instructional strategies by assessing learners, the learning context and creating appropriate learning experiences, implementing pedagogical methods that match the learning needs.

One Jam participant shared an initiative that his institution recently started for its students; a program designed to address much of what was discussed here.

“California State University, Monterey Bay, is creating an online training module for training in baseline skills in web technologies for collaboration and other soft skills, such as team working relationships. Selecting appropriate pedagogy again depends upon an analysis of the learners — goes back to careful and thrustful planning”

2)  Considerable discussion focused on how to get students to interact, collaborate and engage with peers in online classes, and what the instructors role is in facilitating group formation, participation and learner engagement. Though this theme is similar to the theme mentioned above, interesting thoughts on group formation and collaboration emerged—should it be encouraged, facilitated or left for students to form spontaneously? And if so, how? This relates to the motivation of the learner, which is quite different when students are in for-credit classes versus ‘free’ and open classes  [MOOCs] that are driven by interest and desire to learn—essentially self-directed.

But a key trade-off when you have non-static groups, as Michaelsen, Fink et al have looked at is that you lose the crucial accountability factor and or the time to form constructive group norms/roles etc. — this then leads to the ‘freeloaders’ issue that gives groupwork such a bad rep.  There is the challenge — in a MOOC context, can you establish stable, productive learning groups with accountability, positive norms, roles etc to really activate the engagement, peer learning and other benefits of group learning?”   

The comment above is interesting—is it really possible or desirable in a MOOC environment that the responsibility for group accountability and productivity rests with the instructor?

3)  The session wrapped up with discussion that focused on supporting learners, helping learners to learn in a MOOC format.  The question appears to be—how can this be accomplished, is it through course design, or while the course is live, accomplished via course facilitators?  Or do we need to teach students how to learn in a MOOC?

I think one of the goals for a MOOC is enabling learners to make connections, share, collaborate and learn from one another. Rather than thinking about self-directed or facilitator directed maybe we need to think about how we can create ways that encourage learners to support one another?”

I am very interested in how learners can and do support one another’s learning in MOOCs. Do you have some thoughts in mind about the answer to this question? What can we build into the design that supports and encourages peer-peer learning?”

Closing Thoughts
Discussions, similar to those within this Jam, create excellent opportunities to get the issues and challenges facing education, specifically online education, out in the open.  It also helps stakeholders identify what needs to be discussed and explored within their own institutions. There are commonalities across all institutions when it comes to online education, and ironically the very barriers affecting these issues, exist within institutions at all levels. Fortunately there is progress—many institutions are experimenting, collaborating and striving to adapt to cultural shifts, increase access, yet still provide high quality, relevant education. Are there similar discussions happening within your institution?

An Unique Approach to a xMOOC — Learner-Centric Course Design

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Applied Sustainability” Fanshawe College

Not all MOOCs are created equal. I know of one, Applied Sustainability, delivered by a community college in Ontario, Canada that defies what many have come to expect from a Massive Open Online Course offered through a university-sponsored platform such as Coursera, Open2Study or edX. What makes Applied Sustainability offered by Fanshawe College unique?  It’s the learner-centric course design that makes it different, where the focus is on students and their learning. This approach contrasts with an instructor-centric design—an approach which emphasizes content delivered by faculty with a learning strategy that follows accordingly. Though both formats are applicable in given learning situations, few student-centric course designs in xMOOCs exist, which is what motivated me to share a learner-centric design example with readers. It’s a worthy endeavor for educators to explore and consider different approaches to course design for MOOCs, to improve upon what already exists, and bring xMOOCs to the next level.

How Fanshawe’s MOOC is Unique:  Fanshawe’s MOOC takes the form of an educative journey that engages students in the learning process with active, and practical learning assignments that make learning meaningful, relevant and specific to each student.

The interview approach supported the practical focus of the MOOC – as the interviewer was learning along with the student, as opposed to having an expert deliver a presentation.”  MOOCs at Fanshawe

This approach contrasts significantly with the course design model that the majority of MOOCs delivered on university platforms feature.  The pedagogical methods used in xMOOCs  are remarkably similar to the traditional classroom format—course content delivered via the subject matter expert. xMOOCs typically are associated with top-tier higher education institutions, and are led by faculty members, sometimes referred to as ‘super professors‘, or ‘talking heads’, labeled (not so kindly) by MOOC skeptics. The instructors deliver content that mirrors the classroom method quite closely, but without the accessibility and feedback capability that instructors offer. Fanshawe’s format is closer to the original version of MOOCs as its co-creators [Downes and Siemens] introduced in 2008, where the focus was on learning within a network where knowledge is co-created, not from one expert i.e. the super-professor, but from many sources including the learners within the course.

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Image from Presentation Slide featuring student project, posted during Webinar with Contact North, with Wendy Wilson describing the MOOC’s development strategy

“For the students, the most significant benefits they reported on the first offering of this MOOC were the changes they made in their thinking, behaviour, and habits concerning sustainability – for some it was truly life changing.The wide range of students from around the world appreciated the truly applied nature of the course.”

Course Description: Applied Sustainability: The course is designed to emphasize the practical and the personal elements of sustainability, with each of the six modules featuring on-site video interviews in locations and with experts involved with different aspects of sustainability. The themes of the modules focus on: water, waste and wastefulness; homes; streets and neighbourhoods; cities and regions; policies and certifications; and a final section on our community, your community. Applied Sustainability, Desire2Learn

Below is a brief outline the characteristics of Fanshawe’s MOOC that make it unique. For readers interested in learning more, the Pockets of Innovation series on Contact North’s website provides further background and description—Designing and Offering a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) at Fanshawe College.

Characteristics of the Learner-Centric Design

1) Diffusion of subject matter expertise: Rather than one subject-matter expert leading the course, there is an interviewer who travels to visit numerous subject matter experts in the field. The interviewer acts as the ‘host’ of the course, going on exploratory journey along with the students to learn about applied sustainability by conducting interviews with experts in the field.

“Three short videos (8 to 10 minutes) highlight three specific themes through visits to facilities directly related to waste and water such as the Greenway Wastewater Plant and the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority (pictured below). Staff interviews, facilities tours, and demonstrations of their ongoing work are presented.  The interview approach supported the practical focus of the MOOC – as the interviewer was learning along with the student, as opposed to having an expert deliver a presentation.  Topic-related links are provided to articles, report summaries, videos, TED talks, and other resources.”

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Presentation Slide posted during Webinar with Contact North, featuring Wendy Wilson describing the MOOC’s development strategy

2) Reliance on open resources, with a collection of curated resources. Students accessed content on the course topic (sustainability) primarily from the experts in the field, on the field trips with interviewer, and by exploring list of curated resources provided on the course site. The resources are from a variety of sources, with very few coming from scholarly or peer-reviewed sources.

3) Customization of learning experience. The Fanshawe MOOC provided options for students to customize their learning by offering four options for course participation. The four levels of achievement—Green, Silver, Gold and Platinum.

“… At the Silver level, students take part in weekly discussion on such topics as the use of rain barrels and antibiotics in agriculture.  The Gold level involves completion of a weekly task, such as undertaking a three-day waste audit at home, posting a photo of the accumulated waste, and reflecting on personal consumption and disposal habits. The Platinum level of achievement requires the completion of one project over the length of the course, assisted by a project manager from Fanshawe. The project-options include creating a Green Gaming Journal by using a blog, Tumblr, YouTube, or a podcast to comment on the green elements of a video game with ecological themes, such as SimCity. Another choice involves using QGIS, an open source geographic mapping system, to map a neighbourhood and analyze issues such as park vs residential space usage.”

Conclusion
We can credit MOOCs for generating discussions among educators and stakeholders about technological advancements and education, specifically how technology can be used to improve access, quality and cost. Yet we need to move discussions about online education forward, and one dimension which needs attention is how to create learning experiences for students that are relevant and meaningful. The current format of most xMOOCs are not much different from the traditional instructor-focused model, yet student-centered course design is a viable option very worthy of our time and energy.

Update: After this post went live, two other institutions reached out to share MOOC, learner-center models.  Open2Study, customizes courses for the MOOC format; you can read more from the comment posted. Another, Penn State’s Center for Online Innovation in Learning is developing a ‘flex-MOOC’ framework, which appears to have much potential.

Further Reading:

Is Learning Scientific or Organic?

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Lafayette College, Organic Garden

Is learning scientific or organic? A scientific perspective suggests that learning is explained by how the brain works, is rationalized by scientific study. Organic learning on the other hand occurs through the culture in which one lives—where learning is derived from, or characteristic of culture and society.

The presentation, subtitled Learning Theory & MOOCs delivered by Boise State University professor Norm Friesen at a conference in Shanghai, presents the alternate viewpoint that learning is cultural—that learning comes about through experience and immersion in culture rather than by a process explained by scientific study of behaviors. Not a new idea, though it’s worth examining for two reasons: first, in light of the transformative influence technology is having on our behavior as a society and culture as we speak—and second, that current teaching practices are based on learning theories derived from scientific studies done decades ago. Considering these two factors, is there a disconnect in the practices and methods implemented at education institutions today? The presentation sheds light on this question—it’s thought-provoking, so much so I want to share it with readers.

Presentation Overview 
The slideshare with audio is about an hour-long; three-quarters of it focuses on learning theory which is the focus of the highlights outlined below. MOOCs were discussed briefly at the end of the presentation.

Learning as a Science
The idea of learning as a science began in the 1900′s with the American psychologist Edward Thorndike. Interested in learning, he laid the foundation for learning as science through his research on testing and exam procedures in industrial settings, and behavior studies that used animals as test subjects. Subsequent theories, behaviorism, cognitivsm and constructivism followed, all built on the similar premise that learning is biological, or mechanistic; the brain acts as a center for processing, storing, recalling and directing responses to stimuli. Over the last hundred years education institutions built practices, methods and policies around the principles of the theories. Teaching is a reflection of this scientific perspective; methods of instruction, assessment and testing embrace the theoretical principles.

In recent years, it’s gone further where the human brain is compared to a computer. Common terms used to describe learning and the brain include storing, processing, retrieving, short-term memory, etc. To that end, knowledge is taught in schools with the goal of maximum efficiency, technology often used as a method to increase efficiency, ie. automating teaching functions grading tests, essays and even feedback from robots in group work.

Learning as a Science: Examples
The scientific approach to learning, where the brain is viewed as the ‘processor’ of learning, drives our education practices, yet still the evidence of exactly how learning occurs within the brain is inconclusive. Friesen, in his presentation describes the science of learning, as “learning = x”.   There is no shortage of examples that reinforce the point that education builds on this scientific approach:

The American Psychological association devotes an entire section on its website to teachers: “Research in Brain Functioning and Learning: The importance of matching instruction to your child’s maturity level”.

Another organization, Learning & the Brain®, seeks to bring “neuroscientists and educators together to explore new research on the brain and learning and its implications for education“.

Learning is Organic
Friesen challenges the scientific viewpoint with a slide introducing culture as the driver of learning:

What if we were to say...
“We depend for survival on the inheritance of acquired characteristics from the culture pool rather than from a gene pool.

“Culture [would] then become the chief instrument for guaranteeing survival, with techniques of transmission being of the highest order of importance.” 

Friesen goes further and suggests that:

  • Learning is not cause and effect
  • Learning is cultural not scientific (brain as the machine)
  • Learning is contingent upon culture
  • Learning changes over time

There are two theorists that Friesen uses to support the perspective of considering a cultural approach to educating students—one is Jerome Bruner, a psychologist readers are likely familiar with, who is considered a cognitivist (thus supporting the science dimension). However, Friesen emphasizes that Bruner states that learning changes in fundamental ways based upon culture, example of technology.

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Slide from Dr. Norm Friesen’s Slideshare, Learning Theory & MOOCs (2013)

Dr. Daniel Trohler is a scholar that studies the role of culture in education; Friesen shares Trohler’s perspective put forth in one of his book’s on the topic, The knowledge of science and the knowledge of the classroom Using the Heidelberg Catechism. In this example Trohler examines school textbooks over the ages and makes the point that pedagogy derived from science presents a constructed picture to students, that is a part of a whole, becomes an object of teaching for maximum efficiency.

Closing
Professor Friesen’s presentation is thought-provoking–my takeaway is how it challenges the traditional approach education. Professor Friesen doesn’t appear to suggest we abandon the learning science altogether, but he does present MOOCs as cultural technique of transmission. Though I suggest that the current-day xMOOCs  are an extension of classroom pedagogy, it is only the delivery format that is different. The same science is behind the methods used, ie. lecture, testing, etc.  It is the cMOOC format, developed by Downes and Siemens that reflects a different approach to learning, a cultural and organic approach accomplished  through a connected experience, where knowledge is constructed by the individual from existing knowledge within a network. Learning is pulled by the learner, and not pushed. This sounds like organic learning, a reflection of our connected and networked culture, doesn’t it?

Resources:

Photo Credit: ‘Lafayette Organic Garden’, Flickr: Lafayette College’s Photostream

MOOC Development Advice from Instructors that Have ‘Been-There-Done-That’

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I’ve collected several YouTube video clips of faculty and instructors sharing their experiences and giving advice for those developing a MOOC. Readers adapting a face-to-face course to a xMOOC format may find this post helpful. Who better to get advice from than faculty or instructors that have developed at least one MOOC and have-been-there-done-that?

The video clips below are not longer than four minutes a piece; I’ve summarized each and categorized the advice into four categories:  1) Video Production, 2) Pedagogy, 3) Course Design and 4) Instructional Strategy. This should help readers determine which clips are worth watching. The video clips feature instructors that developed one or more MOOCs for one of three platforms, iVersity, Coursera, and Open2Study.  One clip is in German, from a professor teaching a course on the iVersity platform. It focuses on video production techniques specific to a math focused class, and is very worthwhile to watch given the techniques demonstrated.

1. “Reflecting on the MOOC Experience
Categories: Pedagogy, Course Design, Video Production
Platform: Open2Study
Course: “Understanding Common Diseases
Summary: Course instructors surprised to discover some aspects of the MOOC format applicable to their face-to-face courses
Takeaways

  • Required a completely different skill set to teach a MOOC—most challenging: i) teaching in short blocks [condensing the course content], ii) filming lectures—talking to a camera not a live audience
  • Discovered a new teaching method for teaching in their traditional program, by incorporating MOOC format into face-to-face program
  • Instructors spent 5 days filming approximately 40 videos, 6 to 8 minutes each

 

2. “What Makes a Good MOOC with Dr. Charles Severance”
Categories: Pedagogy, Instructional Strategies
Platform: Coursera
Course: Internet History,Technology and Security
Summary: Provides excellent tips for adapting a face-to-face course to the MOOC format
Takeaways:

  • Implement a course design and instruction strategy for the MOOC that is different from one’s face-to-face course, though make it personal—inject humour and personality into course

3. “10 Steps to Developing on Online Course [MOOC]“
Categories: Course Design, Video Production
Platform: Coursera
Course: Think Again: How to Reason and Argue”, Coursera
Summary: Practical steps for creating a low-tech MOOC [with one camera, and small development team]
Takeaways:

  • Break course content down into smaller segments (chunks), plan the course outline (syllabus)
  • Write the scripts for the videos
  • Practice and more practice before recording the lectures

4.  “Making-of MOOC “Algorithmen und Datenstrukturen” von Prof. Dr. Oliver Vornberger”
Category: Video Production
Platform: iVersity
Course: Algorithmen und Datenstrukturen
Summary: Demonstrates various video production techniques for filming mathematical calculations and physical demonstrations
Takeaways: Variety of lecture formats holds interest for students. A video production team can support execution of diverse formats: green screen, whiteboard and demonstrations with white background

5.  “The Making of an Online Course: Ronen Plesser”
Category: Video Production
Platform: Coursera
Course: “Introduction to Astronomy”
Summary: Professor shares how experiments/demonstrations traditionally done in a face-to-face classroom, translate into the MOOC format
Takeaways:

  • A highly skilled video production team helped produce high quality videos
  • Certain demonstrations turned out better in the recording studio than in classroom, and vice versa

Further Reading:

Sebastian Thrun: MOOCs Not Effective for Undergraduate Education After All…

“I’d aspired to give people a profound education–to teach them something substantial,” Professor Sebastian Thrun tells me when I visit his company, Udacity, in its Mountain View, California, headquarters this past October. “But the data was at odds with this idea.” November 14, @FastCompany

The cat-is-out-of-the bag—Sebastian Thurn, founder of Udacity the MOOC provider that started MOOC mania two years ago states that MOOCs are not an effective modality for teaching undergraduate students after all.  Seriously. To most of us, this is not new news. I find Thrun’s admission most disturbing, not because the statement isn’t true—but it’s all that’s happened over the recent months that Thrun’s company has been responsible for including, the vast amount of funds spent on a pilot project at San Jose University, the students that failed their courses in this Udacity project, the sweeping statements about the power of the MOOC model to transform higher education, etc., etc.

The announcement, (or perhaps it’s more fitting to call it a confession) came last week in an article published in Fast Co, Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun, Godfather of Free Online Education, Changes Course. The story features an interview with Thrun  [most of which was conducted during an intense bike ride] and is getting much press in the blogosphere. Many deride the fact that the article’s author Max Chafkin, doesn’t appear to have challenged Thrun’s sudden change in his core beliefs about MOOCs, nor his shift in views of higher education, which now appears to be as a vehicle for career preparation.

“We’re not doing anything as rich and powerful as what a traditional liberal-arts education would offer you,” he [Sebastian Thrun] says. He adds that the university system will most likely evolve to shorter-form courses that focus more on professional development. “The medium will change,” he says.” November 2013,@FastCompany

Admitting mistakes, changing direction and re-focusing  efforts in times of rapid change is not a negative, but a necessity. One could argue that Thrun is doing just that — demonstrating adaptability and responsiveness.  However Thrun’s statements go beyond changing direction, they are disturbing, primarily because it appears it’s the pressure of being a CEO of a for-profit company that is behind his flip-flopping. Udacity is a for-profit venture, with venture capitalist behind it expecting a return on their investment, and sooner rather than later.

As recently as three months ago, Thrun said this…

“The thing I’m insanely proud of right now is I think we’ve found the magic formula,” he said in an interview last week. “Had you asked me three months ago, I wouldn’t have said that. I’m not at the point where everything is great. There are a lot of things to be improved, a lot of mistakes we’re making, but I see it coming together.”   August, 2013, Udacity CEO says Magic Formula Emerging

And this statement made four months ago in response to a question asked during an interview with MIT Technology Review IT Editor Rachel Metz at Udacity’s office in California:

Where do you hope Udacity is five years from now?

I think we’ll be just like a university, but we’ll be a university for the 21st century.   July, 2013, Sebastian Thrun on the Future of Learning

Closing
I stop here, as many other fellow bloggers and educators have shared their insightful thoughts and perspectives on this most startling announcement (links below). Though I’ll close with one of Thrun’s most revealing statements that demonstrates his shift from an academic perspective on the value of education, to a CEO-perspective of a for-profit company.

“At the end of the day, the true value proposition of education is employment,” Sebastian ThrunNovember 2013, @FastCompany

References:

Other:

Learning in the Wild West of ‘Open’

west_film_landingLearning in the open—in a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) for instance is somewhat like the Wild West of the 19th century—undisciplined, with few rules and no regulations. These same characteristics have been used to describe learning in a connectivist MOOC [cMOOC], a form of open learning where there is no set curriculum, process, or particular method. Learning in the open with the world-wide web as the classroom is unsettling for many and overwhelming for most. But the rewards are rich; personal and professional growth that is hard to achieve in a face-to-face setting.

Definition - Open Learning: learning based on independent study or initiative rather than formal classroom instruction [Oxford Dictionary]. In today’s learning context, open learning encompasses connectivism; a theory of learning that identifies learning as a process of creating connections and engaging within a network. Connectivism considers the world-wide web a platform for learning, with its nodes representing connections that are people, information, images or data. A connectivist MOOC is an example of an environment created with some structure to facilitate open learning.

Though learning in the open does not come naturally—one has to learn how-to-learn in an open environment. After participating in numerous MOOCs, it’s apparent that a very different and unique skill set is required; a different set of competencies than what is used in traditional learning environments. I recently shared strategies and tips for open learning in a webinar as part of a cMOOC, Open Online Experience, 2013. I’ve shared my slides from the webinar here, and outlined  essential skills for participants of the open—the Wild West of learning.

“I began this MOOC with the greatest of intentions…I found so much information however, that I am lost in the information overload.  I think that I am posting in week three, but I am not sure.” Comment from a high school teacher enrolled in a cMOOC that illustrates what most participants feel like in their first [or even] second MOOC.

Habits for Teachers of the Future
It’s hard to imagine what education will look like ten even twenty years from now, but the need to adapt beings now.  Though teachers and professors as subject matter experts hasn’t changed, nor will it anytime soon, the delivery formats for instruction and learning has. Contact North recently published ‘Seven Habits of the Professor of the Future’, an article that suggests the skills educators will need by 2020. The skills are varied, and face-to-face instruction is included.  But note the variety of the skills mentioned in addition to face-to-face teaching. Note also the emphasis on collaboration—collaboration on a massive scale, and creating new resources using a variety media. These habits connect to open learning. Learning in the open is the new way to learn, create, collaborate, assess, and develop, personally and professionally.

Skills for Open Learning
In practice however—what does open learning look like? Just as in traditional learning, this form of learning takes time and much effort, though tenacity, discipline and a keen desire to learn are traits of connectivism. Open learning is self-directed, where the learner sets his or her goals, creates a learning path, selects resources and tools accessible within a network. Within a cMOOC environment the learning experience is even richer, as a group of like-minded learners are learning collectively, connected together by a space or platform on the web, i.e. a wiki, blog or LMS platform. Making connections, both personal and conceptual are core elements of open learning. These latter skills are the most challenging, yet vital to open.

During the webinar Learning in the Open with OOE13 we discussed these skills and examined challenges with open learning. The consensus was that open learning is different from what most of us were used to; it can be chaotic, overwhelming and confusing. But how-to-be successful with open learning can be learned. Strategies discussed are in the slideshare below.

Closing thoughts
Learning in the open is non-linear, unpredictable and without guard rails that education institutions or companies create to structure learning in traditional settings. Learning in the open is the Wild West, a new frontier of learning, a new opportunity to grow and connect.  Though I’ve shared here how to embrace open learning and experience the benefits, the Coles notes version are as follows: 1) reflect and blog consistently about what you are learning, and 2) share and engage with others via a social media platform of choice—add value by providing quality resources, links and ‘nodes’ of knowledge.

Further Reading and Resources:

Image credit: PBS, The American Experience, artist Sloan

MOOCs, Milkshakes and Clay Shirky’s book ‘Cognitive Surplus’

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The ‘Milkshake Mistake’ described in Clay Shirky’s Book

I’m a big fan of professor and writer Clay Shirky. The insights he shares about digital culture via his writings are sharp and thoughtful. I read Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizers last year and found it relevant and instructive despite its publication date of 2008. On its heels is Cognitive Surplus: How Technology Makes Consumers Collaboraters (2010), which is accurate not only in the predictions made of how society behaves today with our abundance of time, connectivity and tech tools, but of most value was how it changed my views about MOOCs’ role in education.

I realize that the education community [myself included] may have been thinking about the purpose of xMOOCs all wrong. We’ve been caught up in the details of the MOOC itself— the pass rates, the content, the delivery, the grading, etc., and in turn the applicability of MOOCs to higher education. Yet its the profile of the participants and their behaviours that we should have focused on, not the MOOC characteristics. It was Shirky’s story in Cognitive Surplus about ‘Milkshake Mistakes’ that prompted this revelation. I’ll elaborate further, but first a brief overview of the book.

Overview of Cognitive Surplus
Shirky examines how North American society spends much of their leisure time, which during the 1960′s was on television; millions of hours on passive media consumption. Yet with the expansion of the internet and the reduced barriers to access, there has been a dramatic shift to more active media consumption. Shirky describes in Cognitive Surplus how the collaborative energy (time) that individuals collectively contribute to causes; community and global, are changing how societies function. Wikipedia, patientslikeme.com, and pickuppals.com are examples Shirky shares that illustrate his point. Groups that come together to participate in online spaces created to provide knowledge, support, and/or community action via the internet. Shirky describes the internet as the ‘connective tissue’ that binds people together.

From Milkshakes to MOOCs
The instructive story about milkshakes comes early on in the book—chapter one. The vignette is a marketing story from an article published in MIT Sloan Management Review, Finding the Right Job for your Product (2007).  Shirky’s example is not about comparing education to a product, but illustrates how thinking differently about a user’s experience should be the focus, not the product or tool.

CognitiveSurplusCoverThe journals’ article uses the milkshake story to make a point about product development, how McDonald’s was seeking to improve sales and market share of its milkshakes. The story describes how several marketing experts in an effort to solve a product problem were focusing on the milkshakes, and to a lesser degree its customers. They were examining how to improve the milkshake’s appeal; the flavor, sweetness, consistency, even its packaging.  However, one marketer examined the situation differently. He analyzed how customers used the shake, when and why. The results were interesting, he determined that the milkshake customers where commuters, buying the shake for breakfast on their way to work. The shake fit their breakfast bill; easy to consume in the car, not too hot, a one-handed meal, it was somewhat tasty. This was McDonald’s ‘aha’ moment—finding a solution about the product that wasn’t about the product, but about what the customers were using the product for. The example illustrates how assumptions about traditional practices [what is eaten for breakfast], can get in the way of thinking about new solutions.

Shirky uses the McDonald’s example to help the reader think about media differently, “we talk about the effects of the web or text messages, it’s easy to make the milkshake mistake and  focus on the tools themselves” (p 12).  We need to focus on user behaviours, and the solution we are looking for and not the tool, or product itself [i.e. technological tools] to solve problems. Below is an excerpt from the article that highlights the point, and I’ve added words to demonstrate the applicability to education.

“The odds of getting it right will be much higher when we frame the market’s [education’s] structure to mirror the ways that customers [students] experience life [learning].”

Application to MOOCS
There are parallels to how many educators perceived and analyzed MOOCs initially. Many thought MOOCs would challenge and potentially replace traditional higher education. The focus was on the MOOCs details: the significant student drop out rates, the content delivery methods (the varying quality of recorded lectures), the course rigor (or lack thereof) the peer-review grading platforms etc. All these factors were made in comparison to traditional methods of higher education. The yard stick for the MOOC was the traditional, face-to-face college course. This was the problem. Granted, this made sense given the number of universities that rushed to apply the MOOC model to undergraduate education for purposes that were somewhat unclear, but appeared valid.

Yet have we not been preoccupied with the details of the product, the MOOC as per the Milkshake example?  Perhaps we should be looking at MOOCs from a different angle—who is taking the courses and why, the behaviours of the students, and then analyzing the results before making predictions that MOOCs will disrupt traditional higher education. When drilling down and examining MOOCs students and their behaviours we find this:

  • Many students sign up, but few become active, and even fewer complete the course.
  • Many of the active students, if not the majority of MOOC students have a college degree, and in some cases more than one.
  • Many are working professionals, are over the age of thirty.
  • Many students are outside of North America, countries including, UK, Australia, India and countries within the Russian Federation
  • Course completion rates are low – usually around 10%
  • MOOC students cite reasons for taking the course as personal, interest, to brush up on their skills or to learn something new.
  • A small minority of students participate on class discussion boards within classes (ranging from 4 to 10% of active students). Those that do participate, do so actively, are articulate and appear motivated. *

Granted much of this data was not available until many courses were underway – and we needed the early adopters to even be able to have data to analyze. However several programs continued to develop even after this data on MOOCs became available. San Jose State University for example, implemented a pilot program with Udacity offering three courses for undergraduate students, including a remedial math course. Now looking at the behaviour patterns of MOOC participants, does it seem logical that a remedial math course would be successful? No surprise the results from this program were dismal. Another Colorado State University-Global Campus offered students the chance to take a use a MOOC for credit, as long as they passed the proctoed exam (at a cost of $89). Apparently there were no takers.

Fortunately a few schools and even MOOC providers have been paying attention to MOOC participant behaviours. Coursera implemented a professional development program for teachers, offering a series of courses for education professionals. Likewise some companies, Microsoft for example, have recognized the opportunity and partnered with Udacity to create specific courses for working professionals in skill areas that are in need at the company. Georgia Tech may be on the right path by offering an Online Master’s Degree of Computer Science. The profile of the potential students is more in keeping with the MOOC profile of students.

Conclusion
Overall the MOOC phenomenon has been a catalyst for conversations about change within higher education institutions. Such discussion and analysis about education practices and methods is needed. However, to further the conversation and move discussions and actions in a positive direction, thoughtful analysis and consideration of the students; their behaviours and educational needs is required before applying the technological tool [or product] to fix the problem. Think of the Milkshake Mistake  —McDonald’s needed to create a new breakfast product, not a new version of the same milkshake.

* References: I’ve included the links here to papers, and blog posts that have been published by professors of institutions offering MOOCs that shared results of demographic data on participants collected from surveys completed by students on a voluntary basis.

Related:

Clay Shirky’s Ted Talk, How cognitive surplus will change world. TedX.com

The Future of MOOCs according to Sir John Daniel, Tony Bates, Anant Agarwal & Sanjay Sarma

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The Sixth Conference of MIT’s Learning International Networks Consortium (LINC) June 16th – 19th, 2013

Earlier this week I watched a selection of the proceedings from The Learning International Networks Consortium’s (LINC) two-day conference held at MIT that hosted 300 participants from over fifty countries. The four scholars featured in the panel discussion collectively shared a breadth of experiences in open and distance higher education. The panel of four included Anant Agarwal, President of edX, Sir John Daniel, former Chancellor of the UK Open University, Tony Bates, Research Associate of Contact North, and Sanjay Sarma, Director of MITx.

Each shared his convictions on the direction higher education, but there was an intense focus if not preoccupation with xMOOCs. And because the conference was hosted by MIT, the discussion focused on the edX platform. However the scope expanded considerably with the participation of Sir John Daniel and Tony Bates. Both of these scholars have a depth of experience in open higher education that reaches outside of the United States in developed and developing nations.

I watched the highlights of each speaker’s presentation [courtesy of Jim Shimaburkuro's blog post] and the first hour of the opening of the conference via the webcast, which provided a thought-provoking range of perspectives on the direction of higher education in the context of the MOOC movement. I’ll share the highlights in this post that I hope will give interested readers a snapshot into the panelists diverse perspectives on MOOCs—as a threat or opportunity, hype leading to disillusionment, or the misguided direction of resources to the MOOC movement by institutions.

Background: What is LINC?
Important to note, is that the sponsoring organization LINC has been around longer than xMOOCs—even cMOOCs. Founded in 2003, LINC is a non-profit group with International university partnerships.  The organization’s primary goal is to improve education opportunities globally with distance learning supported by technology.

“Their [participating institutions] goal in collaborating through LINC is to help build on-the-ground expertise and virtual distance learning communities in each of the respective countries seeking such assistance. Their focus is not on the narrow engineering aspects of technology but on pedagogical issues, educational content, financial planning, political constraints and organizational issues. Technology fits into this in a natural way – as defining what can and cannot be done in various regions”.

Stakeholders vs. Shareholders
The opening presentation of the conference led by Sanjay Sarma focused on the future of education with MOOCs as the focal point. He emphasized MIT’s role in educational research and commitment to advancement of education, the history of MIT’s successful Open Courseware initiative.

One of his statements did resonate with me—Sarma made it clear that MIT is using its MOOC platform to “bring stakeholders to the table [with edX] not shareholders.”  He emphasized the not-for-profit versus the for-profit motive, alluding to the “others”, obviously Coursera and Udacity [both for-profit companies] that operate on a different premise.  The non-profit aspect does have significant implications that run deep, encompassing values that include, the concept of traditional, non-profit education institutions versus for-profit providers, the purpose of education, and the motives.

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From the blog post “MIT LINC 2013: Consistent but Stupid”. The 3:42 video captures the exchanges among the panelists.

Though it was clear that not all the panelists see MOOCs as a panacea for higher education or for educating learners in developing nations; Sir John Daniel and Tony Bates both see MOOCs as a barrier to moving education forward. Yet Daniel did describe MOOCs as a catalyst for highlighting the potential of online education.

Key Take Aways
Below I’ve condensed further the key takeaways from three of the panelists. To view the video highlights of each panelist, visit this blog post from education technology & change [etc].

1)  Sanjay Sarma: The Magic that Happens on Campus”

  • Dr. Sarma drew a hard-line between MOOCs and campus experience. He stressed that ‘magic’ happens on campus, not just in the classroom, but in the labs, during water cooler conversations, the ‘back of envelope’ meetings, the infinite corridor and the robot lab.
  • He encouraged faculty to view MOOCs not as a threat to their jobs, but as an opportunity for advancing and enhancing education.
  • Even though Sarma is passionate about the effectiveness of MOOC pedagogy, he does highlight the value of the on-campus experience. Yet he believes MOOCs fit a niche, that brings education to students that would never be able to have an on-campus experience.

2) Sir John Daniel: “MOOCs: What Lies Beyond the Trough of Disillusionment?”

  • Sir John Daniel, on the other hand, sees MOOCs as creating “confusion” in higher education, and suggests that “what lies beyond is a trough of disillusionment”.
  • He believes MOOCs are a source for inflated expectations.
  • The year 2013 will be the peak of MOOCs, there will be a slide as  institutions begin wonder how deep their pockets can be. The ‘slope of enlightenment’ as per technology adoption cycle supports this premise.
  • However he believes what will follow after the decline of MOOC popularity is the ‘year of online learning’ as institutions gradually move their teaching to online—or to hybrid [blended learning].
  • He does not believe that MOOCs are the best route to advancing education, but hopes that we can reach the slope of productivity with online learning.

3) Tony Bates: “How to Make MOOCs Really Effective: Lessons from 20 Years of Research Into Online Learning”

  • Students want to feel that the teacher is ‘there’.
  • Teaching an online course is a team approach, not an individual one.
  • We need to re-think the cost of MOOCs. Rather than spend time on development i.e. video production, the focus should be on learner support. And, how can support be effectively outsourced? Quality is critical.
  • We need to re-think MOOCs as a strategy, and focus on increasing learner activity and engagement.
  • MOOCs are not a viable vehicle to educate all global communities given lack of Internet access, devices and cultural differences.

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