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

A Tale of Two MOOCs @ Coursera: Divided by Pedagogy

The Web as a classroom is transforming how people learn, is driving the need for new pedagogy; two recently launched courses at Coursera highlight what happens when pedagogical methods fail to adapt.

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Divided pedagogy

I wrote recently about the Fundamentals of Online: Education [FOE] the Coursera course that was suspended after its first week and is now in MOOC hibernation mode. Over thirty thousands students signed up for the course hoping to learn how to develop an online course. It was a technical malfunction when students were directed to sign-up for groups through a Google Doc that shuttered the course, along with hundreds of student complaints about lack of clear instructions, and poor lecture quality. The course was suspended on February 2, and there has been no word yet as to when it will resume :(.

On the other hand there is the e-Learning and Digital Cultures course also offered on Coursera’s platform that began on the same day as FOE, yet the Digital Cultures course appears to be a smashing success if we use the engagement levels of students on social media platforms as a gauge. I enrolled in both courses, and the experience in Digital Cultures has been outstanding; the course content is challenging, thought-provoking and the instructors involvement appropriately on–the-side. Several colleagues within my network also taking the course appear to feel the same way.

The Tale of the Two
What made e-Learning and Digital Cultures successful and FOE not? There were variables common to each—the platform, the start date and length of course. The topics where somewhat similar, enough so that there was an overlap of enrolled students. However, at the root of the differences were the instructors’ divergent perspectives on how people learn. FOE ascribed to the learning model that most of higher education institutions follow—instructors direct the learning, learning is linear and constructed through prescribed course content featuring the instructor. In contrast, Digital Cultures put the learner in control, with choices of how to participate, and access to open resources on the Web for content. The evaluation method for the final assessment also provided learners with options; a peer-assessed, multimedia project created on a Web application of choice, based on a theme of interest covered within the course.

How People Learn: Four Viewpoints
In this post I’ll examine four orientations to learning approaches, the processes and  pedagogical principles that emerge from each viewpoint. To support the overall theme of this post is a chart that compares the two courses on four factors reflective of the learning orientations: pedagogy, content, and assessment and course interactions. The table gives readers a snapshot view of how the courses created divergent learning experiences, with the aim of highlighting how the Web as a platform for open, online and even massive learning creates a different context for learning—one that requires different pedagogical methods.

Orientations of Learning: Four perspective on how people learn with a selection of learning theorists aligned with one of the four based upon the principles of the given theory.

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Four orientations to learning; each embodies a belief of how people learn including the processes that bring about learning.  Sources: Smith, M.K.(2003), Siemens, (2005) and Roblyer & Doering (2010).

Our current higher education system is grounded in behaviorist and cognitive theories. The behavioral approach suggests that in absence of knowing the internal processes of the learner, the focus is on the external—the behavior of the learner. The behaviorist learning model follows the pattern,  A → B  → C, where the environment presents the antecedent (A), that prompts a behavior (B), that is followed by a consequence (C). Characteristics of this approach include passivity of the learner, rote learning and methods of reinforcement.

The cognitive orientation goes beyond the external environment, and focuses on the internal where learning is a process managed within the learner’s long and short-term memory. The instructor controls and directs learning through planned instruction, selection of content, and teaches the learner through the building of knowledge [or skills] using a hierarchical approach going from the simple to complex (Roblyer & Doering, 2010).

Constructivism and the idea of social learning, or social constructivism is an approach that gained credibility in late 1990’s at which time numerous research studies suggested students learn more effectively when engaged with their world, build on what they already know, and construct knowledge as active participants. In support of the emerging research on active learning, the National Research Council published a volume by Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (2000) How People Learn that synthesized the evidence. Bransford and colleagues emphasize three conditions for effective learning: engaging prior understandings, integrating factual knowledge with conceptual frameworks, and taking active control over the learning process (Cummins, 2006).  

Most Recent Learning Orientation for a Digital World: Connectivism
The three orientations mentioned, have serious shortfalls in context of our current social and digital culture. The focus has shifted to the individual, where the learner is in control. Furthermore, with access to information, social networks and tools that allow learners to consume, share and construct knowledge, the paradigm for learning has changed. In response to these changes, Siemens advanced the theory of Connectivism, which integrates principles from theories of chaos, network, complexity and self-organization all of which drive the need for a new pedagogy (Siemens, 2005).

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Pedagogies Exposed
It’s the learning orientations, the belief system the instructors ascribe to that determines the pedagogical methods selected for instruction. Numerous higher education institutions and its instructors have incorporated active learning methods in keeping with the social constructivist orientation, yet methods that align with the cognitive and behaviorist model such as the lecture and traditional assessment methods [i.e. multiple choice assessments] are still going strong. In the traditional classroom, these latter methods can still be effective, yet in the context of open and online learning, these pedagogies don’t work, evidenced by the FOE course suspension, and the more recent situation where a professor dropped out of his own Coursera course mid-way through due to disagreements over how to best to teach the course. How people learn in the open, has changed, and institutions would benefit by adapting accordingly when offering courses in an open, online and massive format (xMOOCs).

Now that technology has allowed institutions to broadcast their courses to the world through xMOOCs, the world thus has a window into the methods and learning orientations of instructors of various institutions (granted, some views may not reflect the values of the institution represented, but the instructors’). We are able to see through this open platform the deficiencies and shortfalls of the pedagogical methods.

Two Pedagogical Methods Examined
The pedagogical methods, the content choices, the interaction methods of instructors, and the assessment methods of each course are summarized in the chart below.

Comparison of Pedagogical Methods of Two Courses on Coursera

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Comparisons of pedagogical methods of two xMOOCs based on my experience as student with both courses [2013]. The methods for the Digital Cultures course created conditions for vibrant learning communities with high levels of student engagement.

Conclusion
The two MOOCs at Coursera discussed here are representative of the clashes between the views on how people learn. And people do want to learn, are motivated; are eager to take charge of their learning, make connections, expand their network and construct knowledge. The Web as a classroom creates opportunities for learning and teaching like never before. As the learner’s needs change, so does the role of the instructor, and if he or she implements appropriate pedagogical methods for the learning context, both will have opportunities to expand knowledge consistent with their own learning goals and needs.

References