Symbiotic MOOCs #edcmooc

It is interesting to speculate about how MOOCs might evolve, and about what they could become, or transform into.  Thinking about “evolution” predisposes me towards biological metaphors.  Is the massive going to swallow up the small, for example?  In the biology of reproduction we can see two extremes in strategy; one which goes for high quantity of offspring, and depends on the survival of a few (like an oak tree), and one which goes for high levels of parental investment in a few offspring maximising the potential of survival for the few (like a penguin).  So it is likely that there will always be room for both the big and the bijou.

But I have been thinking abut another biological metaphor, stimulated by seeing that there appear to be a number of smaller, pre-existing groups of participants working together within the body of the MOOC as a whole.  In some cases these have been groups of colleagues who have covenanted together to participate in the MOOC, and then to communicate, and to discuss their experiences of the MOOC in this smaller, collegial context.  In other cases there appear to have been groups defined by membership of existing formal course cohorts, who are participating in the MOOC as an element of the work for those courses.  Might this be early evidence of one potential evolutionary trajectory that MOOCs could take, as weakly interacting assemblages of other learning entities?  The metaphor that I want to explore then, is endosymbiosis.   This idea can be traced to the early 1900s, but came to prominence in the work of Lynn Margulis in the 1960s.  In brief, the modern membrane-bounded cell is thought to have come about by the fusion of two ancient cell types – what we would now think of as bacteria and archaea.

The larger swallowed the smaller but, rather than the smaller poisoning the larger, or the larger digesting and assimilating the smaller, a reciprocally beneficial relationship came about, and persisted.  So now, we all have cells with little power generators called mitochondria (if we are animals) and with these mitochondria and also tiny solar collectors called chloroplasts (if we are plants).  What about a massive aggregation of learners brought together – at least in part – through collections of smaller learner groups?  The smaller groups will be the source of the motivation and energy, and the larger whole will provide structure and resource.

I’ll have to think this one through further.  But at the moment, I don’t know whether I am coming or going.  Thanks Andy.  That’s what I call a digital artefact!

Hamish Macleod
@hamacleod (Honest)

Feeling ignored in #edcmooc ?

I have been thinking about how I should understand the position of course participants who are clearly not “enjoying” what is going on in, and around, the course.  I put the “scare quotes” here to indicate that I am using this notion of enjoyment (or the lack of it) in a very broad and inclusive way.  There is, first of all, the distress that is associated with all experiences of learning.  Piaget talked about the disequilibrium that results when new understandings are being formed within existing knowledge structures.  Thus learning is always going to be a disruptive and disturbing process, and this should be welcomed and worked with.  I like Papert’s notion of “hard fun” to describe the challenge and exhilaration of that sort of discomfort.  One probably recognises that discomfort for what it is, and is therefore less troubled by it.

But there appear to be people who feel that they are not learning anything of value, are simply annoyed and frustrated by what is going on, and are on the cusp of withdrawal.  Not really much to be said here.  Sorry to have troubled you, of course.  I hate to think of anyone dreaming in #tags.  There will be people who will find this course meets their needs, and those for whom it is not a good fit.  Jeremy has said something on people participating in different sorts of ways in a recent post.

But there was something that I found which troubled me. Alfredo reported that he felt that he had been ignored. What is more, he felt that he was ignored because his views were not in keeping with the “point” being taken by the course team.

… the EDCMOOC team clearly had a point. Those dissenting with their point – as is my case – were not addressed, neither in the forums nor in the hangouts. As if we didn´t exist.

I am sad to think that someone felt this to be true.  Anything that I could say would seem defensive.  But I would want to say – to any who shared Alfredo feeling – that you were not ignored.  The statistics of the situation were against any individual attracting the attention of any one other individual.  And for that reason, the attention of any one other particular individual – certainly the members of the teaching team – should not be held to be an important part of the experience of the course.  Meeting together with some others – if you wish it – should be.  But the feeling of being ignored – consciously – is an attribution that you do not need to make.

Which would bring me to a forum post about how to evaluate this (or any) MOOC.  I hope that many will respond to this, as we would find it extremely helpful.  I think that the poster would too.

Hamish Macleod

Something for everyone? #edcmooc

There have been a couple of themes of particular interest to me in the forums over the past week.  A lot of conversation, first of all, has run with the “thought experiments” that can be derived from science fiction to explore the impact of technology on human life and society.  I always find these stimulating in their own right.  But there have also been many excellent recommendations of films, books and authors that I have not come across before.  And some threads have addressed the topic of games and gamification in support of learning, which is a particular interest of mine.  We have a course on game-based / game-informed learning in our Masters programme, and it is running at the moment, so there are many cross-linkages for me.

I have also been browsing around in the blogs linked from the EDC News collection.  One item of particular interest – science fiction linked, but not science fiction – was an interview with Isaac Asimov from 1988 on technology and learning; including why you should learn about baseball if you want to, and how that might bring you to questions about mathematics and physics.  As the blogger, David Hopkins, observed, for a conversation that happened nearly quarter of a century ago, it is remarkable just how right, and level-headed, Asimov was.  I will certainly be using this video in teaching in the future.  Or is that the present?

Prominent in the blogs has been discussion of the issue of the need for connectivity, and how it cannot be assumed – either technically, or constitutionally.  I particularly liked a blog from Jeff Merrel making a comparative analysis of different MOOC styles.  One important point for me was about the valuing of connection over content, and the place of blogging versus the discussion forum in an online course.  This reminded me of the oft repeated quote from Cory Doctorow about content and conversation.

I have been watching some valuable connections and interactions going on in various places around the course – both blogs and forums.  Half-way through now, and for some, no doubt, the discomfort increases, but some are finding their feet, and making their own way.  Jen raised some important points about the need to understand who is actually being served by the MOOC format; and this (our) MOOC format in particular.

People are doing different things with the MOOC content and conversation; some are weaving it into their lives, reflecting on the interactions between for-credit courses that they are working on and the topics and issues being flagged up by MOOC colleagues.  Some are framing their own questions that the stimulus reading and video materials seem to have raised for them, beyond anything that the designers might have had in mind.

In passing, I like that this is being referred to as “the Scottish MOOC”.  Perhaps some play on Macbeth.  Don’t worry – I’m not an actor.  It’s not unlucky for me.

Hamish Macleod

Who is “We” on #edcmooc ?

We, as tutors in this MOOC, are learning a tremendous amount; both in the matter of the substantive topics that that MOOC seeks to address, but also in the matter of what a MOOC is (or might be) and how its environment and processes can be configured in conception and design, and orchestrated in practice. One important area of learning for me has certainly been about the business of cultivating and managing the expectations of course participants. Not that one doesn’t know, as a teacher from other areas of one’s practice, how important this is, but rather that such planning is usually able to be predicated on one’s knowledge of the learner group. One makes assumptions, of course, but the domain knowledge in which those assumptions are grounded, is usually relatively sound. In the context of the massive, all bets are off.

I was particularly helped in this thinking by a strand of forum conversation started (my thanks) by Gary Kirk. The tone was generous, accepting that this was probably (it is) the first time that this course has been offered. One respondent (Elizabeth Hayden) on the thread indicated that the disconfirmation of expectations might not be the worst thing that can happen – one might be pleasantly surprised. There were other important issues raised, such as “time” (how much of it to devote) from David Alexander Young, and “evolution” (of a course, as a work in progress) from donnastitches. Perhaps another post.

One particular suggestion from Gary Kirk, although clearly helpfully offered, I would be reluctant to run with. The suggestion is that the descriptions of the course, and the briefings about its conduct, should be edited to remove references to “we” and to substitute them with references to “you”. The expectation that should be cultivated then, would be that the tutors would not be present; would not be very visibly joining in. That manipulation would provide a more helpful set of expectations of what could reasonably be found to be the case on a course with some 40 thousand participants.

There has been a great deal written about “presence” online in general, and the notion of “teacher presence” in an online course in particular. That is not where I want to go with this brief post. Rather, it is a simple appeal. We, as tutors, would like to remain “We” as members of the total participant group. Even though we (the tutors) are a tiny minority (the “staff/student ratio” here is 0.0001 – I calculated it) we don’t want to be “Them”.  I, for one, have found much that I feel affinity with in the forum posts, blogs and Tweets, although I have not been able to go everywhere in the course, or even to leave a trace in those places that I have gone. I’m assuming that that is the experience of everybody. But I would still want it to be “Us” on this particular exploration. Of course the role of the tutor is different. And I also see other people who are taking up distinct and different roles within this corporate group. But we are all in this together.

I was encouraged by the Tweet from Sheila MacNeill (@sheilmcn) – that the word “believe” has been prominent in our discourse. I want to believe in the possibility of “us” in a MOOC.

Now off to research Fox Mulder, and The Lorax.

Hamish Macleod


Feel the fear, and do it anyway #edcmooc

Starting the MOOC I have found to be interestingly stressful; exciting, of course, but also rather scary. This has not been primarily about the technical aspects of the process, but rather I have felt all sorts of worries about what would be expected of me, and whether I could cope. The tension in the chest, as I sat online on Sunday evening, waiting for things to go live, was palpable, and rather surprising. I was, I realised, physically scared.

One initial model of what this (teaching on a MOOC) might be about was that you design your course, then “wind it up, and let it go”. This is the sort of “light touch” tutor engagement which many assume to be the essence of the MOOC. I have always felt that the teacher – online or off – should be seeking to move to the periphery of activity, and to let the agency of the students drive the learning engagement, but that this should never be felt by the students as a withdrawal of the support and encouragement that they feel that they need and deserve. This is the matter of the cultivation of teacher presence that Jen speaks of in an earlier post. How was this to be enacted in the context of the MOOC?

And there is the usual anxiety about all transition points. One state of affairs pertained (pre-launch), and we have now moved into another state of affairs. Importantly, this week has not marked the start for many participants, who have been engaging and communicating for weeks, through Twitter, and other media. This has been great to watch, not only to see the energy and creativity manifest, but also to see the growth of a vibrant community of mutually supportive people, providing one another with both personal affirmation, and sound practical guidance. In other areas of our online teaching (with more “traditional” cohort sizes) we believe that this orientation, and coming together as a group, is vitally important for the learning process, and for the motivation that allows participants to persist in their engagement online. A five-week course is a very short time for such cohesion to develop, so it has been reassuring to see this happening so organically, and in advance of the first engagement with the course materials.

But there was also a danger highlighted, in that something great was already happening, which the formal commencement of the course might risk disrupting.

That possibility makes one feel reluctant to mess with, and thereby damage, a Good Thing. Douglas Adams’ Arthur Dent, from The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, came to mind.

When Arthur had been a boy at school, long before the Earth had been demolished, he had used to play football. He had not been at all good at it, and his particular speciality had been scoring own goals in important matches. Whenever this happened he used to experience a peculiar tingling round the back of his neck that would slowly creep up across his cheeks and heat his brow. The image of mud and grass and lots of little jeering boys flinging it at him suddenly came vividly to his mind at this moment.

Then I see a Tweet to #edcmooc from one of our lovely alumni from our MSc programme in E-Learning, and things drop back into proportion. But then, as any reader of Douglas Adams knows, if one is going to exist in a MOOC of this size, then the one thing one cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.

So one realises that on a scale like this, the tutor is really only one other learner. One’s philosophy of standing back and letting one’s students get on with it might just work here. Of course, one has to give guidance – about where to find this or that piece of information, or the assignment specifications, or the announcements archive – but then other course members are doing a good job of that too. You are not special. Nothing to see here. Move along. Enjoy yourself. So thanks to @FrancoisGuite for the quotation from Sugata Mitra suggesting that “the absence of the teacher in the age of the Internet can become a pedagogical tool.”

The palpitations are happening less often now. Thanks for asking.

Hamish Macleod