A well placed sardine can…yes it can #edcmooc

As we end the final week of EDCMOOC – a week devoted to the final assignment and in which my teaching role was perhaps pushed further to the ‘side-lines’ – I find myself lured into considering the kind of things we might have achieved on this course.  The following comment, from CourseTalk, has given me much to think about in this respect:

sardine

While, as I have made clear in previous posts, I welcome criticism, the above observation has become particularly cherished.  Despite my genuine respect for Wilko’s concerns, the analogy is, for me, undoubtedly complimentary.  From the outset of planning this course, we have been very much interested in challenging the boundaries of what is possible with an ‘online’ course, and this description seems to encapsulate these attempts very satisfactorily indeed.  I use the word ‘challenging’ here intentionally, aware of its vagueness.  ‘Subversion’ might be another term appropriate to our strategy, although I wouldn’t necessarily use that here lest it be taken negatively.  Our relationship with Coursera is of course a partnership and collaboration, within which we are both working to confront assumptions about what is possible with digital education, and our intention is to productively experiment with the platform for the benefit of those learning with it.

Neverthless, Wilko’s above allegory is a fantastic way to begin considering what we may have achieved with the EDCMOOC.  Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ of course comes to mind, and perhaps other Dada works comprised of ‘readymade’ found objects stated to be art – this is presumably the trend which is being referred to.  I am of course not attempting to equate our five week course with such a movement, however it may provide a useful starting point to consider our course.  As described in Sian’s earlier post, we did indeed structure our course around objet trouve – open source resources on the web – and presented or curated these objects *as* our course.

In this sense, we did indeed smuggle a sardine can into the Coursera platform, and presented it as a course.  However, what Wilko fails to include in his compliment is the conversation that has been happening in art since Duchamp’s ‘readymades’ in the early twentieth century; that of the relationship between the object itself and our appraisal of it.  To attempt to crudely shoehorn such an idea into the discussion of our very own EDCMOOC, would be to say that there is a conversation to be had about the content of a course, and the discussions and responses that happen around them.  To privilege course content as being in possession of essential and hallowed qualities, anterior to the ways that the viewer approaches it, is to ignore all the ways that knowledge derives from processes that involve human interpretation.  Just as an everyday object with a non-art function can change depending on the context in which it might be placed (a gallery), or the interpretations which might arise in response to it, so any object can prove the most stimulating educational resource.  Just think what kind of issues could be brought to fore in a consideration of the humble sardine can: industrialisation, mass production, globalisation, fishing stocks and quotas, human relationships with animals, to name but a few over-generalised topics.

Before I take this artistic analogy too far, I must say that I don’t think the EDCMMOC has been particularly radical. There is of course a much more revolutionary history to the MOOC, in which our offering is merely a ‘hybrid’, trying ‘very hard to subvert its own conditions of production.’  However, given the relatively experimental and emerging format that is the MOOC, about which my ever insightful colleague Hamish has been known to paraphrase Zhou Enlai, declaring ‘it is too soon to say’,  I hope that we have indeed done something to subvert the idea that MOOCs are incontestable lectures, alongside which our interpretations, creativity and oppositions are secondary.

What has been most thrilling for me in this EDCMOOC are the thriving tweets, blog posts and group conversations that are orbiting the Coursera site.  Thousands of them.  That is the power, and value, of a well placed sardine can.

Jeremy Knox
@j_k_knox

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Staying the course…but doing #edcmooc differently

Entering week 4 has inevitably brought me to thinking about the end of the MOOC, and what we might think about doing differently next time.  Of course, I chose the word ‘differently’ as an intentional avoidance of ‘better’, not because I’m under the delusion that this MOOC has been perfect, but rather because the notion of ‘better’ may possibly be redundant.  ‘Better for whom?’, would be my immediate question.  The scale and diversity of participants leaves one with the sense that no one strategy can please all the people all of the time. For every post that claims there are too many videos, there is another asking why we didn’t include more videos.  The solution is not to slip into an ‘anything goes’ approach to course design, however.  Certain modes matter more than others, and our strategy has been to stick to our convictions of what we believe to embody good pedagogy.

Furthermore, my own persuasion would be that a sound learning experience is neither necessarily enjoyable or consciously a learning experience.  What I mean here is that learning is not limited to pleasurable activities, and nor is it something you can automatically identify.  Although we perhaps seek the pleasure of achievement, the process of learning may be demanding, and I would argue necessarily so, lest we merely engage in the affirmation of what we already believe to be true.  Neither should the moment of learning, I suggest, be thought to arrive instantly, nor at a point which we can control.  My grasp of difficult concepts often comes when I’m not expecting it to.  As a teacher, to maintain these convictions in the spotlight of a massive course may take a level of courage one is not used to, particularly as the statistics appear to reveal that ‘educators’ form a significant proportion of out participants.

There are certainly things that we can do differently, and it is of course from the generous comments, criticisms and feedback from our MOOC participants that I draw the following ideas.  While this kind of open education may be interpreted by some as obligation-free – implying that if you don’t really like the course there is no commitment to stay – I have been pleasantly surprised by those who have offered constructive criticism, whilst clearly not perceiving the course to ‘be for them’.  Rather than adopt the idea that the open access of the MOOC necessitates an open exit, I’d far rather encourage dialogue: tell us why it is not working for you.  I am aware that it is asking quite a lot of busy people, but the benefits are mutual if those people wish to continue their learning elsewhere.

Firstly, I have been noticing some comments about underestimated workload.  The recommended 3-5 hours per week is perhaps something to consider with regards to our thoughts on content.  While it may be that our curation of content within the Coursera site requires more time to engage with, I suspect the vast amount of writing produced by course participants is also contributing to the time people are dedicating to the MOOC.  Of course, participant blogs, images and posts are every bit as much of the content as the resources put together by the teachers, and seen in this way creates an overwhelming task of ‘course reading.’  Not only the sheer scale of this participant-created content, but also the navigation required to access these contributions, is something that perhaps needs to be factored into estimated hours.  However, I would be cautious about this implying that all content needs to be read in order to understand what is happening in this MOOC.  I see no problem at all in someone ‘tuning in’ for an hour a week, picking and choosing a few resources, and leaving the five week course with some kind of different outlook on ‘e-learning’.  That would seem to be the kind of open education we are talking about, rather than maintaining the idea that (all) education has to be about mastery.

Secondly, I’ve been thinking about the idea that we make the course objectives clearer: essentially ‘this is why the course will not be for you’.  While that might seem to be a strategy that prevents disappointment for those joining and realising the MOOC is not what they thought, I wonder where that leaves us with regards to diversity.  I want people who believe in instructional design to come and take our MOOC and be critical of the teaching methods, much more than I’d want them to not enrol in the first place.  I don’t say that flippantly or disrespectfully, as I would want to be able to enrol in, and gain valuable learning experiences from, courses that utilise differing teaching methods to my own.  I don’t ‘agree’ with much of the theory that underpins instructional design, for example, but that doesn’t mean I’m under the illusion that I have nothing to learning from the many valuable principles embodied in courses which have been designed in this way. Just as dividing people into sub-groups would seem to sweep the problem of scale under the carpet, specifying who the MOOC is for and who it is not for appears to homogenise to some extent.

The number of times I have read ‘I’ve been pleasantly surprised by this EDCMOOC’ tells me to keep working with diversity, and to stick to my convictions.

Jeremy Knox
@j_k_knox

Lessons about forum design from EDCMOOC

It seems clear that the Coursera forum tool was built to facilitate factual questions and answers, not conversations or connections. Our EDCMOOC participants are trying to push it much further, and the cracks are definitely showing. Here’s my shortlist of things that Coursera could do to make their forum tool more conducive to networking and conversation. We’ll be passing these on to the Coursera team. Many of these points are pulled from suggestions in the EDCMOOC ‘feedback to Coursera’ forum, and additional suggestions or comments are welcome. I’ll probably add to this post over the next few days, too.

Networking:

Implement a ‘follow’ button so people can keep track of others they want to read more from.

The profile page should show all of the posts from that person.

Need to be able to favourite and link back to particular posts and store those favourites.

Search:

Results need to indicate which subforum a thread is in.

Subforums should be searchable.

Need the ability to search within a particular thread.

Need to be able to search by member of the class including yourself and see all of someone’s posts.

Comments:

Should be collapsible for easier reading.

It should be possible to reply to a comment.

Subscribing:

As many threads are very long, subscribing to just a post and its comments would be useful.

Daily summary of forum post threads to which you subscribe.

When a new post notification arrives by email, the link should take you directly to that post (not just to the thread).

Browsing:

Sort across a forum or all forums to see posts in date order.

The ability to sort by top votes.

Groups:

an optional grouping mechanism, where randomised groups of any size (determined by the teachers?) can be either automatically created, or people can choose to be allocated to one.

a mechanism for people to create groups (geographical, topical and so on) and invite others to join.

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
@hamacleod