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:


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

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

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

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

Content by ‘devious’ means

I wanted to post something today on the content of EDC MOOC, partly in response to Jeremy’s earlier post on how it’s easy to let questions of process (and ‘correctness’) dominate our discussions about course design and partly in response to Dave Cormier’s mention of EDC in his interesting post on MOOC content curation.

Dave’s post draws attention to what was perhaps the biggest issue for us in making EDC MOOC – the need to only use open access materials, and ones that were all free of copyright restrictions. This was a hard call in a few ways. We really wanted to use clips from some of the movie ‘classics’ like The Matrix, 2001 and so on, but we were advised that this wasn’t on, even if they were freely available on YouTube, simply because their copyright status was likely to be compromised. As it happened, a lot of the freely available shorts were actually better for our purposes (and in many cases, just…better), so this wasn’t such a big issue.

Of more significance was the fact that we couldn’t draw on any of the literature published in ‘closed’ sources like journal articles and book chapters. This was a big deal for us because, while we are used to building online courses, we’ve only ever done so with the very rich resources of the University of Edinburgh’s digital library available to us. Sourcing quality academic work, at the right level, without access to closed journals was a real challenge. We’re happy with what we have, but the curation certainly wasn’t easy. For the publishers who are on EDC MOOC (and we know there are some) the message is that we need free stuff for our MOOCs : ) As Dave’s post makes clear there are licensing issues here, but the potential reputational gain for authors whose work is used on MOOCs is significant, and that carries benefits – sales among others.

Overall, the work of making the MOOC felt to us like curation but perhaps a little more opportunistic than that term implies. Something like bricolage –  working with what is at hand, and by ‘devious means compared to those of a craftsman’ (this from Claude Lévi-Strauss (1966) The Savage Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 16–17). I think we’re generally happy with that!

Sian Bayne

Some more interesting things for EDC MOOCers

We now have 42,570 participants, 12,000 of these have been active over the past week.

There are 839 threads in the discussion forums, 5467 posts, 3088 comments on posts and 82113 views of posts,

So something like this, not quite the 90–9–1 principle but not far off:


And thanks to our colleague Anne-Marie Scott, we now have an idea where all the bloggers are coming from. She’s mapped the locations of all the blogs being pulled into the EDC News feed (thanks Anne-Marie):


Sian Bayne

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

We have #EDCMOOC liftoff…

We’ll be using this team blog to document the ‘E-learning and Digital Cultures’ MOOC from the University of Edinburgh in partnership with Coursera.  We wanted to write about our involvement with the EDCMOOC over the next five weeks, recording developmental issues and reflecting on the experience of teaching and participating in this experimental course.  We’ll be feeding these posts back into the EDCMOOC as way of incorporating our perspectives as teachers, and we hope that it will also serve as a useful compendium for those outside of the course interested in our daily experiences as MOOC educators.  This first post outlines some of the dilemmas and challenges we faced in developing the EDCMOOC, and our reflections on the course launch and first day.

For a team used to working with in-house technologies on the MSc in Digital Education, developing a course in an externally provided platform was in many cases a new experience.  Furthermore, being as concerned with pedagogical methods as are with content, pushing the boundaries of the Coursera platform was always going to be in our interests.  We wanted to use the Coursera platform creatively, however this often meant requesting features that were not present, or were in development.  Nevertheless, experimenting with the early stages of such a high-profile platform have been rewarding, and we hope to see the technology develop as Coursera and their partners continue to explore new ways of teaching at scale.

While we wanted course activity to be distributed on the social web (with the use of blogs and Twitter for example), we were also interested in aggregating content produced by students so that it might be easily accessible from a single location.  The connectivist-informed MOOCs had employed this technique well, and we wanted to explore a similar approach from within the Coursera platform.  Using a combination of Yahoo Pipes and WordPress, we managed to develop an aggregated newsletter which displays participant blog posts each day, as long as they are tagged with the course hashtag: #edcmooc.  However, it remains an experimental system, and we are unsure about its stability as the course progresses, or its value as a way to engage with course content given the potential number of posts that could be pulled together.  We’ll be watching the EDCMOOC News closely in the coming weeks.

The course site was opened on the evening of Sunday 27th, and we were excited to see hundreds, then thousands, of participants enter the site within half an hour of the announcement email.  The Twitter stream erupted, and it was great to see such enthusiasm for the launch.  We were keen to gauge the reaction of participants, and Twitter proved to be a helpful way to get immediate feedback about the experiences of entering the course for the first time.  Most tweets were very positive, while a few flagged up issues and queries, some of which we were able to catch.  The forums within the Coursera site proved to be a better way of engaging with initial questions.

Early forum posts highlighted some lack of understanding with regards to the assessment and grading of the course, technical matters relating to the Coursera platform, and some initial engagement with the resources and themes.  While working to provide early clarification or responses to these posts, we also found the spread of different concerns interesting.  Early queries may provide some measure of what our participants find most important about the course.  Some immediately began discussing the resources, perhaps indicative of a primary interest in the content we had chosen, while others appeared to head straight for the guidance about assessment, clearly interested in understanding what the outcomes of participation might be.  Courses with such high enrolment numbers will inevitably have diverse participants, seeking many different things from a MOOC.  We’re really interested in whether courses of such scale can be everything to everybody: can they provide rich opportunities to self-direct and form personal learning networks, as well as guide learners through predefined paths, and do such all-encompassing attempts dilute the potency of a less-inclusive approach?

As the first day of #edcmooc Tweets streamed by, we saw a wealth of conversation, mostly positive feedback or comments focussed on the course content, interspersed with a few pleas for help, admissions of confusion and the odd unenthusiastic remark.  Something feels right about that kind of variety.  While MOOCs are sometimes thought of as being clouded by the optimism of their committed populations, we welcome productive critique and resistance, and hope it becomes an integral part of our continuing MOOC experimentation.

Jeremy Knox