Round Two: New Flavours for #EDCMOOC

You never forget your first MOOC, and that’s true for teachers as much as for learners.  But what of the second time around – perhaps the novelty wears off and it can just be left to run itself?  That’s certainly not been the case for the team for E-learning and Digital Cultures (EDCMOOC); we have been finding ourselves in a new phase of learning about teaching at scale.

EDCMOOC ran as one of the University of Edinburgh MOOCs on the Coursera platform first in January/February 2013 and for the second time in November to early December.  It will run at least one more time under the current arrangements in place.  The second run has provided an opportunity to experiment with teaching presence, and to further our critical reflections on how MOOCs might inform our research and pedagogy within and about digital environments.   

With six new short videos and videoconference via Google hangout every week (as opposed to just twice, as the first time), the teaching commentary on what’s happening within the MOOC has shifted from regular blogging to a televisual mode.  This is our first blog post for EDCMOOC2, written at its midpoint when we are starting to build up a picture of some messages from our second run.

The EDCMOOC team made an introductory video commenting on our themes                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

Teaching Presence – how important is it for teachers to be seen?

Teaching presence has always mattered to us in our online MSc in Digital Education programme. There, with course cohorts that never go above 40, we have developed our presence through orchestrating engaging experiences, engaging in online dialogues, and providing feedback that ‘can be digested, worked with, created from’  (Ross, Bayne et al, 2011).  While our students can see our photos and avatars, we don’t routinely provide videos of ourselves giving online ‘instruction’.  Students on our MSc speak of a connection and closeness from our critical engagements online, both asynchronously and synchronously. They often claim to experience far more interaction with teachers and fellow students than they have in any other educational programme.

We were therefore somewhat taken aback at the overwhelming reaction to our informal Google Hangout discussions during the first run of EDCMOOC.  Again, the ‘connection’ word was used frequently as participants seemed relieved to see their teachers and to be able to make comments at the same time.  It was one of the strongest messages that we received, reinforced by an early question in the discussion forum:  ‘Where are the professors?’  And so we decided for the second run not only to have a Hangout each week but also to provide videos that introduce ourselves and our themes to help the participants to orientate themselves.

EDCMOOC2 has a weekly hangout

This embodied approach to presence has felt slightly uncomfortable because it has taken us closer to the ‘over-celebratory fetishizing of the teacher associated with some MOOCs’ that we analysed critically before we embarked on our MOOC (Knox, Bayne et al 2012). And yet this form of presence has proved to be one of the most commented-on features of our activities.  

While it is reassuring that the need to ‘see’ us suggests that the potential overthrow of the teaching role is greatly exaggerated, we are more interested in establishing good dialogues with our participantsand encouraging them to fashion their own ways of engaging with the course material than we are in attaining guru status.  Our introductions and hangouts are still not ‘lessons’ as such, but give us an opportunity to provide guidelines to the kinds of connections we are seeking to make between education and digital cultures and, in the hangouts, to focus on the work being produced by MOOC participants.  And some of these connections challenge the very notion of ‘the human touch’ that our televisual selves might seem to offer.

So we have included more video in the second instance of EDCMOOC as a way of further exploring the potency of the visible teaching body, but also to question the supposed replication of face-to-face as the privileged pedagogical mode.  One of the key ideas that underpins our team approach is the idea that the digital makes education different, and we are interested in questioning the notion that video renders invisible the mediating technologies of the MOOC, and provides straightforward access to the teacher.                                                          

Tapping into the potential of the Massive

The other side of this new perspective on presence is the role of the people taking the MOOC.  Participants have responded very warmly to being mentioned in hangouts as we comment on their blogs, their forum postings and their digital artefacts.  But of course we cannot make this direct contact with each MOOC participant and it would be foolish to try.  In a course that works on a large scale, it is perhaps more useful to think of what we can do with thousands of participants, rather than what we can do for or to them.  While this has been in our minds from the outset, we’re now beginning to see how that is working.  Jeremy has commented elsewhere on the ‘collective energy and intensity of the multitude’ (Knox 2013), inspired by the display of EDCMOOC1 work organised by the participants themselves.  We’re seeing a crossover from that energy to the current MOOC, as it starts to take on its own collective identity.

Some of the EDCMOOC1 participants are now very effective Community Teaching Assistants on EDCMOOC2, and many others are also still present and contributing in multitudinous ways.  And all are respecting the newer participants’ emerging shared voice that makes this run of EDCMOOC another unique experience.  The new voice can be seen partly in response to the hangouts – participants have been gathering photos of themselves as they participate in the hangout, tweeting and commenting in YouTube and Google+.  A suggestion for crowdsourcing the captioning of the hangout brought a strong response, and provides opportunities for further development.  As one blogger, Heli Nurmi says:

The recording is available but writing a transcript jointly is an interesting experiment. It follows the principles of empowerment, collaborative learning, social networking, peer assistance, media-technology-enhanced learning.

(Nurmi, 2013)

Heli wonders whether it can lead to deep pedagogical debate.  We think that it has huge potential to do so, reinforcing Jeremy’s suggestion (Knox 2013) that a focus on assessment of individual pieces of work may go against the ethos of the massiveness of the MOOC.  As we observe many connections and creative flows being established in EDCMOOC2, we look forward to the images and other digital artefacts that will be produced between now and the end of the course in December.  We do need to begin to think how we should acknowledge the contribution of the multitude to this creation as well as – or perhaps indeed instead of – pinpointing individual star performers.

Our own connections, flows, links and opportunities are expanding exponentially in this process too.  It’s good to share our thoughts in our own blog, to aggregate it into EDCMOOC News – and it’s great to be guesting in the Open Scotland blog at the same time.  Such opportunities are only possible through digital connections both locally and at scale.

References

Knox, J. (2013). eLearning and Digital Cultures: a multitudinous open online course. eLearn Magazine.  Retrieved 20 November 2013: http://elearnmag.acm.org/archive.cfm?aid=2525967

Knox, J., Bayne, S. et al (2012) MOOC pedagogy: the challenges of developing for Coursera.  Association for Learning Technology Online Newsletter.  Retrieved 20 November 2013:  http://newsletter.alt.ac.uk/2012/08/mooc-pedagogy-the-challenges-of-developing-for-coursera/

Nurmi, H. (2013) Pedagogical Principles of MOOCs.  Heli Connecting Ideas.  Retrieved 20 November 2013: http://helistudies.edublogs.org/2013/11/19/pedagogical-principles-of/

Ross, J., Bayne, S. et al (2011)  Manifesto for Teaching Online.  University of Edinburgh MSc in E-learning.  Retrieved 20 November 2013: http://onlineteachingmanifesto.wordpress.com/

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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

Joy and conformity – two sides of the ‘massive’ coin?

The title of this post is a conflation of two things I want to think about more. It also follows on, down a slightly winding path, from one of Jeremy’s posts yesterday, where he described his concern about people seeking ‘correct’ strategies for dealing with the large amount of content flowing into and through the MOOC.

First is a very lovely description of what – at its best moments – EDCMOOC can feel like. This was written by Kathy Fitch in the discussion forum, where she described witnessing and finding a sense of

joyful engagement and absorption

in the MOOC experience. She explicitly frames the pleasure of the MOOC as something that is not – metaphorically or literally – a classroom. Its excitement comes from being ‘massive’, from being a happening.

Second is an observation from Desi Pedeva about sameness – the way that MOOC participants are responding, all across the web, to the same set of resources, at the same time, in (in her view) many of the same kinds of ways. She argues that this happens in smaller courses, too, for the same reasons – the way that teachers control “the choice of what to include and what to exclude in their courses” – but at scale it becomes oppressive:

I can’t escape the feeling that my unique internal ideas have been trivialized by being exposed and multiplied by thousands on the Internet.

She goes on to argue that smaller courses avoid the “homogenisation of knowledge” primarily because they are small: “The small classes create pockets of diverse knowledge and diverse learning communities”.

So, here we have the “massive” as both an engine of joyful engagement, and an engine of trivialisation and conformity. I don’t believe that these perspectives are mutually exclusive, but I do think we are urgently required by the emergence, and our adoption, of the MOOC to consider what the implications of the “massive” may be for both knowledge and learning.

When the EDCMOOC course team started talking about developing our course, we didn’t ask how to teach 40,000 people at once, but rather what 40,000 people could do together. That’s one of the reasons why we wanted much of the work of the course to happen in the open web. But it seems to me that the thrill of being part of something so big, so public, and so distributed – finding resonances, making unexpected connections – is not without its difficulties. I think Desi has indicated one way these difficulties might be understood. If MOOC teachers and designers value difference and diversity, how do we design for this, while also for massive happenings?

Jen (@jar)