Cluster and Focus -> Surviving week 4 of a MOOC

Had a quite excellent weekend of meetings with George Siemens, Sandy McAuley and Bonnie Stewart regarding our research on MOOCs. We’ve rewritten a good deal of the stuff from the video I released a few weeks ago about how to be successful in a MOOC based on some of the feedback we’ve gotten, some discussions I’ve had with people in the different elluminate sessions and the results of our narrative enquiry. We have four broad steps for success in a MOOC… but as we’re already a few weeks in, I’m going to focus on steps 3 and step 4.

The distributed nature of a MOOC offers a variety of challenges to the participant. PLENK2010 central has a list of suggested readings for the week, two live events and a discussion area for people to connect in. ‘The Daily’ rounds up the posts and tweets from the day and keep people apprised of what is going on in the course. But this is only content. It’s a description of connections maybe, but it hardly satisfies the goals of the MOOC as we’ve talked about them?

We’ve noticed, MOOC after MOOC that weeks 3 and 4 are the most difficult for students. The ‘newness’ of it all has faded at this point, we’ve covered some of the more basic material, and for many participants, its enough time that they start to sit back and reflect on the experience and evaluate if this is something that they are going to be able to commit 6 more weeks to. Why finish the course? Why continue to participate? How do I get the most out of this process?

There are two main questions surface over and over again throughout this course. The first, and most enduring question is

What am I supposed to do now?

Followed closely by the second most common concern

How am I suppose to keep track of all the things that are going on in the course?

Step 3 – Cluster
One of the easiest ways of dealing with the scattershot nature of this course is to pay close attention to your clusters. By this point, if you’ve been participating and working along with others, you’ll likely have found some people that are doing what you are doing, who are interested in what you’re interested in, or with whom your ideas seem to connect easily. This is a natural clustering process that happens in a network… it’s a combination of making strong ties to a smaller number of people, looser ties with a larger number beyond that, and maybe not paying attention to other work that you find distracting or doesn’t fit in with where you see yourself going.

Step 4 – Focus
Any MOOC is necessarily going to need to be directed by the participant. There is not way to do reasonable consultations with 1400 people, and no way to create a set of activities that is going to satisfy the needs of those participants nearly as well as they can do that themselves. So… this week you need to find a point of focus. I think that those who do well in MOOCs are often those who find something in their professional activities, find a particular angle of interest in the learning materials… something that they can turn into their own final project. This might be something that you do with your cluster, and it might be something that you do on your own. Focus. Find it.

The answer…
The answer to the two questions, then, is that by clustering, you’ll be able to concentrate in deeper ways on the work of specific people. For many people this is going to offer a richer experience than trying to loosely follow a hundred people and their work. The answer to ‘what do i do now’ is simple… it’s up to you. The MOOC provides a jumpstart on a topic, some guidance, some access to people who’ve spent a bunch of time considering this stuff… and it provides access to a ready made network for you to borrow and make your own. The success of the process, from there, is up to you.

Of course, some of you just love being in the chaos of it all for ten weeks… and that’s good too 🙂

Author: dave

I run this site... among other things.

16 thoughts on “Cluster and Focus -> Surviving week 4 of a MOOC”

  1. I can’t wait to find out what steps 1 and 2 are. I hope they include “facilitators plan ahead and execute plans on time.”

    Because it’s 10:30 a.m. eastern time on October 4, and when I go to the PLENK home page ( and choose the schedule for the week of Oct. 3 (, what I get is a page with:
    A link to this post I’m commenting on right now
    A placeholder (not a real link) for Wednesday’s Elluminate session
    a placeholder for Friday’s Elluminate session

    I’ve checked The Daily (received via email) for Oct. 4, and it contains no suggested readings.

    “Why finish the course?” seems quite pertinent, and frankly I can’t yet come up with an answer for myself.

    I think it’s a copout to say there’s “no way to create a set of activities that is going to satisfy” the participants when there are essentially no activities, nor suggestions, nor offered links. Especially since I presume you guys thought, more than a month ago, that “PLE/PLN and learning theories” was something worth discussing this week.

    So what happened? Facilitator fatigue?

  2. Hi Dave F,

    I’m the one to blame on this. Usually, on Sunday, I post the readings and the overview of the course content for the week. This week, due to poor planning, not facilitator fatique :), on my part, I spent Sunday sitting in an airplane. I got in at 1 am Monday and decided to sleep rather than upload the readings.

    I had a few early meetings today, so I didn’t get to uploading the readings until about 11 am my time.


  3. George and Dave:

    I regret the tone in my comment, which I myself said (in the weekly discussion) was “peevish.”

    And I do understand that all sorts of things can interfere with putting up the resources.

    I encourage you (the facilitators as a group) to consider some kind of note or status on the wiki (where the home page says the resources will appear on Sunday) just to say “we’re running late.” Likewise with the Daily.

  4. This may be helpful.

    Given this course is “about” our Personal Learning Environments this could be a good time to study how we ourselves are assembling learning from the chaos? Personally, I find lack of structure unsettling to almost frightening. Perhaps we need to capture our balance.

    On the other hand, this is also a state of mind sought out and cultivated by good travel writers. Freshness of the unexpected. Fraught with peevishness we are host to the debilitating vapors of vexatious disgruntlement. Is there a learning theory here?

  5. No worries, we all expect facilitators to have a life on & offline 🙂 Chaos is thrilling, trouble lies with having to step back to linear production and (still) mainstream standards. If complexity applies some sort of collective self-organization should be in place by now (?).

    Uncourses may appear startling and shocking at first, but I think it’s great food for thought re own perceptions about education. I’d love to hear/read/see more people sharing such experiences instead of remaining quiet/quitting.

    1000 thanks for your time & expertise.

  6. To help, maybe we could have a mechanism whereby interested people could submit 1-2 links that they think will be useful going into the week?

    Someone (or program) will have still have to sort and identify unique entries, though.


  7. An open course is caught in the dilemma of cohort versus individual-based progress. The length of time I need to process and work through activities varies according to my learning approach and daily circumstances. An open course would ideally allow people to proceed at their own pace. The pressure in this MOOC comes from the relentless demands of social networking tools that force the pace driven by the speedy and early respondees at the expense of those who drop in during the middle of the week, or need more time to reflect and think. The latter are faced with the extra reading and having to make sense of a topic that has evolved through the chain of the eager and early. How important is it to conduct this MOOC to such a tight schedule…why put external pacing mechanisms (such as the weekly readings) on it at all? All the readings could be put in place from the outset. Why use that mechanism as a structure knowing that individuals read at different pace and some like to get ahead? That way George does not have to carry the load of being at a certain place in time to manage a virtual course. Why not set up a MOOC as a rolling intake program, with the structure in place, and people setting off on the journey when they find out about it and join. Presumably, the market appeal of the course and word of mouth will keep it populated. This would demand a different style of moderation but would shift the workload from weekly stimulus, summaries and readings to monitoring and occasional guidance. I am sure these considerations are at the heart of PLEs and would have been part of the deliberations on designing this…

  8. Hello Ann,
    I think in this style of MOOC the weekly readings mark a rhythm and add new topics which clarify, expand and connect each week to the previous and following one. Participants, therefore, start discussing each part after having read some enlightening theory and new ideas, which is highly motivating and poses quearies for the week.This is at least what I feel each week when reading the suggested materials.And this is what a course like this is all about.That is, progressing at a certain pace through connections and networks, following others, developing and exchanging ideas, growing and changing in unexpected ways.This is my third with Stephen and George and although I agree moderators must ´ work at a tight schedule´.

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