20 questions (and answers) about MOOCs

I was asked by the excellent Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach to speak to her PLP class about MOOCs, and, while we had what i thought was an excellent forty minute chat, there were tons of comments that i never had the chance to address. As i look over the questions they asked, I see that in answering their questions i have a chance to lay out many of the thoughts that I have had about MOOCs while they have been all the rage here on the internet in the last few weeks.

I opened the discussion with a quick personal intro to my contribution to the MOOC discussion and then we moved to Q & A. Feel free to skim along and pick up the part of the discussion that interests you.


Edtechtalk and community – 2005
In 2005 Jeff Lebow and I started edtechtalk. We started a live webcast about educational technology and about the possibilities of the new crazy things that were coming out. What to do about youtube? or Moodle? or or…

What i discovered was that, simply by engaging in random discussions with new people we happened upon – I was learning. I was starting to come to grips with new ideas. I seemed to have answers to questions when i was in meetings.

Rhizomes 2006
This lead me to new ideas about what it meant to learn and what it meant to know. Rhizomatic learning, in the sense that I mean it, was something i started talking about. I will not bore you with that here, but it very much came to me as a way of understanding what kind of learning was happening in the edtechtalk community. What i would now, six years later, call teaching with and for uncertainty.

CCK08 2008
In the summer of 2008 I invited George Siemens and Stephen Downes to come to edtechtalk and tell us about the new course they were teaching. They had 25 people registered (paid), at the university of Manitoba, but they had opened the class for online registration to whomever wanted to come along. Hundreds (and then a couple thousand) people took them up on it. We started talking about what it meant to have lots and lots of people learning together… somewhere in there, i called them a massive open online course… for which i have been often chastised 🙂

PLENK2010 – 2010
In the summer of 2010 we (sandy McAuley, Bonnie Stewart, George and I) did some research on MOOCs for SSHRC. And, that fall, a bunch of us taught a course on PLEs called PLENK2010(we’re good at catchy names). It was during this research in the summer, and the course that fall, that i really started to understand how I felt that people should use MOOCs. How they should shape them to their own needs. We explained it as Orient, Declare, Network, Cluster and Focus. I did this for PLENK2010 and figured out how I feel about PLEs. [youtube_sc url=r8avYQ5ZqM0 width=500]

xMOOCs – 2011/2012
At the end of 2011… I made a prediction about how MIT would soon be teaching 10 million students first year physics. A couple of days later, MIT announced MITx. Since then over a dozen the worlds top schools have banded together in different ways to offer really, really big MOOCs. They are, however, a little different than what we were doing in the beginning. They are not, as our original MOOCs were, about exploring a topic together, about creating space for connection, but rather about exposing the expert content available at those institutions. Still… lots of interesting developments here.

Q & A.
That, broadly speaking, was the intro that i gave to them (with more babbling). On to the Q & A. I have removed all the excellent commentary made by the members of the chat, and hope they link to their own thoughts in the classrooms. I only really got permission to reproduce their questions, and don’t like to overstep.

Pete: Does the MOOC really have to be “massive”? Is a “small MOOC” more like a PLC?
I think for the particular qualities that i find interesting in MOOCs to happen, it does need to be massive. I think there is great value in open courses, and great value in online courses – just not the same value as when those courses are massive. The huge numbers allow for a different level of uncertainty to present itself. Opinions from other cultures and contexts have a better chance of permeating the discussion. With a larger number of options you get a better chance of finding like minded (or new minded) people to engage with.

I like to think of my meeting Viplav Baxi as a good example of this. Viplav was one of the real gems of the CCK08 course. He wrote interesting posts and drew v. cool diagrams that brought his Indian perspective to the for. We have gone on to do other projects with Viplav… and I’ve had the opportunity of meeting him in Delhi earlier this year. This is simply not happening without the MOOC.

MICHAEL VALENTINE: Do you think you can really get a Harvard/Yale/Oxford quality education by being a part of 100 000 people online following a course?
I definitely think the quality of the education you are going to get is going to be different. You aren’t going to get the personal connection, the mentorship and the advantages of knowing recognized experts in your field as individuals. That’s a huge loss. That being said, the MOOC is not really meant as a replacement for those things… It’s like asking yourself whether having 30 people in a classroom for an hour with one professor is the same as spending all day with them 1 on 1. There’s no comparison. They are different.

Amanda Rablin: Do you feel that they can get out of hand with lots of people? Does the pedagogy change…. or is the sharing enhanced?
There’s no doubt that it gets out of hand. In some ways, that can be exciting, because there are possibilities that you can’t foresee. The sharing can also be enhanced, but it very much depends on how people approach the course. We have seen some MOOCs with lots of sharing and others with less. Why? Not sure yet. With lots of people you have more people who are simply trying to push their own agenda, more people who complain and more people who have vastly differing expectations – these are the things that tend to contribute to excess noise. You also get more and different people sharing… which is really exciting. win some lose some.

Moderator (Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach): I wonder why so many academics get in such an uproar about both connectivism and MOOCs?
I think there are several reasons for this.

  1. There is this perception that people are suggesting that a MOOC should replace the traditional classroom. I don’t know who has ever said this… but the perception is out there.
  2. The MOOC pushes the agenda of online education, which many academics distrust… considering how bad many versions of online education are, i don’t really blame them.
  3. Online education is often used as a way to teach more students for less money. (often, not always) The MOOC could be the ultimate instance of this.
  4. There is a small subset of academics who hearken back to an imaginary past of wonderfully profound discussions in small classrooms of wonderfulness. They imagine this as the experience of every student and see the MOOC as threatening this. It’s nonsense of course, but that doesn’t stop them from posting it in the NYT.

Jane Krauss: Can every kind of learner take advantage of moocs? And if not what are the obstacles and remedies to same?
I think that there are many different obstacles to MOOCs depending on where a given participant is coming from. A participant who is not particularly interested in a topic is going to struggle in a MOOC. Same for someone who ‘just wants to be told what to do’. The MOOC favours independence and goal setting… these are literacies that our schools mostly try to discipline out of us.

Moderator (Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach): I wonder if the fact that people are calling things MOOCs that aren’t MOOCs at all will in anyway damage understanding or the learning.
I think the biggest ‘damage’ is cause by people treating them as if they were normal online courses and not an opportunity for connection and knowledge building. That message would likely make a whole group of dropouts far more likely to engage…

Laurie: Does messy and uncertain need more time than the usual gatherings?

I have found that messy and uncertain take longer to get started, and then become much more powerful later on. If participants get accustomed to messy and uncertain learning experiences they seem more likely to take on projects on their own initiative and more likely to push ideas further. I think this helps people grasp a given context quicker.

Moderator (Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach): I wonder where you see this going as a learning construct in the future?
I think we’ve got another opportunity to convince people that they can think and learn for themselves without the structures that tell them that they are ‘good enough’. Companies, particularly the for profit companies, mostly make their money from telling people that they are good enough – you’ve passed the test. I hope that we are able to sneak some of that message in while this particular wave is cresting. I hope that universities can move towards the part of their identity that is about helping people become more and less about accreditation.

Kim Bullock: If a group splinters off and becomes organized from a mooc why would they return to the large group space/
A participant in one of our early MOOCs once approached me to tell me how bad his experience had been. He explained that he had done five weeks of the course, had met someone he had never encountered before, and had gone off and written a paper with him. Because of this, he had not completed the course and considered it a failure.

I see it as a win. Participants set their own standards of success in a MOOC. Many aren’t accustomed to seeing learning this way.

Ron G: Will the business end of education take away the purpose of MOOC’s
We all need to make a living in some way or other. The ‘purpose’ of MOOCs if there is one, is to create a context where learning and knowledge creation can occur. I think that can coexist with alot of business models. It’s just up to the participants to create it.

Moderator (Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach): I wonder… What your passions are Dave –deeply–around this and more?
For me the MOOC is a venue where i get to explore uncertainty in learning. I care a great deal about the emancipatory power of uncertainty.

Pete: Could a MOOC work for high school students?
Maybe. Certainly things like Youth Voices have been successful over time. I think you’d need to provide more structure for a high school setting. In retrospect, this project could have been a MOOC. http://livingarchives.ca

Shawn Kimball: I wonder if this can work for the average learner. Most people have never done more than a basic webinar and not really liked not having F2F. What would be a good progression for beginners to be more ready for MOOC than having to be fully comfortable with “all” technology communication?
I don’t know about ‘most people’ but there are people who dislike different delivery models for different reasons. I certainly wouldn’t suggest that MOOCs are for everyone. I would say that i don’t think the ultimate deciding factor would be comfort with the technologies… I’ve seen many, many people overcome this challenge when they wanted to. It’s the ‘wanting to’ that’s the real challenge. We are accustomed to being passive learning… encouraging people to put that behind them is the big challenge for MOOCs.

Amanda Rablin: How can you add some structure/guidance to the messiness or do you just accept it as a beautiful living thing
We’ve tried more and less structure for our MOOCs. Check out the way the current http://edfuture.net is being built. Much more structured than I would probably do it… and a nice example of how that structure could be done. Also… the folks at http://thesummeroflearning.com have a nice MOOC structure we can learn from.

Moderator (Pat Smiley #2): I know enough about a MOOC to be dangerous. The earlier “version” of a MOOC seems more focused on truly building community knowledge. Dave, I liked the 5 steps you listed for success in one of your short videos: Orient, Declare, Network, Cluster, Focus. Does this still hold true?
That still holds true for me. You need to find out what’s going on, announce yourself, get to know people, find the ones you want to work with and then get YOUR work done.

Pete: Is/Will there be an accredited MOOC?
People have been accredited to take MOOCs… by various institutions. It works very well as an independent study credit for instance. I do very much believe that there will be a robo-graded MOOC in the next three years or so. 100,000 students. no teachers.

Pete: Is it *possible* to conduct a MOOC that includes rigour or will the participants just drift away when things get challenging?

The rigour is not the responsibility of the MOOC but of the learner. If the learner needs help to apply rigour to their MOOC experience, they might find it by finding a community that could provide it or working with a professional of somekind (professor, consultant, tutor). In my mind the MOOC is not responsible to the learner… the learner is responsible.

Amanda Rablin: How can we deschoolify learners so that they are more open to learning in a moocy kind of way?
I think this is a critical point. I don’t think that deschoolification is going to be easy or quick… but we need to be patient with it. Many, many of the things we learn we already learn in a moocy way. Cooking is a nice example. We have access to lots and lots of information about it, friends and family to learn from and with and we slowly work our way through it if we’re driven. And we find our our tastes and conclusions if we want them…

Jane Krauss: Moocs and grading – incompatible?
I think you could grade effort in a MOOC. I also think that robo-mooc-grading is on the near horizon.

Final thoughts
MOOCs are happening. They are both an opportunity for many around the world to get access to things they’ve never been able to access before and a threat to what some of us would call education. It is another place for us to discuss the most important question in our field…

why do we teach?

I try and teach to support people’s ability to deal with uncertainty. MOOCs work for that.

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