Archive for August, 2010

Reflections on open courses

Thursday, August 19th, 2010

UPDATE: The final research report is available: The MOOC Model for Digital Practice

As part of a SSHRC grant, we (Dave Cormier, Sandy McAuley, Bonnie Stewart, and I) are researching open courses such as Connectivism & Connective Knowledge, Edftures, and the upcoming Personal Learning Environments & Networks.

Before I dive into refections on my experiences with open courses, I want to focus on how we got here. I’ve been reasonably active in sharing ideas around openness in education for about ten years (as a blogger and through articles I’ve posted on elearnspace). In the process, I’ve been able to collaborate and learn with large network of peers/colleagues from around the world.

In early 2006, my work on openness – more specifically, networked learning – took on another dimension when I announced an open online conference on connectivism. I was with the Learning Technologies Centre at University of Manitoba at the time. My simple blog post ended up generating about 750 email registrants for the conference (we eventually cut off registrations). The event – Online Connectivism Conference – came together a bit haphazardly. We (LTC) set up an email list to collect subscriptions, convinced Elluminate to provide a license for the event, set up a Moodle site, set a conference tag (which we tracked in PageFlakes at the time), etc.

The format I used for OCC2007 served as the base for another online conference a few months later on the Future of Education. With this event, we extended our speaker list, experimented with different aggregation features (pageflakes again, but also using Google alerts to track comments on the event), Second Life (my first introduction into cross-media learning around events and into the value of letting others add to the course in spaces that they were passionate about), iTunes/podcast feed, Twitter, etc. The conference resulted in a special issue of Innovate on the Future of Education. In the same year, I ran an open conference on the corporate sector (LearnTrends) with Tony Karrer.

In these conferences and open events, as well as courses taught by David Wiley and Alec Couros, we (participants and hosts of these events) we were trying to give structure to open courses – technologically, socially, pedagogically. I address this topic in a bit more detail in this post on spiralling innovation.

In spring of 2008, I sent an email to Stephen Downes asking if he’d be interested in teaching a course with me on connectivism and connective knowledge. That year, we met up in Memphis at a Desire2Learn conference and hashed out the general format of the course and how we would communicate with learners. We decided to use the software that Stephen uses for OLDaily. Working with a programmer like Stephen quickly added other dimensions: he added gRSShopper to the Daily so course participants could add their blog posts to the Daily and later included Tweets that included course hashtag, etc.

The Daily was one of the most successful additions to CCK08. By the time we offered CCK08, Stephen and I had formed marginally compatible views of the role of technology and pedagogy in open courses. We both felt, humbly, of course, that we could do for teaching what MIT had done for content (with OCW). Dave Cormier joined us in the course as well, proving to be an effective irritant and moderator of discussions.

As registration for CCK08 increased (we capped for-credit learners at 25) to over 2300, the term MOOC (massive open online course) was coined. We built on the model and tools of previous open conferences to create a course defined by diversity of technologies, speakers, tools, and opinions (Antonio Fini has published an analysis of the technological dimensions of CCK08).

And that was the state (and brief personal history of) open courses by the time we rolled out CCK08.

Early lessons:

- There is value of blending traditional with emergent knowledge spaces (online conferences and traditional journals)
- Learners will create and innovate if they can express ideas and concepts in their own spaces and through their own expertise (i.e. hosting events in Second Life)
- Courses are platforms for innovation. Too rigid a structure puts the educator in full control. Using a course as a platform fosters creativity…and creativity generates a bit of chaos and can be unsettling to individuals who prefer a structure with which they are familiar.
- (cliche) Letting go of control is a bit stressful, but surprisingly rewarding in the new doors it opens and liberating in how it brings others in to assist in running a course and advancing the discussion.
- People want to participate…but they will only do so once they have “permission” and a forum in which to utilize existing communication/technological skills.

Question Strand 1

How do MOOCs reflect effective practices within the digital economy?

First a clarification on “digital economy”. I interpret economy to refer not only to monetary exchange, but to the growth and development of knowledge. All economic activity is at its core a knowledge activity. Economic systems seek to provide valuation of an entity (physical or otherwise) and then to provide a mechanism for ongoing value negotiation and exchange. Historically, eras have different entities that underly the valuation process: gold, wheat, coal, oil, and so on. In all instances, however, knowledge is the central entity even when it’s obscured by a focus on commodities or physical objects. Expertise and skill play a role in adding value to the underlying commodities: a jeweller takes gold and fashions it into a necklace. The economy is grown by value addition. An argument could be made (and has been made by Taichi Sakaiya in The Knowledge-Value Revolution) that all work is and has always been knowledge work.

A coffee mug, or tractor, is valuable not for the material used to create it, but rather for the knowledge and skill on the part of those who design and build it. And value of knowledge goes back through the entire chain of production – from extraction of metals from the ground to heating/melting/forming them into something that can be used later to make a mug or a tractor. Value addition at each stage is a function of some application of knowledge. In the past, systems have attempted to raise bars for participation to ensure knowledge or preserve the reputation (integrity) of those already privileged to be part of the system. Guilds in Europe are a perfect illustration. At their peak, guilds were wonderful systems for those on the inside, but very limiting to those on the outside. Information systems – news and media in particular – operate as a guild-like barrier to newcomers by leveraging high capital costs to newcomers.

The internet is a barrier-reducing system. In theory, everyone has a voice online (the reality of technology ownership, digital skills, and internet access add an unpleasant dimension). Costs of duplication are reduced. Technology (technique) is primarily a duplicationary process, as evidenced by the printing press, assembly line, and now the content duplication ability of digital technologies.

As a result, MOOCs embody, rather than reflect, practices within the digital economy. MOOCs reduce barriers to information access and to the dialogue that permits individuals (and society) to grow knowledge. Much of the technical innovation in the last several centuries has permitted humanity to extend itself physically (cars, planes, trains, telescopes). The internet, especially in recent developments of connective and collaborative applications, is a cognitive extension for humanity. Put another way, the internet offers a model where the reproduction of knowledge is not confined to the production of physical objects.

Creating a second tractor has the same input costs as creating the first one (it’s not the knowledge that is the barrier here. The restriction of duplication rests in the physical embodiment of knowledge). Creating a second copy of a video has a fraction of the costs of the first. Digital information is frictionless. MOOCs are a means whereby universities can bring the practices and activities that were formed to serve a physical classroom into the digital realm. Put another way: MOOCs offer educational institutions an onramp to the reality of learning in a digital economy, placing knowledge-based activities like curriculum and knowledge building on a value proposition that is not tied to physically embodied knowledge.

What are their implications for knowledge-making and what it means to know today?

If you accept my argument above – that work has always been knowledge work and that physical objects embody knowledge and that the internet is reducing the costs of knowledge replication, thereby serving as a cognitive extension for humanity – then MOOCs are an instantiation of what knowledge-making looks like in a digital world. Knowledge is a mashup. Many people contribute. Many different forums are used. Multiple media permit varied and nuanced expressions of knowledge. And, because the information base (which is required for knowledge formation) changes so rapidly, being properly connected to the right people and information is vitally important. The need for proper connectedness to the right people and information is readily evident in intelligence communities. Consider the Christmas day bomber. Or 9/11. The information was being collected. But not connected.

Knowledge-making activities are amplified because technology makes knowledge production explicit. In 2003 MIT announced OCW. OCW shares the artifacts of knowledge work (a course, a lecture, a syllabus). MOOCs share the process of knowledge work – facilitators model and display sensemaking and wayfinding in their discipline. They respond to critics, to challenges from participants in the course. Instead of sharing only their knowledge (as is done in a university course) they share their sensemaking habits and their thinking processes with participants. Epistemology is augmented with ontology.

What economic opportunities and challenges does the open model of participation bring into focus?

The open model of participation calls into question where value is created in the education system. Gutenberg created a means to duplicate content. The social web creates the opportunity for many-to-many interactions and to add a global social layer on content creation and knowledge growth. The SARS scare of 2003 exemplifies how scientists from around the world can work together and collaborate in order to solve a complex problem. Connectedness fosters knowledge growth.

Whatever can be easily duplicated cannot serve as the foundation for economic value. Integration and connectedness are economic value points.


Look at Silicon Valley. The knowledge growth of this region is fuelled by the integration of diverse elements: scientists/researchers, entrepreneurs, and funders. Separately, these elements provide only a fraction of the power they provide as an integrated system. Connectedness amplifies knowledge and knowledge’s potential.

In education, content can easily be produced (it’s important but has limited economic value). Lectures also have limited value (easy to record and to duplicate). Teaching – as done in most universities – can be duplicated. Learning, on the other hand, can’t be duplicated. Learning is personal, it has to occur one learner at a time. The support needed for learners to learn is a critical value point.

In theory, we will be building on the right foundation if we shift our financial investment in education from creating content, and turn it to the learning process (fostering, guiding, directing, interacting).

But didn’t you just say that content (information) changes so quickly that we need a way to stay on top of it? How can a lecture recorded last year be used again this year? Wouldn’t we have to continually deliver new lectures to reflect knowledge growth??

Yes, we would need to continually redo lectures. But we shouldn’t do those in isolation from other universities. How many introductory psychology courses does a field need? Educators should collaborate and share around the content needs of their discipline. Learning, however, requires a human, social element: both peer-based and through interaction with subject area experts (again, both epistemological and ontological).

What is the role of content? Of teachers? of Evaluation/accreditation?

I think this was answered above.

Short version:

- Content is readily duplicated, reducing its value economically. It is still critical for learning – all fields have core elements that learners must master before they can advance (research in expertise supports this notion).
- Teaching can be duplicated (lectures can be recorded, Elluminate or similar webconferencing system can bring people from around the world into a class). Assisting learners in the learning process, correcting misconceptions (see Private Universe), and providing social support and brokering introductions to other people and ideas in the discipline is critical.
- Accreditation is a value statement – it is required when people don’t know each other. Content was the first area of focus in open education. Teaching (i.e. MOOCs) are the second. Accreditation will be next, but, before progress can be made, profile, identity, and peer-rating systems will need to improve dramatically. The underlying trust mechanism on which accreditation is based cannot yet be duplicated in open spaces (at least, it can’t be duplicated to such a degree that people who do not know each other will trust the mediating agent of open accreditation)

Question Strand 2

In terms of discourses, literacies, and prior knowledge, what digital skills are privileged and rewarded within the MOOC environment?

The skills that are privileged and rewarded in a MOOC are similar to those that are needed to be effective in communicating with others and interacting with information online (specifically, social media and information sources like journals, databases, videos, lectures, etc.). Creative skills are the most critical. Facilitators and learners need something to “point to”. When a participant creates an insightful blog post, a video, a concept map, or other resource/artifact it generally gets attention.

A MOOC requires production of resources from participants as the facilitators operate from a stance of participative pedagogy. Facilitators need participants who create resources and share their opinions. Each act of creation is a potential node for connection. Technical skills that form a foundation for creativity include: writing, downloading and installing software (like Audacity, Jing), creating a podcast (which has its own set of skills including recording, editing, uploading the file), creating and sharing a video, creating and sharing a mindmap/concept map, posting discussions into a forum like moodle – all of which are basic skills with computers and the internet.

Other skills include:

- Tracking conversations in an LMS like Moodle, Google Reader, Google Alerts
- Capturing important resources using software that utilizes social functionality such as: Delicious, Zotero, Diigo, Evernote
- Developing a coherent view of information (i.e. growing personal knowledge) – personal reflection through blog posts, concept maps, creating artifacts that communicate personal knowledge to others (see Wendy Drexler’s video from CCK08), or systems that enable individuals to form connections between concepts and resources (such as PersonalBrain)
- Engaging with others through Twitter, Facebook, Posterous, Skype, Elluminate, Second Life
- Intentional diversity – not necessarily a digital skill, but the ability to self-evaluate ones network and ensure diversity of ideologies is critical when information is fragmented and is at risk of being sorted by single perspectives/ideologies.

What factors limit participation?

MOOCs are global events, not regional ones such as courses in a university. This distinction injects four factors that can limit participation.

The volume of information is very disorienting in a MOOC. For example, in CCK08, the initial flow of postings in Moodle, three weekly live sessions, Daily newsletter, and weekly readings and assignments proved to be overwhelming for many participants. Stephen and I somewhat intentionally structured the course for this disorienting experience. Deciding who to follow, which course concepts are important, and how to form sub-networks and sub-systems to assist in sensemaking are required to respond to information abundance. The process of coping and wayfinding (ontology) is as much a lesson in the learning process as mastering the content (epistemology). Learners often find it difficult to let go of the urge to master all content, read all the comments and blog posts.

Social dimensions of a MOOC present another challenge. Learning is a social trust-based process. The tone of discussions – sometimes intentionally negative and at other times simply a misunderstanding – produced friction in the synchronous and asynchronous interactions of CCK08 and CCK09. Strong views and opinions can create flare ups that participants may find intimidating. Differences in cultural norms and language barriers also contribute to misunderstandings. Patience, tolerance, suspension of judgment, and openness to other cultures and ideas are required to form social connections and negotiating misunderstandings.

Technology ownership and bandwidth present additional barriers – especially for participants from developing countries. Streaming video and Second Life require reasonable quality of bandwidth (and a reasonably new computer with good quality video/graphics card). Second Life sessions produced difficulty for many participants (especially in the Future of Education conference when SL was still less stable). When Dave Cormier and I taught an open course on Emerging Technologies to a group of educators from Africa, bandwidth was so poor that live audio sessions in Elluminate weren’t possible. More mundane concerns relate to individuals not having microphones, web cams, or headsets.

Timezones can also be concerns in MOOCs, especially if regular live sessions are planned. In CCK08, we ran live sessions at varying times to accommodate needs of international participants, but even then, we were unable satisfy the time needs of all participants. We recorded all live sessions and made the recordings available shortly after the session. However, participants stated that the recordings still produced a feeling of isolation from others in the course.

How can the MOOC model help engage and develop an effective digital citizenry?

MOOCs reduce barriers to learning and increase the autonomy of learners as they develop skills to create, engage, and share in global interactions. An effective digital citizenry needs the skills to participate in important conversations. The growth of digital content and social networks raises the need citizens to have the technical and conceptual skills to express their ideas and engage with others in those spaces. MOOCs are a first generation testing grounds for knowledge growth in a distributed, global, digital world. Their role in developing a digital citizenry is still unclear, but democratic societies require a populace with the skills to participate in growing a society’s knowledge. As such, MOOCs, or similar open transparent learning experiences that foster the development of citizens confidence engage and create collaboratively, are important for the future of society.