This last week we launched our open course on Data, Analytics, and Learning on edX. The course is structured in a dual layer model, an approach that Matt Crosslin has nicely articulated. We have 20,000 registered students, with 32% having actually logged in and taken part in the course. 180 countries are represented, with the top being US, India, and UK, representing 25%, 11%, and 4% of students.
I’ve run numerous MOOCs over the past six years. I’ve used a range of platforms, including Moodle, D2L, Canvas, Drupal, Downes’ gRSShopper, and others. In the process, I’ve used roughly any tool I can get my hands on, including Second Life, Twitter, Facebook, G+, Netvibes, blogs, Wikispaces, Diigo, and so on. The largest group of learners in a course that i have run is ~5,000. The current course on edX is unique in the number of learners involved and in the dual-layer approach. Our goal was to enable learners to select either a formal structured pathway and a self-directed “learner in control” pathway.
I’m biased toward learners owning their own content and owning the spaces where they learn. My reason is simple: knowledge institutions mirror the architecture of knowledge in the era in which they exist. Today, knowledge is diverse, messy, partial, complex, and rapidly changing. What learners need today is not instructivism but rather a process of personal sensemaking and wayfinding where they learn to identify what is important, what matters, and what can be ignored. Most courses assume that the instructor and designer should sensemake for learners. The instructor chooses the important pieces, sets it in a structured path, and feeds content to learners. Essentially, in this model, we take away the sweet spot of learning. Making sense of topic areas through social and exploratory processes is the heart of learning needs in complex knowledge environments.
Though I am biased toward learner-in-control, I do recognize the value of formal instruction, particularly when the topic area is new to a learner. Even then, I would like to see rapid transitions from content provision to having learners create artifacts that reflect their understanding. These artifacts can be images, audio, video, simulations, blog posts, or any other resource that can be created and shared with other learners. Learning transparently is an act of teaching.
My reflections after week one of DALMOOC:
1. The first few weeks are identical to any other MOOC I’ve run. It’s chaos. Learners are unsure about how to position themselves in relation to the content and the interaction spaces. This is a critical sensemaking and wayfinding process. In a MOOC, we not only learn content, but we also learn the metcognitive processes and digital space markers that enable us to be active participants. This can be stressful for learners.
2. Learners really, really like content. I view content to be as much a by-product of the learning process as a pre-requisite. Lectures can be helpful in framing a topic. What is important though, is that learners create artifacts. An artifact represents how we understand something and then allows others to provide us feedback and shape, fact-check, and refine our thinking (have a look at a Private Universe – a detailed account of what happens when students only answer questions we ask rather than create artifacts that reflect how they understand a topic area).
3. There seems to be a growing number of professional learners in formal platforms (edX & Coursera). These learners have clear goals, want a certificate, and have expectations of the experience. In one forum interaction of DALMOOC, a learner mentioned that he/she had taken 30 MOOCs and this one was the most disorienting. Another learner said this was the worst MOOC that they had ever taken. Early MOOCs were easy to run because expectations hadn’t normalized. It’s different now. Learners engage with MOOCs with views of what should be happening and are comparing courses to what they’ve taken recently. The standards of quality content are higher than they were in the past.
4. The most important learning shift is not yet happening. Learning in complex knowledge environments requires navigating distributed spaces (wayfinding), acting with partial information, sensemaking, and becoming comfortable without reading everything. This shift is difficult – it’s as much a world view shift as a learning task, as much about our identity as the learning content. It’s not easy and it’s unsettling and frustrating.
5. Learners act differently in different spaces. If you are in the course, skim the edX discussions. Then log into ProSolo. Skim the interactions there. Do the same with social media (our G+ and Facebook pages as well as the #DALMOOC twitter timeline). The tools and spaces are linked here. The conversation in edX, when discussing the course, is ~60% critical. In Prosolo, it’s largely positive. I find the negative comments in edX about structure a bit confusing as I view choices as giving learners the ability to be where they want to be rather than where designers and instructors force them to be. I chuckled at Matt’s tweet:
Interesting how some people will look through all of the options in #dalmooc, find the one they don't like, and then complain about it
— Matt Crosslin (@grandeped) October 28, 2014
6. We need to get better at on-boarding learners to engage in digital distributed spaces. My comments above reflect real experiences of learners who are finding the course format confusing. It’s not sufficient to say “well, what you really need is a world-view shift”. As designers, we have to support and guide that transition. We are not doing that well enough. Even though early Hangouts that we did in the course emphasized learner autonomy and the importance of developing a personal digital identity that is under the control of the individual learner, this message is understood through practice not to proclamation. It’s a challenging proposition: a learner understands the design intentions of the course by engaging in the activities but these activities are confusing because they do not understand the design intentions.
7. Technology glitches are tough. We are using a number of new tools in DALMOOC, including Carolyn Rose’s Bazaar and Quick Helper, a visual syllabus, Prosolo, assignment bank, and so on. We’ve had some glitches with most of those, as can be expected in a new tool being scaled to a large number of users. Learners may forgive a glitch or two. But each additional glitch or tool creates additional stress. A few learners have said “I feel like a guinea pig” and “I feel like I’m just beta testing software” and “I feel like a rat in a maze”. We need some tolerance for failure during experimentation. There is a line though where even the most committed learners feel overwhelmed.
8. Learners use discussion forums for different reasons. I’ve generally used them for discussion. Learners in edX use them for a range of reasons including quick search/help, venting, and as a way of orienting to the course. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen much in MOOC forums about social relationship formation. MOOC providers have done a bad job of building learner profiles. I can’t get to know my peers in edX or Coursera. This is an issue. Distributed social media improves this, but the social connectedness in edX forums is almost non-existent.
Overall, the first ten days of DALMOOC have provided an excellent learning experience for me. I’ve included a short presentation below on Sensemaking and Wayfinding Information Model (SWIM) that focuses on how learners engage in and navigate open learning spaces, largely reflective of the experiences of learners in this MOOC.