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What I’ve learned in my first week of a dual-layer MOOC (DALMOOC)

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:

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.


  1. It’s a heck of a thing to please 20,000 individuals, which means something like 400,000 person years of conditioning they bring.

    I guess you can offer the critics a refund.

    But I am super impressed with the new approach and efforts you and the team are doing.

    Just don’t make it a new acronym, please?

    Tuesday, October 28, 2014 at 1:12 pm | Permalink
  2. Aras BOZKURT wrote:

    I strongly believe that dual-layer or hybrid MOOCs are the next phase of MOOC experience…

    Tuesday, October 28, 2014 at 2:52 pm | Permalink
  3. Hi George,

    I’ve been following your ideas and cMOOCs for several years and found a few in the past 2 years that I really felt were well organized. One was an Education Technology and Media MOOC, another was a Deeper Learning MOOC. A third was a Making Learning Connected MOOC. All of these used Google Communities as the primary meeting place. I was really excited two years ago when the Buffett Family organized a MOOC on Philanthropy, using the Google Community. However, in the second year they went to EdX and your comment of “I can’t get to know my peers in edX or Coursera.” was my experience also.

    Some of the MOOC I mentioned began to use maps to show where participants were located. I hope more will do this. As we use maps and organize MOOCs around social issues, we’ll be able to understand where participation is strong, or weak, on a geographic level. From what I’ve seen so far, my Chicago region is under represented, which means a lot of learning has to take place to draw more people into these communities.

    Thanks for your ideas.

    Wednesday, October 29, 2014 at 3:31 pm | Permalink
  4. Maureen Crawford wrote:

    I agree that one of the biggest challenges is to realize that the aim of the course is not to have the learner comprehensively absorb as much of the content as possible, but rather to provide a well prepared petri dish providing the learner with a fertile medium in which to ‘grow’ their own learning. It is only realistic to enter into a learning space not knowing what one will exit with BUT this does not match the normalized view of education which attempts to deliver predetermined set outcomes.

    I have really appreciated the initial emphasis you have put on process rather than content. Thanks. I happen to find it very reassuring.

    I am really curious about my own learning process as I have little programming experience so I will rely very heavily on sense-making from within the course rather than using the course to embellish already well established data analytics.

    Matt’s tweet pretty well says it all!

    Your sensemaking and wayfinding information model is brilliant because it does such a good job of clearly and succinctly explaining the critical elements.

    Wednesday, October 29, 2014 at 11:05 pm | Permalink
  5. Anna Wood wrote:

    This is fascinating. Learner expectations do seem to be more defined than in the past- and not necessarily in a good way. I’m currently taking the stem teaching MOOC from coursera, and have been disappointed to find how transmissionist it is, particularly given we are learning about innovative pedaogogies for teaching! When I wrote a blog about this the response was – this is what they expect, and it is ‘content centered’ not ‘teacher centered’. Except that the contentis being delivered to us, not created by us.
    Interesting article, thanks

    Thursday, October 30, 2014 at 8:42 am | Permalink
  6. Joel Salazar wrote:

    I’m Joel, Mexican and am taking this MOOC.
    What we must recognize, applaud and support, is that we have this wonderful opportunity to learn from the best.
    One of the challenges of these innovative opportunities, is to use our knowledge to generate another plastic in our thinking.
    The first week, if it was somewhat chaotic for a few glitches (which increases with Mercury retrograde). Beyond that, having hangouts with the creators of the platforms we are studying, is something indescribable and invaluable.
    Having the option to choose the platform and how we demonstrate our competence in the MOOC, is something that multiplies our chances of developing these.
    Data analytics, allows us to see the information in ways that had never done; is one of the greatest contributions to the information society. Undoubtedly, the application of the Data analytics for learning, will improve the learning models.
    And finally, I want to make an open invitation: Teacher Siemens refers to poor socialization of the participants in the MOOC. We invite you to join the group on Linkedin we did, in order to share experiences and knowledge on the subject, in order to socializing. Just look at “Data, analytics and learning or here is the link
    Teacher Siemens: thank you very much to you, your staff and Arlington University for this opportunity.

    Thursday, October 30, 2014 at 10:29 am | Permalink
  7. tim carlin wrote:

    What is the definition of “digital space markers”? I haven’t seen that term before and a search doesn’t return anything obvious.

    Thursday, October 30, 2014 at 10:51 am | Permalink
  8. Pablo E. Martinez wrote:

    George, thanks for your write-up and for giving us an idea of what you are seeing from your perspective. Very insightful!

    This is the first time I participate in a MOOC. At times it feels very chaotic and challenging because there is so much to absorb and apply and technology, on either side, does not always cooperate, but that is the world we live in today and sometimes it can be overwhelming.

    I find the approach intriguing and with immense potential for learning by leveraging the network of people involved. It is really amazing that there are 20000 people interested!! This morning I connected with Simon in the UK. The other day with a person from India. I’m in Southern California, this to me is already a success of what the learning can be with so many minds at work, all with different perspectives and needs. The potential for additional learning through the connections is immense.

    Kudos to you and the team leading this course and offering the many options to find our own way and to be able to discern the value-added from the non-value added. As you stated, we have to “become comfortable without reading everything.”

    Looking forward to the rest of the experience.

    Thursday, October 30, 2014 at 12:56 pm | Permalink
  9. Kyle Peck wrote:

    I don’t feel like a guinea pig, I feel honored to be able to pilot new tools that support an exciting new approach to learning. I sincerely believe that the future of learning at the knowledge and comprehension levels will involve learners selecting and sequencing smaller learning opportunities and working through them with the support of peers with occasional (but rare) input from an expert. The tools we are privileged to pilot in this course represent much needed pioneering in this frontier.

    Higher-order abilities will require and receive more expert intervention, but these will unfortunately rarely be free.

    Thanks again to all involved.

    Thursday, October 30, 2014 at 1:06 pm | Permalink
  10. Gloria Gadacz wrote:

    This is the second MOOC course I have taken through edx.

    Hello Dr. Siemens – I took my last course for my Masters in Distance Ed with you (Athabasca University). Great course and yes I now have completed the program!

    In this course, I am starting late and am playing catch-up. What I really appreciate about the course is the ability to jump around and enter areas where and when I want to. I do not (so far) have to follow a linear approach in my learning. I also really appreciate the structural design(course layout) – it is clean, clear, concise and easy to maneuver through.

    Thursday, October 30, 2014 at 7:41 pm | Permalink
  11. Liwei wrote:

    Thanks for such a valuable article. The first hand experience you brought up is very informative. And I hold a somewhat similar view regarding the learner’s perspective. Very glad to find out that.

    However, I think it might be helpful to have a boarder sight on learners’ real life. Each approach can only stand for one tool in the tool kit. Sometimes, we don’t need to or have the ability to create a perfect tool kit to solve all the problems. Creating one best tool for one task is not a bad approach. Learners equipped with those are easier to achieve what their goals with possible more surprises.

    I personally think it’s a good way to serve learners. Being one element of whatever we call tool kit, ecosystem, complex system, etc., is worth noting.

    Thursday, October 30, 2014 at 10:29 pm | Permalink
  12. Doug Wilson wrote:

    I find DALMOOC engaging and stimulating, but it is challenging integrating it into my already hectic life. I realized early on that organizing my own learning would be one of my biggest challenges, and I think I was right about this. Regarding my social interactions with other learners, it is mostly on twitter, with a few supportive posts here and there, generally happening during Google+ broadcasts. These two platforms are the ones I used most along with Pro Solo. I appreciate the opportunity to be involved in this community and in this experience, and I feel I am growing a lot personally and intellectually.

    Monday, November 3, 2014 at 2:48 pm | Permalink