eLearning Technology Blog

I Was a MOOC Virgin

by WSU Online 31. March 2013 12:31

Huh?  What’s a MOOC?

If you don’t know what I mean by MOOC, you are definitely not alone.  MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course, and it’s a recent trend in online learning that is gaining lots of momentum.  Well, maybe not so recent.  The first massive open online course was offered in 2008 by Canadian professors George Siemens and Stephen Downs and attracted about 2000 non-paying online participants.  Then in 2011, the MOOC phenomenon really took off with a course on Artificial Intelligence developed by Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun and Google Director of Research Peter Norvig.  This MOOC enrolled over 160,000 students.   Shortly thereafter, MIT announced its plan to make the materials used in the teaching of MIT’s subjects freely available online.  (Check out their MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW) http://ocw.mit.edu/index.htm, an astounding collection of educational resources, including lecture videos, an array of course materials, and interactive learning objects.) 

Companies emerged to develop open learning management systems to host massive open online courses.  Coursera is one example, launched by Stanford University computer science professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller as recently as April of last year.  Open learning management systems like Coursera provide a platform for the open learning resource movement.  MOOCS are all over and a rapid evolution is taking place.  At this time, Coursera is working with major institutions, and is not only offering free, non-credit online courses representing their curriculum, but even devising mastery exams—proctored, of course—that would allow learners to prove their mastery of the course content and thereby earn college credit. 

Me and the MOOC

Our ever-forward-looking leaders at Global Campus asked us eLearning Consultants to keep abreast of these Open Learning Initiative developments by setting aside a little time during our work week to participate in a MOOC. 

I chose a Coursera-based MOOC called “E-learning and Digital Culture,” designed by professors from the University of Edinburgh.   The course was designed to run on a weekly basis for four weeks: two weeks examining the concepts of utopia/dystopia as applied to digital culture, and two weeks exploring digital culture’s impact on our understanding of what it means to be human.  Each week’s lessons had a similar structure.  The core assignment was to view at least four brief videos and to read one or two academic articles exploring the underlying themes.  Advanced readings were offered, as well as readings exploring the perspectives on education that explored and expanded on the theme. 

Student interactions were encouraged in three realms: online discussion forums, blogs and tweets.   Instructions were available for students to associate their blogs and their tweets to the course space.  Instructors started discussion threads with provocative prompts, but students could also start threads within the forums.  At least one synchronous meeting with all the instructors was held via Google Hangout.

What Worked and What Didn’t

The course was beautifully designed.  The videos and readings were rich, thought-provoking and well-unified.  I had time to view all the videos but not enough extra time to complete all the readings; I have compiled a list of them, though, and vow to get through them eventually.   Discussion prompts focused us on key issues and points of contention or debate.   Links to other, optional resources were abundant. 
The final assignment challenged students to demonstrate mastery of the issues, and it also challenged the learner’s experience with digital technologies.  To earn the certificate of completion, we were to create a digital artifact that in some way explored issues related to the course content.  A list of recommended technologies gave novices a place to begin.  After submitting a digital artifact, students were also required to review, rate and comment upon three classmates’ submissions using criteria provided by the instructors. 

Generally, then, what worked was the array of fascinating resources, a directly-relevant mastery assignment, responsive and available instructors, and concrete specifications for certification.

And now to what didn’t work. 

In one of the first discussion board postings to grab my attention was a comment by Garet Marling (from who knows where).  He said that discussing a topic in a MOOC discussion forum was like drinking water from a fire hose.  And he was right about that!  About 42,000 enrolled in the course, and about 7,000 earned certificates.  Having a discussion with 41,999 of your closest friends is daunting.  The key to a transformative learning experience is management of behavior.  That was what didn’t work. 

And it wasn’t the course designers’ fault but the learning management platform’s.  The Coursera discussion forums did not allow hierarchical, nested discussions.  Instead, each student could only post a reply to the originator of the thread.  In other words, in the Coursera system, I couldn’t reply directly to another student’s post.  

When I had something to say in response to another student’s statements, my post appeared in an entirely different location—at the very end of the thread.  Any intellectual connections being made were not represented in the discussion thread’s spatial display. 

Now, a premise of the course was the culture of technology, specifically, the way that “digital culture shapes not only our online experiences and interactions, but also bleeds into offline life, because it so powerfully affects institutions, practices of information creation and sharing, and patterns of communication” (Deuze). So, applying that premise, I asked how the discussion forum technology shaped the students’ human behavior.  

One problem is that the tool structured our discussion of ideas by restricting us to replying only to the instructor’s initial post, not to our classmates.  We were never having a discussion as a community, said the structure of the discussion forum.  Instead, we were responding to the central, authoritative presence of the instructor.  How un-MOOC-like is that?

Frustration soon rose – and then subversion.  Individuals began to assert their right to occupy the center, their right to express ideas to which their classmates could then directly respond.  Students occupied the center by originating threads.  Hundreds of original threads sprouted.   Some classmates responded to the student-originated threads, but in nowhere near the numbers who had posted in the instructor’s threads, in spite of the fact that readers could recommend postings to have that recommendation data display beside the thread’s original post.  The discussion boards fragmented.  I myself stopped posting, although I did subscribe to a thread dedicated to being 60+ and read all the postings that came to my inbox.  But my experience of the community was nowhere near as rich as my experience of the resources. 

Still, I learned something, and the MOOC learning management system served to illustrate a fundamental premise of “E-Learning and Digital Culture”: our tools shape our behavior in ways that go beyond our immediate use of them.

Charmaine Wellington

When Things Can Go Wrong, They Will!

by WSU Online 8. March 2013 14:25

Another Installment in Adventures in Teaching with Technology

The February 27 Global Campus Faculty Workshop participants not only got to “hear from instructors who are successfully incorporating technology in innovative ways” (WSU Announcements, Feb., 21, 2013), they also witnessed technology at its most uncooperative.  First problem: our videoconference meeting room was connected to a room where a class was in session; the group was oblivious to us, and we couldn’t figure out how to mute their audio.  Second:  a cartoon video created to launch the conversation was removed from YouTube WHILE we were viewing it.  Oh, no!

Ironically, though, technology going awry had been our planned theme.

I and our cracker-jack media team of Brian Maki, Janelle Lawless, and James Cathey had created the short cartoon video using Xtranormal, which allows users to create 3D animated movies using pre-defined cartoon characters and settings.  Our cartoon, “The Night(mare) Before Tenure,”  portrays a film studies instructor’s unsuccessful efforts to teach with technology while being observed by his department’s tenure committee.

The instructor is trying to deliver a presentation on the silent film’s representation of technology.  Comic cinema of the silent era often portrayed humans fighting with the machines they’ve created.  Our cartoon includes a clip of Laurel and Hardy struggling with a malfunctioning pistol.  So this theme of wayward technology has been around for a long time.  Watch “The Night(mare) Before Tenure” here:


We expected that just about everyone in the room would identify with the cartoon’s situation.  After all, instructors hesitate to incorporate technology into their presentations because, well, if things can go wrong, they will.

Why should an instructor invest valuable time producing media elements for class presentations when that darn DVD will stall or the speaker system switch can’t be found?  When troubleshooting an equipment failure will disrupt the tempo and trajectory of a carefully-planned class session?  When our fumbling, unsuccessful efforts to solve the technical problem will make us look foolish? 
And besides, all of us know that, even if the technology cooperates, teaching takes a lot of concentration.  As we are teaching, our cognitive load is already maxed out, leaving little brain power left to activate that equipment or open that software program.

What’s the answer?  Can we make teaching with technology disaster-proof?  That was one of the questions our workshop was going to explore.  Needless to say, technical difficulties derailed us a bit, from which we fortunately recovered to have a very interesting conversation.

But here is a thought.
Maybe we need to probe the fundamental assumption that the instructor PRESENTS and the students LISTEN.   What if the responsibility were flipped?  What if the instructor’s main effort was not to present information but instead to use class sessions to critically examine technology-supported homework assignments?  Would that help us curb technology’s challenges?
My next blog topic?  The “Flipped Classroom.”   Get ready for it by checking out these web resources:

•    Knewton, "The Flipped Classroom Infographic"
•    Tedtalk, Salman Kahn, "Let’s use video to reinvent education"
•    Edutopia, Andrew Miller, "Five Best Practice for the Flipped Classroom"
•    The Chronicle of Higher Education, Marc Parry, "Debating the ‘Flipped Classroom’ at Stanford"

Charmaine Wellington

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