Tag Archives: Stepehen Downes

Some Thoughts About MOOCs

As part of the Hybrid Pedagogy’s week-long MOOC about MOOCs, I wrote some quick thoughts in relation to some of the questions posed yesterday. They seemed worth sharing beyond the confines of the LMS that is housing the course. So here goes.

About the nature of learning

What happens when learning happens? In a word – change. It is when that seed of newness, no matter how buried it may have been, sprouts and breaks through the surface to find light. It need not be necessarily new at all, but it is new to the learner. Nevertheless, it is the single most powerful agent of change for human beings. It is not distinctly human, but we have quite well taken to it, to be sure. And it happens everywhere, so long as one is willing to pay enough attention, to be brave enough to, in fact, notice what we notice.

For me learning has always been the ultimate high. Honestly, I simply cannot conceive of life without the hunger for it. It is synonymous with breathing or living, as sappy as that sounds.

About the current state of MOOCs

For me, MOOCs are a bit like the equivalent of the 60s “happening,” only predicated on digital spaces, learning, and openness. They seem to me connected to some of the same urges,  although I certainly hope that they have stronger legs that the past phenomenon. My fear is that they are already the fashion that has ceased to be the fashion.

Now that the corporate interests are moving in to pick over any ideas that they think might be profitable, MOOCs are likely to be reduced to the point of being unrecognizable. Already a gathering is happening that is still very interested in being Massive and Online but a whole lot less Open, and likely to be less like Courses and more like training, even little more than self-perpetuating propaganda.

History is already being somewhat rewritten in the mainstream press celebrating the interests of an elite few, like Udacity, edX, and the like, as if they created something when all they have really done is begun to prey on the speculative ideas of a handful of curious academics, hoping that they find a cure for the old models of preservation. I know that sounds pretty lefty, but I can’t quite see a narrative that wrangles this phenomenon we are witnessing and participating in nearly as well as what I am outlining.

Openness is still generally not perceived as a clear competitive advantage in the marketplace. It is getting some traction. However, it is in conflict with the proprietary nature of commerce. If it is open or free, how does one own it or put a price on it?

The Massiveness is both an opportunity and an obstacle. It is arguably the greatest aspect that violates our previous notions of how Courses of study work. If we accept the notion that learning happens in an individual and that few models have ultimately bettered a one-to-one approach, the sheer scale, while seemingly a holy grail for profiteers,  is potentially threatening to a lot of people. That takes some getting used to. However, it also provides few obvious or prescribed pathways to the kind of connections that foster collaboration or personal engagement with others.

My hope is that there will always remain a fierce set of individuals willing to continue to experiment with the MOOC concept and what it can reveal. So I continue to follow the main movers on what is now commonly referred to as the cMOOC front. For me, that has always been where the best action is anyway. I just hope people like Siemens, Downes, Cormier, Couros, and others keep on trying things and thinking about all of this so there is always an alternative to the commercial outfits. I feel like the possibilities are good.

MOOCs are extraordinary opportunities for learning. Since they do not fit into the existing power structures of our educational system, at least yet, they are kind of extra-curricular, in the noblest of ways. They are opportunities for learning and enrichment that really are the outgrowths of this new digital, virtualized landscape that we are all wrestling with how to navigate and traverse. They can easily become a network, a community of practice, an artifact of some quest. Their very nature is morphing and evolving as we participate. They are a kind of fabricated organism, really.

They have been a great source of learning and professional development for me, personally. One of my favorite thinkers on some of this new frontier is University of Bournemouth’s Steven Heppell has said, “History will look back on the 1950s to 2000 as the period of aberration…Cross-fingers and learning will survive, but it might just be the death of education.” I feel a bit like MOOCs are currently the best realization of this ideal, which makes for living in very interesting times, indeed.

Thoughts on an NWP MOOC

One of the charges for my Flat Classroom Certification was to begin designing a project. While I have a couple  of other ideas that have been taking shape in my head, in the last month or so one idea has been taking serious root. So while it is not an exact fit with the course, the instructors were generous enough to allow me to pitch the following as part of the course. It definitely an idea that has taken hold of a lot of my thinking of late, as I investigate it more. I welcome any and all feedback as I continue developing the idea.

Last year began a genuine fascination with the Massive Open Online Class (MOOC) concept, courtesy of George Siemens and Stephen Downes. Despite my better efforts my initial efforts to participate fell short. Regardless the concept was a fascinating one to me. When this year’s Personal Learning Environments Networks & Knowledge MOOC ran, I jumped back into the fray and this time participated more fully. Participating to the end was considerably more satisfying than my previous attempts and it got me thinking about the applications of this new learning model. Additionally, a team including Siemens, Dave Cormier recently released The MOOC Model for Digital Practice wanting to experiment with them.

I would love to try it with my high school English classes, but there are some limitations when working with minors. Plus, it is harder to imagine as many participants being interested in a course geared toward fourteen to fifteen year-olds. Then it ocurred to me that National Writing Project (NWP) might be the best place to experiment with a modified MOOC application.

The National Writing Project already offers an extensive network of educators across disciplines at all levels, early childhood through university. Moreover, the network is comprised of teacher consultants (TCs) that have already experienced the formative Invitational Summer Institute (ISI). However, there are over 200 local sites offering an ISI, which is the official introduction to the network, and beyond that what local sites can offer is considerably uneven, depending on available resources. While all sites offer some kind of follow-up continuity events, these are point of continual struggle for all local sites.

Consequently, my idea is to adapt the MOOC framework for interested NWP TCs. The idea would be to offer a kind of synthesized packaging of some of the work that affiliated NWP channels are already doing into an Advanced Invitational Summer Institute, of sorts, where the invitation to participate is essentially open. While the target audience would really be designed to appeal to existing TCs, already familiar with the NWP model, and looking for another ISI like experience, it could potentially be a way to enlist and introduce new participants to the NWP network, as well as potential international connections.

There are a lot of potential advantages to this approach, it seems to me.

On a fundamental level, the open nature and scale of an effort like this provides an additional means for interested TCs to be involved in the network on their own terms, pursuant to their own personal interest and goals. Of course, this already exists with available resources, but it is only possible through considerable individual effort navigating all of the various NWP channels and initiatives. Not all local sites have the capacity to provide large-scale guidance throgh the deep resources that already exist and are constantly emerging. One of the goals of an effort like this would be to provide some relatively focused guidance and curation for participants navigating and making sense of their journey with them material and resources.

Due to the great diversity in what each local site can offer in addition to the mainstay ISI, it allows TCs who would like to deepen their experience and connections within the network a chance to do that with a grander set of resources and appeal, while still attempting to emulate aspects of the ISI models of professional development. While a virtual experience, another real advantage is the fertile ground that can emerge for cultivating new and interesting connections that may not have previously been a available or known. It is another step toward extending and strengthening the “National” aspect of the network.

Also, being a virtual experience, it would advance and even explore many aspects of teaching the “New Writing” or “Digital Writing,” an area where NWP has been a clear leader in professional development. A MOOC of this kind would then serve as a grander hub of activity, that would build upon and bring together some of the best offerings of NWP, for example like the work that is done in the E-Anthology, Digital Is, Teachers Teaching Teachers, current Initiative strands, in a guided or facilitated way geared more for the “advanced user” but open to anyone interested. It would provide some focused inquiry on elements of NWP work that many TCs might not know exist or don’t yet have a strong grasp until they have made a more concerted effort to investigate.

The benefits would be in the participating. More than that, I see it as a valuable enhancement or enrichment for interested TCs that may not feel as connected. The open invitation has a lot of appeal to me, and the prospect that people outside NWP or even internationals  might participate is a genuinely exciting possibility. With a variety of ways to participate, individuals have enormous flexibility on the amount, degree, and interest in participation. Additionally, it potentially offers an alternative way towards continuity for building capacity on a larger scale that could benefit the local sites where participants are affiliated. The open nature of it also offers potential to not only eliminate geographical boundaries for existing TCs in larger rural states but enrich already existing efforts in those contexts. The potential content and knowledge that an effort like this could create is worthy of investigation, as well as being a potential boon for NWP related activity and awareness.

If anyone else is interested in this idea, I would love to hear your thoughts.

Connections Between Flat Classroom Certification & PLENK2010

As I scramble to catch up with the readings and modules for the Flat Classroom Certification, which I seem to be doing in out of order, hackneyed style, I am kind of fascinated at how many convergences there are with the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) Personal Learning Environments Networks and Knowledge (PLENK2010). While participating in both can be grueling at certain points, particularly PLENK2010 with its widely distributed format and curriculum that acts more as a field of research and exploration, the international flavor dovetails nicely with the Flat Classroom material.

Vicki Davis and Julie Lyndsay, like captains voyaging from the Old World to the New, have charted a very reliable route for safe passage and reliable trade. In contrast, George Siemens, Stephen Downes, Dave Cormier, and Rita Kop have each boarded separate vessels and, like four separate Magellans, are bent on circumnavigating the globe to prove that it is both round and see what all kinds of interests may be found along the way. Each course relishes the international appeal and implications. One provides a proven map for teachers that want a specific experience, while the other invites you to launch on a loosely guided exploration where serendipitous indulgences are both encouraged and even add to the charter.

One of the greatest assets of students participating in a Flat Classroom Project is that they begin to acquire some of the skills and understanding to begin building a PLE. This is a boon for any serious student, especially at the secondary level. Few high school instructors have neither a solid grasp of what a PLE actually is nor how to begin building one. This somewhat complicates the prospects of teaching students how to begin creating the ecology of tools and content that comprises one.  By all indications,  Flat Classroom book will guide educators through the fundamental concepts and primary tools that can easily be assimilated, providing a sold foundation for later development.

PLENK2010 also provides a lot of extraordinary resources and investigation of PLEs from theory to practice. Yet a MOOC, particularly this one, is even more overwhelming and complex than a Flat Classroom Project. The scale alone is enough to scare all but the most ardent. PLENK2010 has easily eclipsed 1000 participants at some point during its run so far. Moreover, the distributed nature and loosely defined structure lacks prescriptive guides. Each participant is on their own, relatively informal investigative journey. Any formal elements of the course are submitted of each participant’s own volition.

Neither is school as usual, however, which may be the coolest aspect of their similarities. Both are highly demanding, requiring great patience, self-discipline, and perseverance. Both are fraught with obstacles and challenges that provide extraordinary opportunities for learning. Both offer insightful glimpses into a more multidisciplinary, engaged, connected, and collaborative culture of participation that learning can be, even in a school setting.