My MOOC Comment Scraper had a great run during the Rhizo14 MOOC – was even mentioned by Dave Cormier in his recent presentation (‘Why teach MOOCs – MOOCs as a selfish enterprise (talk at MIT)‘)! Judging from the comments I received during Rhizo14, the Scraper could be employed in a variety of situations supporting MOOCs or other online events where it’s useful to aggregate blog posts and comments in an abbreviated form. There seems to be an unexplored niche for open aggregation tools that simply abbreviate text one click away from distributed sources – and don’t attempt to entrap users for commercial purposes!
Use of the Comment Scraper - My own conception of the Scraper seems best suited to cMOOCs. Here, much or even most discussion, is distributed among numerous participant blogs, some of which may be inactive at any particular time. A quick impression of where the latest posts are, how various discussions are developing and who is involved, can be more useful than aggregators providing considerably more text requiring lengthy scrolling.
The current version of the Scraper merely links to a post with comments giving very brief details: date, authors etc. (see sample output). At the expense of some extra text a more advanced version could supply more detail such as twitter and Facebook identities of post and comment authors. Since individual blogs are the focus of discussion in cMOOCs it may be counterproductive to allow direct commenting on a page along with the Scraper output although ‘meta-comment’ on the cMOOC itself might be useful if the Scraper output were displayed as part of a ‘hub’ website for the MOOC.
Potential uses for a Comment Scraper may differ, perhaps considerably from my own use, so I’ve briefly described my approach along with a summary of the program and this might assist a competent programmer to develop their own version for their own purposes. I’m not a particularly competent programmer myself (the Scraper was originally developed as an exercise in learning Python) but if anyone wants the Python source code for non-commercial purposes I will (shortly) make a cleaned-up version available on request.
Privacy, Legal and Other Issues - The Scraper’s output consists almost entirely of other people’s work, scraped from blogs and published without their permission. It’s not really practical to contact the authors of all blogs and commenters individually in a MOOC but I’ve always been willing to exclude any blogs or comments by any author on their request. To date I’ve never received any such request and those who contacted me have always been positive about the use of the Scraper.
I have little understanding of the legal issues involved here and confess I’ve done little to find out. I do not know who ‘owns’ the posts or comments in a proprietary blog nor the legal status of a ‘remix’ consisting of fragments of text from numerous sources with authors identified. I suspect it could be a complicated matter – any advice?
Unfortunately, the current version of the Scraper is only compatible with WordPress and Blogger blogs. Together these define ‘standard’ RSS formats that account for a very large proportion of all blogs but inevitably a small minority are excluded. Clearly, all participants in a MOOC should be represented on an equal footing regardless of their blog type. It may be possible to make special provision for some other blog types provided RSS feeds are available but if not, comment scraping would seem to be considerably more difficult to implement.
I did not use the Scraper to collect data in any rigorous way but it certainly could be used for research purposes such as studying the rise and fall of posting and commenting in a cMOOC (eg the graph I plotted using rhiz014 data). Again, this raises unexplored issues concerning the analytical use of a Scraper as there are clearly dangers in the misuse of such data even in a statistical form.
I’ve been following several MOOCs simultaneously and often just lurking as I’m usually more interested in how MOOCs are developing than their content. The smallish cMOOC on ‘Rhizomatic Learning – The community is the curriculum‘ (Rhizo14) led by Dave Cormier held my attention, partly because I was using it as a test bed for my MOOC Scraper but also because its ‘content’ was largely created by by the participants themselves. Cathy Davidson’s very much larger xMOOC ‘History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education‘ (FutureEd) was also fascinating but in a different way as she positively encouraged independent activity outside the MOOC – think Incredible Hulk trying to break out of its xMOOC clothes!
On the whole, I’m positive about MOOCs and there are several areas where I think MOOCs can be very effective. Connecting and updating professionals, stimulating the interests of well-motivated lifelong learners, providing educational opportunities where none existed before are a few. I welcome the different MOOC formats that are emerging and I don’t share the usual concerns about dropout rates. Someone close to me with lifelong interests in languages and literature joined an xMOOC on Climate Change and for the first time in her life bought a popular science magazine and found it interesting. MOOCs have the power to transform learners, sometimes unexpectedly but usually for the good. Even the removal of pig ignorance can count as education but ….. everyone needs to be a deep learner at times.
During Rhizo14 there was some controversy about the relevance or otherwise of certain French philosophers. ‘Skimmers’ and others may have perfectly good reasons for neglecting them but in deep learning mode you take the time and trouble to read them in whatever detail is necessary to make an informed decision – even if you find French philosophers excruciatingly dull and boring!
Having taught engineering courses at a university for more years than I care to remember, I wonder how MOOCs can deal with deep learning in circumstances where it’s vitally important to demonstrate competence, understanding something all the way through as opposed to a superficial or ‘working’ knowledge? This is no elitist concern of interest only to PhD students or just Higher Education. A huge number of vocational courses are wholly or partly of this type – an electrician’s understanding of your wiring is just as vital as a brain surgeon’s! Teaching something to someone else is not a bad test of understanding (as many parents find out trying to help their kids with homework!) but what proportion of a MOOC’s participants could begin to teach or demonstrate real competence in the topics they study? For the typical mammoth xMOOC I would guess very few, particularly if they had little prior knowledge of the subject matter. I would also be surprised if many of those gaining current Statements of Accomplishment could demonstrate real understanding. (Anyone want me for a Philosophy 101 tutor on the basis of my Coursera Certificate?)
Deep learning can be very rewarding but it can also be time-consuming, not particularly interesting and hard work – as many budding PhD students find out all too quickly. Encouraging deep learning in MOOCs may not be so problematical given well-educated and motivated participants as in Rhizo14 and FutureEd but in the wider world where education may be prized more as a meal ticket rather than for its own sake, the traditional training course, ‘taught to the test’, is often viewed by students as little more than an irksome chore unrelated to real life. I’m unsure how MOOCs might be used to improve things but maybe a crucial first step would be to encourage interaction, almost any type of interaction, between connected participants before expecting anything like deep learning to happen. Rhizo14 certainly encouraged interaction and passionate learning. Interestingly, now I see that several enthusiastic Rhizo14 learners may be passing the ‘teacher test’ by taking over and extending the course themselves – way beyond its nominal 6 week period!
I unleashed my experimental MOOC Comment Scraper on the Rhizomatic Learning MOOC (#rhiz014) run by Dave Cormier from Jan 15th and have been updating it once or twice a day (latest output). The idea behind the Scraper is to get a quick impression of MOOC activity by creating very brief summarised versions of recent blog posts along with their comments. For some reason this type of presentation does not seem to be readily available via feed readers but I’ve found the Scraper useful, particularly for connectivist style MOOCs where activity is typically distributed across numerous blogs, some of which may not be active at any one time.
In contrast, my xMOOC experiences (eg in a Coursera Philosophy MOOC) suggest that blogging around these ‘instructivist’ MOOCs is not nearly so common. Having joined Cathy Davidson’s ‘History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education’ (#FutureEd) my introductory spiel sank without trace in the usual enormous and clunky Coursera forum but Cathy Davidson herself has reservations about the stereotypical xMOOC and this particular Coursera MOOC (“…not just a MOOC, it’s a movement.”) does seem less centralised. I’ll be looking out for participant blogs.
Rhizo14 is a good guinea pig for the Scraper and I appreciate the significant number of participants who actively blog and comment on each other’s posts generating lively discussions with long comment streams. Some posts have attracted around 30 comments – all types and lengths and this has facilitated the squashing of several bugs in the Scraper program (A recurring problem is dealing with ragged loose ends when HTML and other ‘hidden’ codes in comments are chopped up.) At present, about 60 WordPress and Blogger blogs are being scanned and comments extracted for all posts tagged, #rhizo14 over a time ‘window’ of the last 10 days. The participants seem happy to have their comments abbreviated and published in this way but it would be a simple matter to remove any blog if required.
The graph below gives some indication of how commenting in rhizo14 is developing with time. This is no scientific study, particularly for the first few days when blogs were being added and no posts were too dated to be lost from a time window that itself was being adjusted. However, the period from Jan 23 was more stable with a constant 10 day window. Both comments and posts seem to have peaked around Jan 30 but interestingly, even though comment and post numbers have now dropped a little, the average number of comments per post is being maintained at over 5.
I’d be very grateful for any constructive comment or criticisms of the Comment Scraper, particularly if you’ve been viewing the output over a period of time. There are several directions in which the Scraper could be developed. More or less output text could be provided or posts without comments could be identified but there may be rather more fundamental changes worth making.
How do you rate the Comment Scraper? – please mark out of 10 where:
0 = Useless
5 = Sometimes useful but I rely mainly on other tools
10 = I couldn’t live without it!
However busy you are please try at the very least to leave your mark out of 10 below so I get some sense of the Scraper’s perceived utility! Thank you!
The MOOC Comment Scraper brings together brief summarised versions of recent blog posts along with resulting comments (See A ‘Comment Scraper’ for Aggregating Blog Posts with Comments in a MOOC, the update, FAQ and an output). The idea is to provide a quick up-to-date impression of posts and comments relating to a particular MOOC. I’ve experimented with the Comment Scraper on several MOOCs but not surprisingly, the concept works best with the connectivist MOOC style where significant debate and discussion can often be found in the blogs of participants rather than in the centralised forums favoured by most xMOOCs.
The P2PU course run by Dave Cormier, ‘Rhizomatic Learning – The community is the curriculum‘, is a good opportunity for further experimentation and several participant blogs have already appeared with comments. I’m intending to display the Scraper output on the page, ‘MOOC Comment Scraper Output – #rhizo14‘, and will try to keep it up-to-date. It’s not practical to seek permission to do this from all authors but past experience suggests that nobody is too concerned – of course I will exclude any author if they request.
I’m not sure how the Scraper should should be developed, if at all, so any comments about the design or about errors, omissions etc are very much appreciated. Previously I included an RSS feed on the display page so that the Scraper output could be fed to a Reader but had no feedback as to whether this was useful – I’d be happy to include it again if required (now included!).
Connectivists are inclined to turn up their noses at xMOOCs. I’ve done this myself, (Why can’t an xMOOC be more like a cMOOC ?), pointing at the instructivist pedagogy that xMOOCs inherit from traditional courses. Now, one way or another, I’ve participated in several xMOOCs and I’ve even completed ‘Introduction to Philosophy‘ and ‘Quantum Mechanics for Scientists and Engineers. I’m under no illusions about becoming expert in either of these topics but I did learn something worthwhile and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience – rather more than some traditional courses I’ve known!
So what’s there to like about xMOOCs ?
Videoed Lectures – minutely planned and rehearsed in advance, these are but distant cousins of any lecture in any traditional course. View whenever you like or wherever you are. Pause, rewind, fast forward or repeat segments, even speed up the presentation if you think you know it all or slow it down if you don’t – what luxury! If you have language difficulties or want to construct your own notes there’s probably lecture transcripts available too.
What a contrast with traditional lectures! When I was a student (years before the Internet) a certain mathematics lecturer would enter the lecture room and start writing notes from the top of the left blackboard. When all the boards were full he wiped out everything and started again. He rarely spoke and we spent the entire hour just copying notes that were essential for the examination. Little else was studied and we only followed up by some question spotting shortly before the exam. Of course not all traditional lectures are like that but as vehicles for learning, xMOOC videos seem to be head and shoulders above what many traditional lectures can offer in practice.
Expert Tuition – xMOOC video professors who participate in the forums can progress learning by swiftly clearing up ambiguities, developing points of interest and, by their example, set high standards for communication between students. A large number of participants who are not active in the forums probably benefit too.
Experts with the necessary skills to intervene at the right time or place and in the right way are greatly appreciated in xMOOC forums. Quantum Mechanics may be an extreme example but where understanding rests on theoretical concepts with little intuitive appeal effective learning can become very difficult without someone having expert knowledge of the unfamiliar facts and methods that are the accepted nuts and bolts of the subject. This can also apply in xMOOCs dealing with humanities topics, even when there’s greater scope for participants to interact and learn from each other other. I did learn something reading 101 different participant accounts of ‘The Meaning of Life’ in the Philosophy MOOC but rather more from one or two succinct comments by the professors!
|Catalytic Learning – xMOOCs can motivate and consolidate learning by spilling over into open networks in ways that may be unexpected and serendipitous. xMOOCs influence learning outside themselves or inside other MOOCs. For example, Jenny Mackness in a MOOC on ‘Modern and Contemporary American Poetry‘ is surprised to find “so many connections with my research into online teaching and learning“. Karen Carlson’s excellent video, ‘When MOOCs Collide‘ illustrates how several ‘cross-breeding’ MOOCs have influenced her learning while Louise Taylor’s open notes on various MOOCs are so detailed they become an education in themselves.|
Community – ‘Massive’ and ‘Open’ almost guarantees a diversity of MOOC participants with different backgrounds and levels of prior knowledge. Only a small fraction may be active in xMOOC forums at any time but many do provide mutual help and encouragement. Perhaps surprisingly, this can include expert tuition by altruistic participants with no formal connection to the MOOC. Community in an xMOOC may not bear comparison with the cMOOC ideal where knowledge is created and shared in a distributed network but who knows? Perhaps inside every xMOOC there’s a cMOOC trying to get out!.
Quizzes, Assignments and Deadlines – Rightly or wrongly, many xMOOC participants place great importance on gaining certificates. ‘Passing’ a series of multiple choice questions or assignments marked by other learners is hardly a decent measure of competence but it does help to reinforce basic concepts and the challenge can be motivating. I doubt if I would have kept up the pace without the spur of weekly deadlines, particularly in Quantum Mechanics where the assignments involved considerable number crunching work.
Now I may have been very lucky in my choice of xMOOCs and I know that xMOOCs are not all of the same standard but whatever their pedagogical and other failings they evidently benefit large numbers of people across the globe. (Eg ‘Studying Learning in the Worldwide Classroom Research into edX’s First MOOC‘, reports that of about 155,000 registrants only about 26,000 were US based.) People without the resources or even the motivation to join a traditional course benefit from xMOOCs in ways that are often overlooked. The mostly silent majority also benefit – the so-called ‘lurkers’, ‘toe-dippers’ and ‘drop-outs’ who, for a miscellany of reasons ‘milk the MOOC‘ but do not qualify for a certificate.
xMOOCs are bound to improve with the technology and with a bit of push and shove may be capable of developing towards more open communities that put students at the center of learning. Some connectivists seem to avoid joining xMOOCs on principle whereas their presence might help shake off some of the baggage that xMOOCs inherit from traditional courses. If you can’t beat them, be pragmatic and join them – give xMOOCs a chance!
MOOCs have been around for some time now but exactly what they are for is still not too clear. It’s not that there can be no accounting for what’s learned in a MOOC, it’s just that getting a handle on it all is far more difficult in comparison with the traditional one-dimensional course where knowledge is squeezed into a single linear syllabus and regularly served up in digestible chunks by an instructor who ‘knows best’. Real learning never worked like that anyway. Lectures and assignments got missed and catching up became a social enterprise dependent on the goodwill of others or the ability to identify and flush out relevant stuff in a library. In any case, real learning is about understanding and that comes in fits and starts, with or without help from others and sometimes never, even when formal exams are passed – who hasn’t boasted of passing an exam on some boring topic without understanding the first thing about it?
Enter the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed MOOC and much of the informal and chaotic aspects of real learning move into the animal itself bringing enormous benefits to digitally literate and autonomous learners. Learner autonomy was exploited with much success in the early cMOOCs but admittedly a large proportion of participants were well-educated themselves with the capacity and motivation to get the most out of new learning strategies. Unfortunately, the formal education systems of the world do not produce an abundance of autonomous learners who can be relied upon to make the most of MOOCs and the learning experience of many participants is sadly limited, particularly when they’re dunked in at the deep end. Just look at the massive clunky forums beloved of xMOOCs where numerous participants without the necessary survival skills are deterred from posting much, or anything at all. I’ve written about this elsewhere (‘Learning to Learn‘) but isn’t there a significant gap to be bridged between traditional teaching and the newer forms of learning before many people can properly benefit from MOOCs?
I’ve now registered for the Stanford University ‘Quantum Mechanics for Scientists and Engineers‘ MOOC. I’ve been trying to understand QM off and on for several years without much success so I’m hoping to milk this particular MOOC for a more detailed understanding rather than just general information. In contrast, I was a complete novice in my last MOOC on philosophy with Edinburgh University but I did pick up some of the basics. No doubt some people will want to join the QM MOOC for that sort of reason too.
Inevitably, the massive number of learners attracted by free and open MOOCs have a very wide range of learning objectives and if the aspirations of the greatest numbers of participants are to be satisfied then MOOCS ought to be specifically designed for diversity of purpose (eg see ‘The First Adaptive MOOC‘). This is certainly not the case for many xMOOCs where the sole purpose seems to be to ‘pass the course’ on the basis of rather dubious methods of assessment. The overwhelming majority of participants who, for any reason, do not pass or have no interest in passing are overlooked although many will gain at least some educational benefit. Of course, the more a learner is able to participate in a MOOC the better but there’s nothing wrong with part-participation as Jim Stauffer succinctly points out in, ‘Open letter to an online learner mistakenly self-identifying as a “dropout” ‘. There’s nothing even wrong with no participation or simply downloading stuff for later perusal. With massive numbers and running costs per user near zero why should the MOOC care? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with milking a MOOC for anything you like.
In contrast with traditional face-to-face courses a properly designed, multifaceted MOOC should cater very well indeed for the parallel paths and nonlinear progress of real learning. Isn’t that what MOOCs should really be for?
MOOCow Mooc Cow
@Gordon_L Let me onto your blog! mooc!
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@MOOCow Of course MOOCow – good to see you again!
MOOCow: Thanks G – Sigh!
G: You don’t sound as happy as you did the last time you were here MOOCow. What’s up?
MC: Oh – just the usual celebrity appearances for keynotes and blogs and I enjoyed tweeting for Surprise Endings but as for MOOCs – I just can’t believe how stupid you are!
G: MOOCow! I earned a Coursera certificate on a philosophy MOOC – I can’t be stupid!
MC: I don’t mean you – I mean the whole stupid human race! Here you are on this planet, in real trouble with every imaginable problem under the sun and then down come MOOCs like manna from heaven and then what do you do? WHAT DO YOU DO ?
G: Um – steady on MOOCow. Of course there’s controversy about MOOCs but there’s progress too – leave them alone long enough and they’ll develop their own culture!
MC: Oh yeah? – like yoghurt?
G: MOOCs are very new. It’s understandable that some people are less than enthusiastic – professors are worried about their jobs.
MC: It’s not understandable at all – it’s IRRELEVANT! You can educate the world now for a song and a sixpence and what happens instead? Overpaid academics in their plush ivory towers squeal on about face-to-face teaching while thousands of people cram into clunky forums expected to teach themselves from YouTube videos given by rock-star professors. And would you believe it? The biggest problem with MOOCs is how to make money from them!
G: Ahh! – in the early days learners interacted freely with each other in connectivist MOOCs using their own blogs and social media for discussion – sharing resources. Topics were explored together and connections made …..
MC: Well and good but I’m not the first to say that MOOCs are just vehicles for education. Even George Siemens says “MOOCs are really a platform.” I say that MOOCs are Massive, Open and Online and you’re supposed to learn something – end of story. Even you know they’re not really courses. A MOOC really is Something Else - quite different and you ought to be finding out exactly what. Some old git keeps saying that putting trad courses into MOOCs was like making the first railway carriages resemble stage coaches so as not to terrify the passengers!
G: That was me – I thought it was apt.
MC: Not if things stay like that! OK then, so what do YOU think makes for good MOOCs?
G: Er .. the pedagogy maybe … educational technology?
MC: Wrong again! Come on – what was outstanding about some of these MOOCs you were in, whether you interacted, lurked or just sneakily downloaded all the videos and went away?
G: Hmm … a philosophy lecturer, very active in the forums, responding expertly to questions, sharing resources – even quelling trolls with diplomacy and constant good humour!
MC: And that MOOC on ‘The Modern and the Postmodern‘ you hardly did any work for?
G: Prof Roth’s videos were excellent – tremendous enthusiasm there. He even admits to learning something himself in ‘My Modern Experience Teaching a MOOC‘ – just like they say happens to facilitators in cMOOCs!
MC: There you are! Pedagogy or Ed Tech’s NOT the thing. It’s PEOPLE that make MOOCs good. And bad too – I’ve seen snarky facilitators rubbing up learners the wrong way in MOOCs – including in your beloved cMOOCs. I’ve seen MOOCs with incompetent organisers peter out only after a few days. I’ve seen disgruntled rock-star professors crash MOOCs! And it’s not just facilitators and organisers. Learners have no idea what to expect from a MOOC.
G: They did in the classic cMOOCs – some initial chaos and confusion maybe but people knew what to expect.
MC: And who were these learners?
G: Mainly educators of all types.
MC: Hardly your typical learner – eh? For every one of these early cMOOCers you’ve now got scores of ordinary learners fooled into these xMOOC things. They think they’re trad courses on the cheap with bells and whistles complete with serious credentialing. They’re so conditioned by exam-ridden education systems they spend more time arguing about assessment than learning anything!
G: But credentialing is important!
MC: Don’t muddy the waters! Learning and credentialing are separate issues – just see what Bonnie Stewart says in Inside Higher Ed - her young assistant, Dave Cormier also says interesting things about assessment. I say a MOOC is a MOOC as long as it’s for learning but there’s nothing stopping you bolting on anything else if you must – credentialing, sponsored textbooks, promotional doughnuts ….
G: You’ve got to admit there’s some clever people out there making predictions about MOOCs.
MC: Too clever by half – “You can take people to the water but you can’t make ‘em think!” is what we cows say about people.
G: Don’t be so cynical. It’s not easy to make predictions based on learning theory but some authorities do say that ….
MC: LEARNING THEORY? PREDICTIONS? AUTHORITIES? – my hoof! Did any of your authorities predict the Internet? They were even dubious about Twitter and Facebook when they came along but now social media’s running through their theories like thick gravy. Get real G! You’ve got big ears, some people have big feet and some happen to have big cognitive powers. Sure, listen to what they say – it’s best when they fall out with each other and start swearing – just see that Audrey Watters! You can learn a lot that way but you don’t need to take anyone’s advice. “Think for yourself” is another saying we cows have.
G: Um … I think that was Immanuel Kant.
MC: Look G, global education’s a global problem and MOOCs are in their infancy – don’t leave them to the corporate mercies of one fading superpower. What does it mean when one bright 11-year-old from Lahore excels on a physics MOOC?
G: Well …
MC: It means there’s plenty more bright youngsters where that one came from. Get ‘em into physics or any of that STEM stuff you use to solve problems. Even getting people to think critically before they start writing crap in YouTube comments is worthwhile. Learn how to design and run your own MOOCs and how to tailor them for people with different learning objectives and perspectives. Learn how to beat instructivist conditioning. Use Open Educational Resources if you can but if you can’t then pay for new stuff. Get decent facilitators who know how to hold a learner’s hand when it’s needed. Pay them if you have to – though I’ve seen bright sparks in MOOCs as learners who’d be happy to help out as facilitators next tine round. As for rock-star professors, celebrity brings its own rewards (as I well know!) and maybe they can sell their books but pay ‘em well too so they make time to mix with the learners. You’ll also need to invest in better video technology so they can make their awesome videos and you need to buy some more ….
G: Hey MOOCow – STOP! Where’s all this money coming from?
MC: Don’t ask me – I’m just a humble MOOC Cow. Do your own thinking for a change! I’m late for another keynote – byee!
G: Humble? ……. Come back MOOCow !
MOOCow Mooc Cow
@Gordon_L M-M-MMMOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOCC-C-C !! #think4urself
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