Connection not Content

A Blog for MOOCs and Other Animals

The Wonderland of a Literary MOOC

with 6 comments

I recently joined ‘Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World‘ by Prof. Eric Rabkin of the University of Michigan. This is a typical Coursera xMOOC with the usual closed forum populated by a minority of participants. I never spotted Prof. R. in the forums but there are a number of helpful TAs, some having completed the course on a previous iteration.

Videos are presented in ‘flipped’ format. Prof. R. releases a brief ‘Before You Read’ video, setting the scene for each weekly topic (eg ‘Lewis Carroll’) and then there’s assigned readings and a 270 to 320 words essay to write, “on any literary matter that you studied in that reading: plot, style, theme, structure, imagery, allusion, narrator reliability, and so on.” The essay, “…should aim to enrich the reading of a fellow student who is both intelligent and attentive to the readings and to the course.” So far so good but the essays are peer reviewed and the system software only allows essay writers to see their own reviews after they review 4 or 5 other essays. A small minority of reviewers submit a minimum of desultory remarks, or even random nonsense, just to comply!

Several videos by Prof. R. discussing different aspects of the topic, (eg 8 videos for Lewis Carroll), are released following the peer assessments. Prof. R. has a very relaxed style of delivery and I found the videos really enjoyable and informative. Writing the essays before the videos does seem the better strategy but some participants would rather have the videos first to spark off ideas. Could anyone reading ‘Alice’, perhaps for the first time, really not have ideas of their own? Perhaps a lack of confidence and a mistaken belief that the only ‘correct’ interpretations are the ones handed down by the Professor is the root cause.

The last literary essay I wrote was a very long time ago but I did manage 4/6 on the two essays I submitted for peer assessment. This is not too surprising as the marking scheme is tightly constrained. There are two categories: form (grammar, usage, and structure) and content (matters of insight, argument, and example). Each is marked on a scale of 1 to 3 so the marks awarded can only range from 2 to 6 and unless the form or content perceived by a reviewer is undeniably awful or absolutely brilliant, the most likely score is 4. Most participants make 4 but not all are happy and there’s the usual controversy, beloved of xMOOCs, about given grades and the marking scheme. The marking scheme is probably designed to keep up grade averages and limit excessively low or high scores. It’s certainly crude and of course it’s operated, with or without due diligence, by other participants. Perhaps a participant’s averaged grades will make some sense by the end of the course but peer assessment is the only means of assessment. My feeling is that these grades have considerably less significance than many participants are led to believe.

The feedback on my own essays was brief but friendly and quite helpful. Many participants (like me) are unpractised literary essayists so some inconsistency between 4 peer assessments on the same essay is to be expected. One peer comment really made me think, “Be careful of words like would, may, appear etc. You are convincing me of your point, use more aggressive language.” But my literary interpretations can be quite speculative and so too are many other interpretations I’ve come across on this course – sometimes wildly speculative! Dressing up speculation with unduly assertive or aggressive language seems a bit like getting a debating point across by shouting.

This course is a new experience for me. I enjoyed the reading and writing but found it all very time-consuming and now with several other projects on the go I’m only monitoring progress. I hardly participated at all in the forums but there was good discussion and debate there.  This was clearly the focal point of the course for a small minority of participants and participatory learning and engagement was certainly in evidence. Participants were urged to use the forums but in spite of the usual section for “General discussion about the course, life and everything under the sun.” attempts to move outside the silo’s unspoken limits were politely discouraged. For example, a few participants (not me!) wanting to publicise their own writing met with dusty responses. Of course it’s not a creative writing class but what do Michigan or Coursera have to fear? – criticism by participants who Know What they Signed Up For? – mass exodus from the Proper Course? – overloaded servers? I doubt if these concerns are significant. Some mild ‘forking’ of the course might even help reduce the dreaded dropout rate!

Exercising my new-found powers of literary interpretation I realised that the Lion and the Unicorn episode in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass was really about something else. Unfortunately, Carroll does not make this too clear so I had to rewrite it:


Lionc_and_Uniconx

The Uniconx and Lionc with the Connected Cake

(John Tenniel’s Lion and Unicorn illustration for Lewis Carroll’s’ Through the Looking-Glass’ – Wikipedia)

The Uniconx, the Lionc and the Connected Cake

(Apologies to Lewis Carroll)

At this moment the Uniconx sauntered past with his hands in his pockets. ‘I ran the best course this time?’ he said to the King.
‘A little — a little,’ the King replied, rather nervously. ‘You shouldn’t have run them through with your pointed questions you know.’
‘It was for their own good’ the Uniconx said carelessly, and he was going on, when his eye happened to fall upon Alice: he turned round rather instantly, and stood for some time looking at her with an air of the deepest disgust.
‘What — is — this?’ he said at last.
‘This is one of your Customers’ replied Haigha eagerly, coming in front of Alice to introduce her. ‘We only found it to-day. It’s as large as life, and twice as natural!’
‘I always thought they were invisible until monetised!’ said the Uniconx. ‘Is it alive?’
‘It can talk but it can’t think for itself,’ said Haigha, solemnly.
The Uniconx looked dreamily at Alice, and said ‘Talk, Customer.’
Alice could not help her lips curling up into a smile as she began: ‘Do you know, I always thought Uniconxes were invisible too! I never saw a visible one before!’
‘Well, now that we have seen each other,’ said the Uniconx, ‘if you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you. Is that a bargain?’
‘Yes, if you like,’ said Alice.
‘Come, fetch out the cake, old man!’ the Uniconx went on, turning from her to the King. ‘Certainly — certainly!’ the King muttered. ‘Open the bag!’ he whispered to Haigha. ‘NO! Not the one from the silo — its stuffed with graded ticks! The other is discontented.’
Haigha took the large connected cake out of the bag and gave it to Alice to hold while he got out a dish and carving-knife.

The Lionc had joined them while this was going on. ‘What’s this!’ he said, blinking lazily at Alice, ‘Are you animal — vegetable — or mineral?’
‘It’s my visible Customer!’ the Uniconx cried out proudly before Alice could reply.
‘Then hand round the cake, Customer,’ the Lionc said, lying down and putting his chin on his paws. ‘Everyone sit down. Aggregate, remix, repurpose and feed forward: fair play with the cake, you know!’
The King was evidently very uncomfortable at having to sit down between the two massive creatures; but there was no other place for him. ‘What a time the Customer is, cutting up that cake!’ he sighed.

Alice had seated herself on the bank of a little brook, with the great dish on her knees, and was sawing away diligently with the knife. ‘It’s very provoking!’ she said, in reply to the King ‘I’ve cut several slices already, but they always connect up again!’
‘You don’t know how to manage cakes,’ the Uniconx remarked. ‘Hand the content round first, and cut it into facts afterwards.’
This sounded nonsense, but Alice very obediently got up, and carried the dish round and the cake divided itself into three pieces as she did so. ‘Now try to cut it up,’ said the Lionc, as she returned to her place with the empty dish.
‘I say, this isn’t fair!’ cried the Uniconx as Alice sat with the knife in her hand, very much puzzled how to begin. ‘The Customer has given the Lionc more than me!’
‘She’s only trying to share but she’s kept hardly any for herself’ said the Lionc. ‘Don’t you like connected cake?
‘I can’t tell for certain’, said Alice dubiously as the cake re-formed on the plate. ‘It’s all very confusing..’
Several pieces of the cake fell to the ground and found their way into the brook.
‘Why not?’, said the Uniconx. ‘Learn to live with certainty. There’s no secret about a prescriptive cake. Start at the beginning, get to the middle and follow it right through to the end – or die! If you join it in the middle you pay a price.’
‘Not if there’s no content!’ countered the Lionc, ‘and what’s more, a cake should have several middles and ends or none at all.’
‘Scaffolding!’ shouted the Uniconx, standing up. ‘She can’t live with uncertainty because she can’t think for herself!’
‘Oh dear!’ muttered the King disconsolately. Is it off with her talking head then?’
‘Of course I can think for myself!’ cried Alice indignantly.
‘Then choose to run the course with me’ said the Lionc triumphantly and offered her a paw.
Alice started to her feet and they both sprang across the little brook stopping abruptly at a single path sign-posted ‘Self-direction Only’
‘Multiple choices!’ shouted the Uniconx at them from the other side of the brook. ‘Only chaos, confusion, bewilderment, bafflement, or perplexity down there! You’ll all drop out of course!’
‘This way, that way or the other?’ asked the Lionc pointing down the same path but he bounded off before Alice could answer.
The Uniconx turned to the King in frustration. “She can never be told a thing!”
‘Rather like the Bell-Ringers Daughter – ha! ha!”, exclaimed the King as he wandered off.

Written by Gordon Lockhart

July 14, 2015 at 9:33 pm

Posted in Mooc, Uncategorized

Tagged with

Rhizo15 – No Content At All

leave a comment »

‘No Content At All’ – sung to the tune of an ancient folk song, ‘No Hips At All’ (don’t ask!). I couldn’t get its tune out of my head while weeding my garden so here it is – rhizomatically hacked.

  No Content At All

Come all ye young teachers and listen to me
while I sing you a song that will fill you with glee
It’s about a young maiden so lovely and small
who enrolled in a course with no content at all!

What? No content at all! No content at all!
She went on a course with no content at all

Well she remembers the night she first read
of learning subjectives with objective dread
She reached for the teacher, her first port of call
then she reached for the content – no content at all!

What? No content at all! No content at all!
She went on a course with no content at all

Teacher oh Teacher oh what shall I do?
My pleasures are plenty my troubles are few
so how could you ever allow me to fall
right into a course with no content at all?

What? No content at all! No content at all!
She went on a course with no content at all

Student, oh student now don’t feel so sad
all the content you seek is on your iPad
There’s many a learner will come at the call
of a maiden distressed by no content at all

What? No content at all! No content at all!
She went on a course with no content at all

The young maiden took her teacher’s advice
and found online learners exceedingly nice
Working with others kept her in thrall
of artefacts made with no content at all!

What? No content at all! No content at all!
She went on a course with no content at all

She loved her co-learners and baked them a pie
invited them over to give it a try
I’m so sad to say and regret to recall
that a pie with no content is no good at all!

What? No content at all! No content at all!
She went on a course with no content at all

Now I get back to my weeding!

Written by Gordon Lockhart

May 28, 2015 at 9:08 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with

Comments and Poll on the Rhizo15 Comment Collector

leave a comment »

The Comment Collector has been generating brief summaries of most Rhizo15 WordPress and Blogger posts and comments by scanning and aggregating nearly 70 RSS blog feeds. The idea is to highlight centres of activity and discussion rather than aggregate whole blogs. Currently, the Collector displays new posts with or without comments for 3 days and posts with comments up to 10 days.

Your opinions on any of the following or other aspects concerning the Comment Collector would be very helpful to me in deciding whether or how to develop the Collector. I have no intention to develop the Collector for any commercial purpose and Programming details are openly available.

You are invited to comment below and/ or  complete the poll.

 

Do you look at the Collector output frequently or never? Does it provide you with a supplementary service or has it a distinctly different function from other facilities such as blog and twitter aggregation?

 

 

Should the Collector give more information or less?

 

 

Version 2 of the Collector can accumulate a considerable amount of data in machine-readable form (dates, identities, etc) making various types of analysis possible. What are the ethical (legal?) considerations?

 

 

Infrequently Asked Question

I am so pleased with the Comment Collector!! How can I ever repay you?

No – don’t send money! …. but there is something useful you can do. I have been trying my hand at writing SF short stories – all readers have enjoyed my efforts! Both of them liked,  Experimental Philosophy and Grandfathers’ Paradox but I seek a wider audience.  Constructive criticism and comment is very welcome!

Written by Gordon Lockhart

May 22, 2015 at 3:58 pm

Posted in rhizo15

Comment Collector – Some Rhizomatic Results

with 7 comments

The Comment Collector was collecting nothing but dust until:

Simon Ensor @sensor63
@Gordon_L d’u wanna do some #rhizo15 scraping ? :-)

I hadn’t really planned to unleash the Comment Collector on Rhizo15 but was pleasantly surprised when several participants seconded Simon’s request. Now Dave Cormier has asked about rhizo15 comments in comparison with rhizo14 so I’ve pulled out the graph I did for a 20 day period from the beginning of rhizo14 and compiled a similar one based on data collected so far for rhizo15.

rh14

KEY: BLUE = No. of posts. RED = No. of comments
YELLOW =  Comments per post x 100

The graph above gives some idea of how commenting in rhizo14 developed with time. This was 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 was still being adjusted. The period from Jan 23 2014 was more stable with comments collected over a constant 10 day period up to the date indicated.

rz

KEY: BLUE = No. of posts. RED = No. of comments
YELLOW =  Comments per post x 100

The rhizo15 graph covers a 17 day period from Apr 20 2015. These results are less reliable before Apr 22 when adjustments were being made, blogs added and the aggregation process just starting up. Although the number of posts (blue; over 10 day periods ending on the dates indicated) has dropped off by about 20% from a maximum of 87 on Apr 26, the number of comments (red) is roughly constant so the number of comments per post (yellow) has been rising reaching  4.6 on May 5. (NB: shown as 460 on the graph).

Again, these results are more indicative of commenting activity among a sample of rhizo15 participants rather than a scientific study. Originally only 44 blogs were scanned but this has gradually risen to 68 as others were added. This has increased the number of posts and comments but should not have directly affected the ratio of comments to posts (yellow).

In the next version of the Comment Collector all data will be stored in machine-readable form so that analyses of any type can be undertaken. (eg comments only on the original set of 44 blogs mentioned above or charting the daily incidence of new posts and comments.) Analysis raises a number of issues, including the ethical, that I’ve discussed a little in  ‘Stitching Together the Fragments of a MOOC’ and ‘Collecting Connected Courses Comments (#ccourses)’ but have not really addressed yet.

In any case, suggestions and comments on the performance of the Comment Collector ( rhiz015 output ) or its analytical possibilities are very welcome.

Written by Gordon Lockhart

May 7, 2015 at 12:35 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with

What Counts as Content?

with 2 comments

Dave Cormier asks, “…what happens when we peek under the word ‘content’ to see what lives there?” Easy-peasy, the content of a course is simply what it contains. That’s what content means isn’t it? Dream up some learning objectives, concoct a curriculum with the bricks and mortar of texts, handouts, slides, videos, lectures, tutorials, build the course and Bob’s your uncle!. That’s what’s goes into the course so that’s its content.

But what’s coming out? One learner’s saying, “Wow! – I got a lot out of that course – great stuff!” while another didn’t get anything much at all. Yet another has language difficulties but at least he improved his English comprehension. Someone else, was on Facebook most of the time during lectures but she was greatly inspired by one of the set texts. All were very concerned with one part of the so-called content, the examinable part. They persistently questioned the lecturer about it but she was strangely reluctant to pinpoint parts of the ‘content’, that slide or this video, that Must Be Known.

Of course classifying the bricks and mortar of a course as content is wrong-headed! Bricks and mortar are there to support something else, but what? The content of a course is pretty much a subjective thing and that’s at least part of the problem. Maria from West Side story who knows her subjectives says, “…it’s true for you, not for me”. What’s in a course for you is one thing but what’s in it for others, including the designers of the course, can be quite different. What the designers believe they’re putting into a course can bear little resemblance to what you take out of it.

Is this so surprising? Read a book or look at an image on a screen or a painting and what’s in it for you is certainly not the paper, the pixels or the paint and maybe not even what the creator of the work had in mind either. A course is like a work of art, as open to as many different interpretations as there are spectators. The designers of a traditional face-to-face course fondly imagine that their own interpretation(s), encoded as learning objectives, will prevail. They hope to accomplish this by carefully selecting participants – culture, language, age, exam requirements, prior experience and so on – but even with sharply focused sets of learners, can their learning objectives ever be more than square pegs in round holes? Give the same course out of context with a distinctly different set of participants, maybe of a different culture and who knows what they’ll get out of the would-be course content – the wrong end of a stick? (‘Learning objects‘ designed to fit a wide range of larger instructional structures suffer from similar contextual shortcomings.)

In MOOCs, where little or no participant selection is the norm, the mismatch between learning objectives imposed by course designers and the multifarious objectives of self-directed learners is much more acute and this is barely recognised by MOOC providers that follow traditional instructional models. Their published objectives can be wildly out of tune with what many participants actually get out of these xMOOCs. The vast majority of participants are often labelled ‘dropouts’ because they don’t jump through the given hoops although at least anecdotal evidence suggests that many still benefit educationally one way or another.

So what lives under the word ‘content’? I’m with the Beatles here. To misquote:

Do you believe in learning from MOOCs?
Yes I’m certain that it happens all the time
What do you see when the content is free?
I can’t tell you, but I know it’s mine
Oh I get by with a little help from my friends
Mm I get high with a little help from my friends
Oh I’m gonna try with a little help from my friends
– – – – – – – – – – – – –

Written by Gordon Lockhart

May 4, 2015 at 12:21 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with

The Anarchy of Words

with 4 comments

La bocca della verita

“The Mouth of Truth – no-one knows the truth about how humans and technology relate to each other – all we have are perspectives, ideas and so what is dystopian for one may be utopian for another – hence this obviously ‘fake’ mouth of truth artificially spewing forth words.” – By welshmackem on Flickr.

I wrestle with the meanings of words such as ‘knowledge’, ‘networks’, ‘information’ and even ‘education’. I only found out what ‘pedagogy’ meant after I retired from more than 30 years lecturing in higher education. As for ‘critical pedagogy’, MOOCMOOC takes credit for the very little I know about that. Of course I have an everyday understanding but different authors use these words in different ways and I don’t have the theoretical background or appetite to figure out. So I’ve been trying to follow MOOCMOOC but not keeping up with the readings. I started well with Freire but came to a grinding halt with Giroux. I never really got going again but I did find several participant blog posts and comments very relevant and enlightening.

A problem with the more theoretical aspects of education or, to be fair, any theory that resists objective verification, is that what individuals absorb may be much more of an interpreted, filtered or ‘cherry-picked’ version than whatever was hatched in the minds of its originators. This is not necessarily a bad thing but it contrasts greatly with some of the technical areas I’m more familiar with. Take Information Theory. Here an entire theory builds on a narrow but mathematically precise definition of ‘information’ leading to deep insights into digital communication and a multitude of useful applications to prove its worth. Theories involving human communication may appear half-baked in comparison, open to interpretation, even inconsistent and their worth endlessly debatable. However, they do attempt to address a far wider range of important and complex issues and when conclusions emerge they deserve to be made comprehensible. Advanced thinkers may arrive at perfectly good and reasonable conclusions through theoretical discussion and debate among themselves but persuading others outside the loop can be a very different matter calling for very different skills.

Consider ‘anarchy’. In an enlightening blog post by Sarah Honeychurch she mentions her old supervisor saying, “…the anarchist is not typically found skulking outside the Houses of Parliament with a bomb beneath her long, black coat– the philosophical anarchist is a gentle soul with a belief in the innate goodness of her fellow humans.” Well maybe but the destructive image is probably the one most people immediately think of including myself. I recall anarchists being the first to break away from official routes at political demonstrations, stop non-believers from speaking, start throwing stones, create mayhem and ….. well, anarchy!

Words like ‘anarchy’ and ‘anarchist’ carry so much baggage in common usage. The gentle and well-read philosophical anarchist may enjoy a clear vision of what anarchy is about but is unlikely to convince others without choosing words very very carefully. The same consideration applies to today’s politicians. Almost regardless of their political philosophies, few now will openly describe themselves as ‘anarchist’, ‘communist’, ‘socialist, or ‘marxist’ and remain electable.

Even the ‘MOOC’ word in the minds of many, now identifies rather negatively with ‘xMOOC’  along with all the associated hype. Some time ago I suggested using Massive Open Online Learning Event (MOOLE) as a neutral and generic term for just about any learning event that’s open and involves large numbers of participants. So, in the first instance, cMOOCs, xMOOCs, or even mass twitter chats and educational games would be simply and literally described as MOOLEs !

Written by Gordon Lockhart

February 27, 2015 at 10:49 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with ,

Caring about Caring

with 6 comments

Once (and only once) and for a reason that escapes me now, the engineering professor had written the word ‘love’ on the blackboard, He stepped back and mused, “….don’t see that word often here …” and we males all shifted uncomfortably in our seats. At the time I thought him a little eccentric and behind the times. Rather than building on past successes his research had veered towards psychological and even philosophical aspects (OMG!). I preferred the nitty gritty of technical detail. He was not a particularly good administrator either but his door was always open and when I was in financial difficulties (more than once) he always managed to help. Not all the academic staff were so caring.

University engineering departments probably represent an extreme when it comes to caring about caring. In an almost all male environment it can be difficult to even discuss relationships let alone agree what needs to be done for the better. In particular, the small minority of female students, however academically gifted and self-assured, can find it difficult adjusting to an atmosphere of boyish geekiness and literal mindedness exhibited by some male students and academics.

Engineers – can they ever live a normal life? (Dilbert – The Knack; video via sillytoy)

Being a bit geeky and literal-minded myself and having no background in social sciences, much of the pedagogical discussion in MOOCMOOC either goes over my head or comes through too simply as exhortations to ‘Do Good!’. But I am invigorated by the stories of real teachers and real students and there have been some excellent thought-provoking examples of this. Some caring suggestions I came across could apply to the type of Higher Education environment I knew as a lecturer and I try to envisage the practicalities.

For example, turning up early at lectures for casual chat is one suggestion I considered (apologies as I can’t find who suggested this!). Sometimes students approach the lecturer before a lecture and conversation can flow but it’s not so easy when setting up overhead projectors, drawing curtains, dispensing handouts and attendance sheets, organising demonstrations etc and having to start more or less on time. For the career academic at a UK university, teaching, admin and research usually account for most working activity and in my experience (albeit last century) only the superhuman can balance all three satisfactorily. Promotion prospects hinge primarily on research and that involves travelling to meet potential sponsors, supervising research students and contracts, nail-biting applications for funding, ordering equipment and so on, not to mention actually doing research and writing it all up. The result is that teaching may come to be regarded as a secondary activity or even a necessary evil. Those taking the time to excel as teachers can be sidelined by a lack of publications.

Passion and involvement of the whole self are advocated and for good reason but displays of passion are not without danger. The prof I mentioned above liked and respected his young secretary but became worried that a goodnight kiss following a tequila-laden social event was a little too fond. So he apologised profusely to her the next day. Fortunately, to everyone else, including his secretary, this was nothing more than amusing evidence of his humanity and careful sense of propriety.

Most university academics probably recognise the benefits of getting to know students on a personal level but this can be difficult for practical reasons such as lecturing large numbers of students from different departments and can even be counter-productive if not approached with skill and maturity. The dean in Tom Lehrer’s comic song who “Tried so hard to be pals with us all” illustrates this nicely. These lines also highlight the stark ‘them and us’ divisions that can characterise university life.

To the beer and benzedrine,
To the way that the dean
Tried so hard to be pals with us all.
To excuses we fibbed,
To the papers we cribbed
From the genius who lived down the hall.

To the tables down at Morey’s (wherever that may be)
Let us drink a toast to all we love the best.
We will sleep through all the lectures,
And cheat on the exams,
And we’ll pass, and be forgotten with the rest.

Tom Lehrer – Bright College Days (video via slayerowns666)

The trouble with ‘linear’ subjects such as engineering, or STEM in general, is that there actually is a considerable amount of content that has to be transmitted into heads one way or another before moving on to a next stage. Yes, tutorials can be used to get to know students, problems can be framed authentically to spark interest and engagement but can calculus or circuit theory ever have the same potential for intimate discussion and reflection as poetry, art or philosophy?

UK universities seem better prepared for personal interaction between academic staff and students these days. There are formal systems such as staff/student committees and personal tutor schemes in place for mentoring and identifying collective and individual student problems. Personal tutors are encouraged to meet regularly with their tutees helping them with any type of problem arising but again, properly keeping track of perhaps 8 tutees is time consuming and may not be regarded by some tutors (or students!) as important. When borderline exam results are discussed in the privacy of examiners’ meetings the input provided by personal tutors can be crucial for fair decision making. Sadly, some tutors may have little to contribute – some may not even recognise the names of their tutees!

All sorts of practical issues bedevil good healthy interaction between academic staff and students. Perhaps things will change with the climate of opinion inside universities but I find this difficult to envisage without systemic change and proper resourcing.

Written by Gordon Lockhart

January 30, 2015 at 5:19 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , ,

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 46 other followers