Connection not Content

A Blog for MOOCs and Other Animals

Archive for December 2011

#Change11 :: Anatomy of a MOOC

with 5 comments

For some time I’ve been saying, rather negatively, that a connectivist MOOC is not a course at all, at least in any conventional sense and that the ‘C’ in ‘MOOC’ is unfortunate and leads to misplaced expectations. But the name has stuck and so now, trying to be more positive, I’m reaching for the defining properties of a MOOC – the essential MOOCiness of a MOOC. In what follows I’m taking ‘MOOC’ to mean, ‘connectivist MOOC’, typified by the CCK series including Change11 and not the massive Stanford courses that do seem more like conventional courses. Anyway, here’s my conception of what a MOOC is or should be:

  • An Open Learning Opportunity – a ‘cloak’ or ‘wrapper’ providing massive numbers of participants with learning opportunities in the widest possible sense of broadening their horizons (like travel does!). There’s a good chance of a small but critical mass of active performers emerging from large numbers of individuals connecting in whatever roles they choose – personal, collaborative, ‘toe-dipper’, lurker, or even troll.

There is absolutely no parallel to this in ‘real life’. Imagine a conventional course where most of the participants stay away and the few that don’t, try to learn something by twittering around, examining each others posts on scattered notice boards and occasionally responding by attaching their own comments! MOOCs, on the other hand, exploit the magic of the Very Wide Web where it’s easy (or should be!) for participants to move around in a spirit of toleration seizing on what’s important to them and filtering out what’s not. Each participant may have their dislikes. Excessive twittering, repetition, philosophising, chatter during synchronous sessions or un-proofread blog posts (“i hate decapitalised first person singulars!”) may be some, or maybe the very opposites apply but no problem. The options are always there to get over it, tolerate it or simply move away without causing offence. Again, this is hardly true of ‘narrow’ offline courses where face-to-face encounters in designated rooms are subject to social norms and assumptions that some participants may find inhibiting or even fail to recognise.

  • A Talking Shop – is “… an organisation or place where discussion is the main activity, with no decisions or actions necessarily arising from the discussion.” (Wikipedia). If some participants in a MOOC commit to worthy plans of action such as writing a joint paper, contributing to a Wiki or some form of assessment then well and good but the important point is that it’s not necessary and nobody is made to feel under obligation to perform in any ‘correct’ or prescribed way.

Change11 Talking Shop

Change11 Talking Shop

(Based on: ‘A picture is worth 35 bazillion calories by rudecactus, ‘la vaca de los sinvaca’ by José Bogado and Tagxedo)

To my mind this is fundamental in obtaining a freewheeling tolerant atmosphere with the best chance of rising above cultural differences, language barriers and the social pitfalls that can threaten large disparate groups. Wikipedia also adds, “The term ‘Talking shop’ is usually used in a pejorative or derogatory sense; apparently fruitless discussion forums are often dismissed as talking shops.”  Now whether this applies to any particular MOOC or not must be a matter of opinion but a MOOC can be very much more than just a Talking Shop (maybe ‘Talking Space’ is a better description). For a start, the common intention to learn about a specific ‘something’ acts as a unifying goal even though what is actually learned (if anything!) may be a matter of debate and very much up to the individual.

  • A Testbed – MOOCs provide a platform for experimentation allowing, “rigorous, transparent, and replicable testing of scientific theories, computational tools, and new technologies.” (Wikipedia)

Early days for the scientific theories and replicable testing perhaps but MOOCs are certainly up for new technologies, the ‘hard’ stuff that performs in aggregation. Integration of online tools in the shape of blogging platforms, micro-blogging, social bookmarking and networking, news curation sites and of course gRSShopper deserve careful research and development. To my knowledge the widely applauded gRSShopper is the only custom designed tool for MOOCs and plays a pivotal role but some means of aggregating comments attached to participant blogs as they appear would be very welcome. (To this end I’ve been looking at tools such as AutoHotkey, iMacros and AutoKey but comment scraping seems to be a difficult problem!)

So there’s my account of basic MOOC anatomy. I’m sure there’s much more that can be said about this remarkable young animal – and without the need to assume any overarching theoretical standpoint. For me at least (an ex-engineer and educator with a reductionist brain) that can’t be bad!

Written by Gordon Lockhart

December 8, 2011 at 3:38 pm

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