Connection not Content

A Blog for MOOCs and Other Animals

Deep Learning in MOOCs

with 7 comments

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.

Deep Learning MOOC comic

Deep Learning MOOC comic (Kevin Hodgson on Flickr)

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!

Written by Gordon Lockhart

March 11, 2014 at 5:49 pm

Posted in Mooc, rhizo14

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7 Responses

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  1. I had a feeling you were lurking… there was a small Deep Learning MOOC, very similar to the Making Learning Connected CLMOOC and a few others. The model and mood are different. Terry and Dogtrax (Kevin) from Rhizo were in both — I met them as moderator/participants in CLMOOC. I’d been thinking you might be interested in checking out the model, but since you’re using one of Kevin’s graphics. you may already have. When I started the CLMOOC, I had doubts but ended up finding it quite satisfactory/satisfying

    I ran out of time and attention span for #FutureEd and was more engaged by Rhizo. I like the overview/synthesis and comparison of evolving models. 

    PS I’d recommend you as a philosophy tutor…



    March 12, 2014 at 7:03 am

    • Hi Vanessa – I searched for suitable Deep Learning images on Flickr but it only later dawned on me that ‘Dogtrax’ was the same on Rhizo14! Again, I’m MOOC’ed out now and my next task is to document the Scraper. I’ve been very pleased with its reception on Rhizo14. There seems to be an unexplored niche for aggregation tools that simply abbreviate stuff one click away from source and don’t try to be ‘sticky’ in the process.

      You’ve made me think about what it would take for me to be a philosophy tutor 🙂 I enjoyed the MOOC tremendously but was too lazy to really read around the subject. Trad exams may be useless in many ways but they sure prodded people like me into deep learning activity! MOOCs are a great source of entertainment but I’ve little idea of how this could be harnessed for the sort of STEM courses I used to teach.

      Gordon Lockhart

      March 12, 2014 at 11:56 am

  2. speaking of philosophy, I thought of you when this came up on an intellectual history page, The Gernans Play Monopoly,



    March 13, 2014 at 5:14 am

  3. […] 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 – T…  […]

  4. Thought provoking post, Gordon. The only thought I’d add is that if competence is important, then assessment is paramount. This is where MOOCs fall down. But that’s not to say that the learning experience wasn’t worthwhile or even ineffective.

    Ryan Tracey

    March 25, 2014 at 8:33 am

    • It’s also where many traditional courses fall down … but I agree. Other modes of education, not requiring rigorous assessment, come more easily in MOOCs and currently serve the vast majority of MOOC participants. But experimentation continues – the necessary infrastructure/scaffolding needed to deliver and assess very specific competencies is bound to develop – eg online lab simulation.

      Thanks for your comments Ryan.

      Gordon Lockhart

      March 25, 2014 at 10:25 am

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