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Stitching Together the Fragments of a MOOC

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I read with interest George Siemens’ recent article on ‘Activating Latent Knowledge Capacity‘ and in particular:

The one draw back to networked learning is that while we have managed to advance conversation on the fragmentation of learning so that it is not a cohesive whole created solely by the instructor, we have not yet advanced the process of centring or stitching together fragmented parts into cohesive wholes for individuals.


Scattered puzzle pieces next to solved fragment – by Horia Varlan

This has certainly been my experience of networked learning and is particularly true of the mammoth xMOOCs where huge clunky forums can be so overwhelming that a majority of participants just keep away. In connectivist MOOCs, participants are encouraged to use their own blogs and social media for interaction but there’s still a need for ‘defragmentation’ – a means of signposting MOOC activity in one place in ways that are meaningful to the individual. There are of course RSS readers but these focus on the aggregation of blog posts rather than active discussion and interaction between participants. MOOCs sometimes pull together participant blog postings into a single ‘blog hub’ but the resulting presence of duplicate posts can be confusing, particularly if discussion about the same post is fragmented with comments appearing on the hub independently of other comments on the original post.

Interaction between the participants of a MOOC can centre around social media such as Google Plus, Facebook or even Twitter and a dedicated Facebook Group page can be very effective in tracking current activity. In this case, the most recently active threads appear first, often with relevant images and the non-active ones gradually fall into obscurity. This can result in timely and fast-moving forum discussions although the various threads are unlikely to carry the more substantive contributions typical of blog posts. Over-dependence on social media is not without a price. Participants who are not registered for some services will be excluded and there is the inevitable manipulation of users and their data for commercial purposes.

Setting aside the practical problems of implementation, what considerations should apply to the design of a ‘MOOC defragmenter’?

  1. Give primacy to personal web space – First and foremost participant web spaces should be recognised and scanned as the major source of data. Currently, most participants are unlikely to have their own web spaces but setting up a personal blog has never been more straightforward. The trend towards establishing a digital presence on the open web is set to continue as the benefits of controlling one’s own data and digital identity become more widely recognised. Innovation such as ‘Domain of my Own‘ demonstrates that owning and managing one’s own slice of the web is not just for the geeks.
  2. Signpost current activity – Create a concise overall view of current MOOC activity on a single page. Focus on the wood rather than the trees. Activity could be signposted by direct links to participant spaces with older material dropping down in classic Facebook style. Little manipulation of content or additional material is envisaged so that participants are encouraged to move on to whatever fragment of the MOOC they find of particular interest.
  3. Openness Rules! – Clear information about rules, settings and any other uses made of participant data should be freely stated and available. Selecting output from a miscellany of inputs necessarily involves a set of rules that are designed to bring together and output MOOC fragments as a cohesive whole. Rules, however, can be manipulated, commercial advertising being the obvious example. Data could also be collected for academic research or other purposes. MOOCs are complex systems and the rules governing effective defragmention are also likely to be complex. Some rules may be misunderstood, unacceptable or even detrimental to the interests of some participants.

Returning to the practical, I have experimented with a ‘MOOC Comment Scraper‘ that generates brief summaries of WordPress and Blogger comments and posts by scanning the RSS feeds of participant blogs. The latest version was well tested during the excellent Rhizo14 MOOC and considered to be a useful facility by many participants (see MOOC Comment Scraper Output – #rhizo14 ). Further development has now resulted in a ‘Comment Collector’ where output items are ordered according to the date of a post’s latest comment rather than the date of the post itself. An example output was derived from a real MOOC (nonsense text replaces real). The presentation could be enhanced in a number of ways but as an amateur programmer I’m unlikely to produce a really comprehensive MOOC defragmenter! All the same, I’d be pleased to find another MOOC for a field test.

Written by Gordon Lockhart

July 25, 2014 at 5:46 pm

Posted in Mooc

Tagged with

MOOC Comment Scraper – Update (4)

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MOOC Comment Scraper

No MOOCs were harmed by the Scraper. (Image via José Bogado)

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.



Written by Gordon Lockhart

March 27, 2014 at 9:03 pm

Posted in Mooc, rhizo14, Uncategorized

Deep Learning in MOOCs

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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

Tagged with

MOOC Scraper Update (3) – (and Hello #FutureEd !)

with 18 comments

MOOC Comment Scraper

Experimental Comment Scraping
(Based on ‘la vaca de los sinvaca’ – by José Bogado)


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.


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

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!

Written by Gordon Lockhart

February 4, 2014 at 9:19 pm

Posted in Mooc, rhizo14

MOOC Comment Scraper – Update (2)

with 10 comments

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!).

Written by Gordon Lockhart

January 15, 2014 at 5:46 pm

Posted in Mooc, rhizo14

Give xMOOCs a Chance !

with 8 comments

Kiss me

Don’t turn up your nose at xMOOCs!

(‘Kiss Me’ by Florian Seiffert on Flickr)

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!

Written by Gordon Lockhart

December 6, 2013 at 3:23 pm

Posted in Mooc

Milking the MOOC

with 6 comments

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?


You can milk a MOOC for anything you like!
(Image by Tom Arthur on Flickr)

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?

Written by Gordon Lockhart

September 20, 2013 at 10:26 am

Posted in Mooc

Tagged with