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Comment Collector – Some Rhizomatic Results

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The Comment Collector was collecting nothing but dust until:

Simon Ensor @sensor63
@Gordon_L d’u wanna do some #rhizo15 scraping ? ūüôā

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.

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Written by Gordon Lockhart

May 7, 2015 at 12:35 pm

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What Counts as Content?

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Dave Cormier asks, “…what happens when we peek under the word ‚Äėcontent‚Äô 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

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The Anarchy of Words

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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‚Äď 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

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Caring about Caring

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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 Рcan they ever live a normal life? (Dilbert РThe 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

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On Poetry, MOOCs and Mind the Learning Gap

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I’m rather wary of poetry but this ‘pedagogical moment’ by Emily Dickinson suggested by MOOCMOOC seemed less than scary. It’s short, reads well and actually rhymes, so perhaps it’s comprehensible fodder for the poetically challenged. My powers of analysis reach only as far as trying to find out what it’s about. With some help from Wikipedia, raw googling and my nearest and dearest, I equate: Prison = School, Mob = Children and “only Afternoon” refers to Saturday afternoons when 19th century schools closed down for the day.

From all the Jails the Boys and Girls
Ecstatically leap‚ÄĒ
Beloved only Afternoon
That Prison doesn’t keep

They storm the Earth and stun the Air,
A Mob of solid Bliss‚ÄĒ
Alas‚ÄĒthat Frowns should lie in wait
For such a Foe as this‚ÄĒ

Emily Dickinson (1830 Р1886)

I’m not too clear about Frowns and Foe though. Who’s doing the frowning and who’s the Foe? First, I think it’s the frowning teachers treating the kids as foes to be subdued and conquered but then the “lie in wait” suggests something rather longer term; so I really don’t know. Perhaps Emily intended the uncertainty or perhaps I’m so poetically challenged that something pretty obvious has escaped me. As a schoolboy I didn’t appreciate the value and validity of different interpretations when it came to poetry and suffered humiliation by the class intellectual (for liking the ‘Lady of Shallott’!) Some anxiety still remains about getting it right assuming there is a ‘right’.

school_is_prison

SCHOOL IS PRISON by paradigm-shifting on DeviantArt

At all stages of my formal education solid barriers¬†were created and maintained between teacher and pupil, professor and student – jailer and jailed? I don’t think I viewed school as a prison but certainly ‘playtimes’ at school and the social aspects surrounding formal education were often far more memorable and instructive than the ‘lessons’ themselves. I think that one of the best things about MOOCs is their potential to break down these barriers and smooth over the perceived gap between learners and the so-called learned. cMOOCs are supposed to do this anyway¬†but so can¬†the larger xMOOCs, at least to some extent, for those who dare enter the mammoth discussion forums.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find some¬†xMOOC professors willing to engage¬†with forum participants and deal patiently and diplomatically with all sorts of questions, even admitting to learning things themselves! Best of all, some advanced learners with no formal connection to the xMOOC are willing¬†to assist others and, in contrast with¬†the¬†inadequate sprinklings of formal teaching assistants, their numbers tend to scale with the size of the MOOC. This can make a big difference, particularly in STEM areas where hordes of participants can grind to a halt at any point as they plod their way through basic linear material. Though the quality of informal advice can be variable and not all advanced learners are patient and diplomatic, their contribution to xMOOC success is probably more significant than the xMOOC providers are prepared to admit.

I hesitate to update Emily Dickinson’s excellent poem for the age of MOOCs but having already done so for T S Eliot, I am compelled by the muse.

To all the MOOCs the Girls and Boys (with apologies to Emily Dickinson).

To all the MOOCs the Girls and Boys
Ecstatically leap‚ÄĒ
Beloved all their Afternoons
In rapt Attention keep

They tweet the Earth and stun the Cloud,
In¬†MOOCs of solid Bliss‚ÄĒ
Alas‚ÄĒAssessment lies in wait
To bring an End to this

Written by Gordon Lockhart

January 22, 2015 at 9:09 pm

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MOOC Comment Scraper ‚Äď 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

Essence of MOOC and the Museum Analogy

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Essence of MOOC –¬†I’ve been trying to filter out¬†from all the hype and controversy, the essential and distinguishing features of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) – as they are right now, out there in the field.

  • MOOCs are About Learning – In essence, MOOC’s are concerned only with learning something, somehow. A good reason for MOOCs having a stupid but distinctive name is to clearly distinguish them from anything else – particularly traditional ‘courses’ and their associated baggage.
  • MOOCs are Popular – MOOCs are surprisingly popular. From the very first cMOOC in 2008 the numbers of participants has continued to astonish and even overwhelm their organisers. There is a strong demand for Higher Education, however effective MOOCs may be in delivering it.
  • MOOCs are Accessible – At a stroke, MOOCs have become freely available to thousands of students all over the globe, who, for whatever reasons, would not have had any access to Higher Education or, very importantly, access to fellow learners.
  • MOOCs Inhabit a Massive Space – The web extends way beyond the limitations of any classroom, library – or any nation. MOOCs that climb into boxes and pretend to be traditional courses inevitably limit their potential.
  • Diversity is of the Essence – The openness of MOOCs attracts an extraordinarily diverse range of participants, differing in so many different ways – race, culture, language, age, background, motivation … This is a strength that deserves to be recognised – and catered for.
  • Facilitation is of the Essence – Whatever the pedagogical colours of a MOOC and whatever labels are applied (facilitators, teachers, instructors, organisers, staff, professors, TAs, sages on stages, guides by sides, ¬†…), the dedication and skills of those responsible for organising and running MOOCs are crucial.
  • Technology will be of the Essence – Many of the difficulties suffered by current MOOCs (clunky communications, scrappy aggregation, sub-standard videos, less than synchronous sessions, crude monitoring and assessment techniques …), are down to the limitations of current technology. This is likely to improve – rapidly.

Other features are maybe not quite so compelling. Serendipity is one since many MOOC participants report quite unexpected discoveries in MOOCs, or as a result of taking MOOCs. (I finally completed my first SF short story as a result of taking a MOOC on philosophy!) Also, time is not of the essence – good MOOCs never die!

MOOCs and Museums –¬†The Science Museum in London has always fascinated me. When I was a boy my parents could leave me there for hours, happily pushing buttons on the interactive displays or watching their amateur radio station talking to the world. Now, years later, everything is far more sophisticated but the Science Museum is still massive, open and free for anyone to enjoy and engage with and as popular as ever. Friendly experts and curators chat in small informal groups that you stumble into – or out when you’ve had enough. Excited kids with notebooks rush around doing projects and there’s a wealth of info for dedicated learners including specialist lectures at set times.

Science Museum, London

Science Museum, London – by lesteph on Flickr

A good museum makes great use of a massive space for a wide range of open activities attracting a diversity of visitors. You might come in to study a particular exhibit or maybe just wander around looking at whatever interests you. You can follow predetermined paths to learn all about ‘Space Travel’ or ‘Climate Change’ or you might just retire to the library for peace and quiet and some deep study. Nobody calls you a ‘dropout’ or a ‘lurker’ because you don’t participate much or fail to complete some prescribed chunk of learning! There’s so much stuff around you’d never learn it all anyway. Perhaps you did learn something or perhaps you will next time you come. Your learning is entirely your own business.

London Science Museum

London Science Museum – by jay galvin on Flickr

No analogy is perfect but isn’t this the kind of informal learning environment that the vast majority of MOOC participants, including the so-called ‘dropouts’, really want – perhaps in spite of themselves and the vested interests pushing them this way or that? Participants who drop in and out of a MOOC, perhaps returning next time round to participate again or only to download something of special interest, have a lot in common with museum visitors, coming and going – just as they please.

At the end of the last xMOOC I participated in, a significant number thought the ‘course’ had been too easy and just as many thought it was too difficult. Neither opinion is surprising given the diversity of participants. Why shouldn’t a MOOC be like a good museum and actually try to be all things to all people? There’s plenty of space out there to embed anything you like in a MOOC without going too off-topic. For example, recommended paths for particular groups – ‘courses’ if you like in the everyday sense of the word ( ‘route or path taken by something, such as a stream, that moves’ – The Free Dictionary). No doubt, a relatively small but important group of learners would want to ‘pass the course’ by some sort of assessment procedure – and why not? Several MOOCs might be linked together in a single overarching MOOC, or even MOOCs within MOOCs within MOOCs – ad infinitum! The mind boggles and I’ve blogged before about ‘super-MOOCs‘ but isn’t the essential MOOC sufficiently flexible to support a wide variety of different approaches (pedagogies, facilitation styles, technologies etc) on a grand scale? MOOCs really do want to be massive!

Written by Gordon Lockhart

April 15, 2013 at 11:47 am

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