Changing Course(ra): Ahead of the Curve?

I have to admit, I’m surprised it took this long for the knives to come out and chop away at all the mythic possibilities of MOOCs (which if done right, have a lot of promise for expanding the knowledge of those who are motivated to learn). I guess the mythic properties really belong to the Udacity, Coursera, EdX model of MOOCs – the idea of enabling learners worldwide to have access to University level education to better themselves, well really doesn’t ring true. Sure they know more, can even prove they know more in many cases, but doesn’t really move the needle in getting a better job (outside a select few from Udacity who impressed the professors so much they got jobs with Google and other tech companies).

What’s really interesting about Coursera’s shift is not that they’re adjusting their strategy (as with all startups, they need to adapt strategy or else they are unlikely to succeed) but the reasoning. According to the Chronicle article with quotes from Diane Koller “most Coursera users have degrees”. Which suggests that people who don’t have degrees don’t find this idea of education an avenue of inquiry.

The shift from sole content provider to platform for content with a credit broker situation is hopeful. Most districts and institutions have shifting values of what English 101 is constituted of – California’s values are different from, say, Alberta’s or Quebec’s. If Coursera can construct a way for a student from one institution in Bangladesh transfer credits to the University of British Columbia – at a cost of $30 per course – through Coursera’s platform of course – I think the possibilities are quite good that Coursera will make a nice tidy sum. Ivy League institutions may opt out of such setups – there’s no benefit to their image when transfer credit leads to a completion without the student stepping on campus. Where the inroads can be met is when you have a second tier institution who essentially give away their courses to Coursera, and wait for the transfer credit money to roll in.

This scenario doesn’t address what Coursera’s statements are around – making sure people get their first degree. However with immigration being a huge player in Canada’s development, and external accreditation of professionals being talked about for the last twenty years, perhaps this is a gap that’s worth filling. And that is getting people their first degree (in North America).

New Theories

I just finished reading this post by Steve Wheeler about learning theories for a digital age. I don’t know about whether these new theories are making older theories as anachronistic as he thinks. While connectivism and other  learning theories are enhancing our understanding of how humans learn, it’s not as if the new ideas render all that old work obsolete. In fact, I think it scaffolds our understanding of education quite nicely. If we go back a mere fifty years ago, there were only a few people interested in explaining how we learn. If we go back a hundred, there were even less. What Dewey said in the 1930’s, was amplified by others throughout the 60’s and is presently augmented to reflect our current way of thinking in the modern day. Sure, Steve’s not suggesting we forget where we came from – at least I hope he’s not – but Dewey resonates as an overarching theory as much as connectivism applies to how we learn online. Perhaps that’s because the shifting of what an “experience” exists as. An experience in 1930 is different (contextually and functionally) than an experience is today. Our perspective is broader (although our focus may be narrower).

Dewey could never have anticipated YouTube, but in a way we can watch a video on YouTube, experience it, and then attempt to practice it in our own reality. Dewey certainly thought that experiential learning was doing something and learning from it. While we can draw a parallel between watching a YouTube video and listening to a lecture in the 1930’s, I wonder if there’s enough of a difference between the two (referencing R.E. Mayer’s work with multimedia learning, Innis’ work with communication theory) that they are cognitively different. Factoring in motivation (typically YouTube videos are viewed with purpose, lectures, well, we all know about them) may have a big difference in whether or not information is retained. I think it’s incredibly valuable to return to the foundations of educational theory to ground ourselves and think about what we know.

Power Structure in MOOCs

I’ve thought about power in it’s relationship to students a lot. When I taught I was always uncomfortable with the idea of telling someone something, and having no one question it because I stood at the  front of the room. It’s the biggest reason I left “teaching”. In the greatest irony, now I run training… anyways, it seems like that power structure is nigh impossible to subvert. I had hopes when MOOCs started to appear because it seems like the self-empowerment idea on steroids – but in most instances the students are guided/forced to learn things. At the end (and there’s always a start and end to these things), the instructor via the marking of the computer, puts a stamp on your booklet, and you’ve completed the course. These kinds of MOOCs do very little to disrupt the notion of power in a “classroom”, in fact they reinforce the existing power structure entirely. I reckon it’s because we replicate the environments we know online, we have a “semester” or course start and end dates, we have teacher telling us what to do, and in what order to do them in. We follow lockstep, because that’s the role we expect to be in.

There’s the more connectivist MOOCs, and these seem a little more freeform. I know that in the Connectivist and Connective Knowledge and DS106 models, there’s more empowerment. Still, there’s George and Stephen, or Jim, Alan and Martha at the heads of those MOOCs. Those mentioned will really balk at my idea of them being at the head of those courses and will point to the many others that make them happen (in front of the proverbial curtain and behind), and my statement isn’t intended as a slight against them. The personalities of those contributors are key in driving people to those ideas within those courses/events/happenings.  Within that structure, people will look to those who champion the idea to guide how they experience it. How does one break that implicit power structure?

I think the next step in breaking the power structure is to set up an open course on a loose subject and have people set their own objectives. Guidance should be given on how to set good objectives, and other’s objectives should be ranked/rated using the Coursera peer marking strategy (except up the number of people marking to 5 or 6 to improve the reliability of the results). So if you set up a too easy, or too difficult to manage objective, the crowd can give you feedback on how to challenge yourself or how to manage your expectations. Scalable is important… then students use the tools they have to to find and aggregate content. Using the DS106 model, they can design their own assignments and periodically submit them for peer marking.  Pull in Howard Rheingold’s work with information reliability on the Internet. Really, the whole thing becomes crowd sourced, content, marking, assessment, how to assess your own learning, setting your own goals, creating your submissions.. everything.

Of course, all this pipe dreaming is predicated on the open web staying open. As copyright lawyers seem intent on locking down information behind paywalls, this approach may not be possible. Hell, it may not be possible now…

Context in a Digital Learning Environment

I originally wrote about this in the context of a Digital Literacies (Searching the Internet Effectively) that I was pushing into an LMS for the first time. Prior to that, I didn’t bother using a real LMS, just pushed paper for assignments and gave people PowerPoints that had the links embedded in the text. Didn’t really need the LMS before (or after for that fact!).

In all senses, this issue still resonates with me – context, not content, is key. The moment that you learn something is almost as important as what you learned. I remember vividly what I was doing when something clicked – most of you will as well. It seems that most people make those associations between what they were doing and what they learned.

I feel like DS106 and CCK12 have the context hurdles managed in slightly different ways. DS106 seems to provide context using a local facilitator/teacher to help guide at first (maybe as a technical director?), but at some point, the power structure flips (as it did in the Dr. Oblivion/DS107 clash, as well as groups and communities form in CCK). Essentially the learners form their own context for their experiences, and maybe that’s the most important thing with these open courses is that they enable the learner to develop an understanding of how to provide their own context for what they’re learning. Both these  open, massive, online courses have a Tuckman’s stages of group development deal going on.

CCK12 – Week 3 – It’s Not What You Know, It’s Who You Know.

I’ve only been peripherally involved in the fourth offering of Connectivism and Connective Knowledge – the course hasn’t evolved that much (at a cursory glance) and I must admit, the centralized discussion boards really helped with my engagement in the community. Of course, I don’t really know any of the participants, which is frankly my fault. So because I don’t know anyone, is there a sense of lost community with this offering of CCK? Perhaps. It certainly has a motivational effect on me – I’m not particularly motivated to read (or re-read) because I don’t think I have anything to add that I would’ve the last time (CCK08 Version of Networked Learning) – however through my experience with informal learning, you have to have good sources who are willing to ask good questions for this to work.

That process is very much trial and error, finding people seeing who they follow, following them for a while… all the pieces are based on networks and loose connections to each other. Howard Rheingold talks about this process, and the thing that strikes me about it is that it is entirely iterative, which is something I first came across in playing in bands. We’d write things, then build on them, then take them apart and re-work a different bit, always evolving, until the three or four of us feel it’s ready. Even then, it could mutate when played in front of an audience… The next time iterative development came through my life was in the process of software design. It’s interesting how much further iterative approaches have come in the last decade, and lets face it, an iterative approach makes sense in education.  The personal learning network (PLN, an acronym I don’t particularly like, mainly that I learn from everyone and everything, I shouldn’t have to make it explicit), is also iterative in how you feed it and how your network feeds you.

Comments Commentary

Commenting is apparently all the rage again. Well, whether or not turning off comments is an anti-democratic statement, or just a push to comment on one’s own blog… that’s the discussion really. Here’s a good summary of how some folks handle comments, go there review the ideas and come back. OK, so I felt compelled to write a longer piece, but that’s because I’m moved to. I suspect that most people who do not own a blog, or their own space, would not. They might however, consider leaving a comment. There two basic arguments for leaving comments on:

1. It’s the whole idea behind what makes the Internet great. Communication. Two-way communication, in fact, not just a faucet of information that spits out words when you turn it on.  Isn’t the whole point of a blog to engage in an exchange of ideas? I typically don’t respond to people who have comments turned off. I don’t read D’arcy Norman’s blog because it’s a dead end. While he may be pushing out great ideas, and I’m sure he is, because he’s written consistently good stuff. I don’t bother with it. There is a clear statement (which is not intended, I’m sure) that my opinion doesn’t matter. You see I like commenting on other’s article in a way that’s immediately reflected on that article/post. Most people won’t bother clicking through trackbacks, nor searching for responses. They aren’t that invested in it. Moreover, if you don’t want to be bothered to curate your own blog posts why should I?

2.  You create a walled garden of readers and feedback by turning comments off. Someone who stumbles on your site, who doesn’t have their own Internet presence, might comment if you gave them a chance. In fact, it might be their only way to comment (besides e-mail, which seems more and more to be an imposition rather than a service). So why take it away from them? It’s not taking away their voice, but it is taking away the opportunity. So why do it? I get that it feels more “yours”, which is an argument that D’arcy Norman makes – however, the Internet is not your, mine or anyone’s. It’s ours. So if you want part of it for you, keep it to yourself. But don’t expect someone else to write about it.  I have an Internet presence, but I doubt I would’ve started had I been unable to see the exchange that goes on between Downes and the people he interacts with. It wasn’t his writing that spurned me to action but the discussion around it.


Many people hate real life. By that I mean, people create a new identity online to satisfy what “real” life doesn’t provide. For some, it’s purely entertainment, others it’s a sense of community, for yet more it’s escapism. For many, it’s a combination of all that. You’d think that after indexing 6 billion pages, Google would understand that the reasons for creating an identity online is as complex as the identity we create for ourselves in any medium. So why are we limited to connecting via our real name? Security is a common pushback from Google – but there’s many people I only know online, I would like to maybe connect with them using Google+, but I’m not going to be able to. I don’t know their real names. I’m entirely fine with that. Some of these people I’ve “known” for well over a decade. In fact I trust them.

I really liked the article at Boing Boing about pseudonymous posting and why it matters – the comments are even more illustrious of the issue.  So inferring what we know about what Google knows, doesn’t it make sense that Google is insisting on real names is based on something else other than security? Perhaps it’s more about data mining – which has been Google’s strength and main asset since day one. It’s also an easy way to validate ranking through what’s being shared on the platform.

Formal Vs. Informal Learning

I’m applying for a job that is out of my educational range. Sure, this is something lots of people do all the time – where they have the experience but not the education credentials to back up the informal, on-the-job training that people have – or the experience. I’ve often wondered about formal education, whether it’s worth it, and I always assume it will be worth it. But maybe it’s not. I look at my experience, and comparing that to the job description, I’m confident I can do the job and excel in it. I have the skills and I have the passion to do it well. The thing that will hang me up is the lack of a Master’s. It’s not that I can’t do the education – every indication is that I can, my marks are high and feedback from my professors have been positive. The thing that holds me back is I just don’t have the money. At close to $700 for a half credit course, I’m about $5000 away from completing my Bachelor’s of Education. Even doing prior learning assessments would only reduce my courses required by one or two half credits. I’ve looked at the PLA’s as well, and in many cases, the theory required from these PLA’s bear no resemblance to the practical application of that skill.

Especially with online skills like HTML and the myriad of programming languages, most practitioners of web skills are self-taught or have learned on the job, a picture perfect definition of informal learning. How should we credit these people? Do we examine the projects they’ve worked on, or maybe give them a test to assess their skills? I lean towards the project based nature of assessment – I feel it’s closer to a real assessment of what someone can do. The other piece is that there’s such an open community of people out there sharing their work, is there any way to assess the individual with something as ubiquitous as HTML? Never mind the leaps and bounds that tools have taken since 2000, where it requires no memorization of tags, just the ability to select the appropriate tool from a list. Does that make the person less qualified than someone who has taken the time to go to class and learn tags? Factor this in further, most curriculum is behind the times, I know the stuff I learned in school in 2001/2 for HTML was already a couple years behind (it was equivalent to the courses in HTML I had taken at the University of Texas in 1997, which really didn’t tell me more than what I had taught myself already from resources on the web). Fast forward 9 years, and hopefully that curriculum has been updated and advanced, but there is no guarantee that the curriculum now looks at separation of content and design. In many ways informal learning has been superior to formal learning, especially so in this realm. I’d suspect that very very few institutions are thinking about HTML5, but there are already several books, many websites and untold numbers of resources coming out of the blogs around the Internet. Maybe formal education will be a curated process (much like George Siemens guessed at) where the instructor assembles the online resources and orders them so that they make logical sense, but doesn’t stand at the front of the class. Thank goodness, because I think it’s time for a change.

How Much Is Too Much (Training)?

I’ve been thinking about the resources we provide for the continued migration of faculty at work from whatever system they’re using (there’s FirstClass, WebCT, Blackboard CE 6, maybe one or two Moodle, several proprietary web-based creations and CourseTools – so a total of 6 different systems) to Desire2Learn. The department has offered over a hundred training sessions over the last year and a bit. We’ve pushed out thirteen multi-page documents in addition to Desire2Learn’s documentation. We have a dozen training videos, and have published all our workshop documentation. We’ve seen probably a hundred or more faculty members walk through our doors for one on one help.

Are we doing too much?

Is there too much information, or are people turned off by the sheer amount of resources and contact we’ve provided? Or maybe is it not enough? Our rough estimates guess that we’ve maybe seen one third of the faculty. Will another two hundred sessions get everyone? What about the part timers? No one pays them to attend workshops, no one pays them to develop resources, but it’s in their best interest to do so (keeping it for themselves and reusing it again or elsewhere).

I think that maybe we’re stifling people’s curiosity – people might explore and innovate with online learning if they had the curiosity to do so. Maybe too much is too much and we’re creating a real version of information overload. If this is the case then we need better ways to manage the information, or to teach these skills to people (which we do not). Maybe we’re killing people’s sense of play by telling them what they should do. I don’t have any answers really, just questions, which if you’ve read my blog at all, you should come to expect.


I’ve been reading about Minimalist design – which intrigued me. In my advancing age I’m less about “more stuff” and more about “good stuff”, so clutter and extraneous things are getting cut (minus my record collection because frankly, I can’t part with some of the bad records I own). When I learned about Carroll’s Minimalist Design for instruction, I was doubly intrigued. Here is an attempt to cut through the clutter of some designs and instruction, to the heart of what matters. The design also suggests some interesting parallels to a lot of what I would consider characteristics of informal and self-guided learning. With that said, maybe it ties in nicely with Connectivism? I see how it acts as a balance for the networked learner. Carroll’s Minimalism comes from computer training from a Constructivist perspective rather than a Behaviourist perspective.