And so it ends…

Well, actually, I’m very happy to continue the conversation and develop this group space if anyone is interested. However, we are reaching the end of my week at the Change11 MOOC so this is probably the last post in this space for a while, back to my usual blog for the next one.

We had a lively and, I think, fruitful and interesting discussion today to wrap up my week at #change11. Stephen Downes has made the audio available at http://t.co/Tq8C6ZSE. I suppose I should provide some kind of summary of where we got to but all that stuff is there online already and in the audio of the session, so I’m going to finish with some observations about the MOOC itself and some of the self-referential ways it relates to what I’ve been discussing this week.

I’m not the first to observe that a big problem with connectivist-influenced MOOCs like this is that they are, well, chaotic and lacking in centre. People are contributing all over the place in a hundred different ways and certainly not in an orderly fashion. This is not your grandmother’s kind of course and that would be fine, apart from the fact that such a small percentage of people wind up getting fully engaged and so many drop out, one of the main reasons being the complexity of following and keeping up with the course. If we had drop-out rates of this magnitude in our universities there would be some very serious questions asked. But this is not the same kind of thing as a formal institutional course and it would be silly to apply identical standards here. Apart from anything else, the only motivation for most people being here is intrinsic – apart from a very few who are getting some kind of professional or academic credit indirectly or directly as a result, no one is going to punish them for failure to attend, no one is going to reward them with grades for pleasing the teacher or demonstrating knowledge of a fixed set of stuff. But that does make me wonder a little – if we had such an intrinsically motivated crowd in a traditional course we would be pretty pleased and would have very high expectations as a result. And yet, many fall by the wayside.

I don’t think it’s too much of a problem that many people do not write anything public – people learn in different ways at different times and respond in different ways to different things, so (though it greatly helps the learning process to write about it, especially in public, as well as helping to provide one of the pillars of intrinsic motivation, connection with others) it is fine that only some of the participants are visibly ‘there’. And it is equally fine that people pay attention to some sessions and not others – there is no particular narrative in the various presentations and there is no single body of knowledge to absorb (that’s part of the point) so people should only engage with what they find engaging.

But wouldn’t it be great if more people stuck with it? Wouldn’t that show that it was really working?

We wound up talking quite a bit about balance this week – reaching that Goldilocks spot that is not too hard and not too soft in not just our technologies but the whole system of which technologies are a part. i think that the change11 MOOC technology, though decidedly flaky in places (Stephen Downes is brilliant but he only has so much time to build and manage tools along with the rest of his commitments), is evolving nicely, employing precisely the kind of principles I’ve been advocating this week and for many years, of building with small, hard pieces, and aggregating them well. I think I might adapt the interaction design a little here and there but there is now a fairly strong sense of narrative that emerges through the deliberate aggregation of blogs, Tweets and so on, and a good centre to the course on the change11 site, with strong and simple interfaces to other systems so it can itself be reaggregated as we wish. It relies a bit too much on soft technologies – my own sessions this week came close to disaster because Stephen was left having to handle almost the whole thing while George and Dave were away, which meant ‘my’ page labelled me as Erik Duval for most of the week, my sessions didn’t appear in the calendar and today’s session was only linked and announced five minutes before it began. We harden stuff because it makes things less error-prone, faster, more efficient, and there is scope for a little hardening here though, having said that, it was the brittleness of hard technologies that made the announcement of today’s session so late: an automated system had broken down, and a soft technology (Stephen manually running the job) that allowed it to recover.

But, though there is a good bit of top-down structure and some good aggregation of bottom-up content, the scope for emergence is slightly limited because what gets aggregated is presented as a single, flat stream of content, the good and the bad, the useful and the useless, the helpful and the obscurational. It is left almost entirely to soft technologies (ie the reader’s means of constructing structure or recommendations of others) to sort it out. Because it is not easy, this will be demotivating and inefficient. Although a lot of soft cues are available (titles, tags, reputation of the poster, etc) and an extra layer of other social media sits on top (e.g. Tweets from people we respect helping to draw attention to good stuff) and some people are creating their own edited aggregations, there needs to be a lot more texture here. A single view of any course is always going to be a compromise that suits some and not others, but that is even more of a problem when an almost unfiltered stream of stuff comes pouring in with nothing to counterbalance it but the top-down structure of the course leaders. And it’s not enough to subject it to editorial control (e.g. a simple rating system) because different things will be valuable to different people at different times. A number of relatively simple collective-based solutions immediately spring to mind, all of which would require a bit of serious programming somewhere down the line but any of which might make use of existing tools:

  • collaborative filtering – matching people whose interests and tastes seem similar, whether through explicit profiling or mining of implicit preferences, would help to draw attention to things that are more interesting. There are big weaknesses with a CF approach in learning that I and others have written about so it is not the final solution, but it would be a start.
  • tag clouds – this would be especially valuable if it dovetailed with a soft technology, whereby people tagged things not only with #change11 but also other tags to help identify the purpose, theme, pedagogical value of things they post
  • reputation management – perhaps as an adjunct to CF or on its own, a means of helping to distinguish different individuals. I would not be happy with a simple ranking though – my own CoFIND system used an approach that would be useful here, whereby ratings covered a range of dimensions (technically achieved through the use of fuzzy tags with non-binary values) rather than a simple good-bad scale. Slashdot uses similar and many other mechanisms to allow tuning that is highly tailored, a very scrutable user model, but that would be way too complex and nerdy for this purpose 
  • visualisation – combined with other approaches, tools to help show threads, trends, changes, patterns etc
  • adaptive hypermedia – eveyone who joins the course registers on the site and could be encouraged to provide a profile, which could be used as the basis for a simple user model to provide intentional recommendations. 

None of these alone are sufficient but together these, and things like them, might help provide the structures that different people would find useful. Whatever system is used, it is important that it is just employed to provide signposts, not fenceposts. I would resent having things hidden from me, but would value a bit of help in alerting me of things that I might find interesting, or of helping me to find stuff that is most relevant to my current needs.

I think MOOCs are brilliant and I really like what Stephen and George and Dave are doing with this one. It’s an evolving model that is becoming far richer as the years go by but, to be really scalable rather than just big, MOOCs need to begin to mindfully employ some more tools to help different structures and guidance to emerge out that mass of interaction, to really use the crowd. It has been really interesting and a privilege to be involved in this and I look forward to the ongoing conversations and discoveries that will occur over the rest of the course!

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair.
I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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