Thursday, 7 February 2013

#MOOC disasters are human and part of educational innovation and why sandboxes are good

With the Coursera course on the Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application being temporarily shut down due to a mix of unfortunate events (human miscalculation, limitations of technology, chaos...), sceptics of MOOC's feel strengthened. But my heart really goes out to Fatimah Wirth, for she dared to test new approaches but ... fell into the trap that all of us tend to fall into at one time or another: dreaming and as a result wanting to go too far, too quickly. Fatimah, the way I see it you took a blow for all of us explorers. And ... you sure got all of our minds going, including mine. From all the talk on the Web I have read on the subject, I like this blogpost by Debbie Morrison the best, it focuses on the learner, linking it to learning theory and overall needs from a learner. I totally agree with her observation that institutions should stop thinking from what was (classroom teaching, teacher in front...) and focus on how to make optimal use of what is.

But overall, most of the reflections and issues raised focus on the technological side, while for me it is all about the human side: what do people expect, how do people react to chaos, how do learners interact in order to learn and how can virtual mass chaos come to order again?

Group dynamics and learner interactions
The learner dynamics are of course crucial in any type of learning, but in a MOOC they become exponentially important. As such group dynamics, mass dynamics, come into place and should indeed be researched in the light of MOOC's.
We need to dig into all the factors of learner interactions taking place in MOOC's: motivations, drivers, barriers... of course if technology fails people cannot work together, but the human factor is the reason for technology to be tailored or used. So what is at the basis? Having said that, it is much easier to focus on the technical side because of the much lower complexity.

Automated learner screening
There is a need for mass learning processing (social agents might help, or an approach like suggested in Tin Can), but also truly ubiquitous access, as this simple fact (well, not technically simple, but simple as a concept), immediately provides people a much easier self-regulated, self-tailored option: using the device of preference depending on the context, time of the day, location...
Semantic learning algorithms: like mini google search offerings based on keywords, or field interests that emerge from learner posts.

Trust the kindness and wisdom of strangers
Another option would be to trust the kindness and wisdom of strangers, even if a course design fails... pick it up from there while using what is known by others. Learner-centered also means: trust the learner. So if a certain design or approach does not work: ask for solutions. The teacher IS NOT the expert they used to be, only the wisdom of crowds can be seen as truly ... wise.
Asking for help can strengthen all, so an open request for ideas and a transparent gesture of: yes, this was not ideal, but ... let's work together to solve this, would really be a learner-centered approach to get the course on the rails again. This is for instance what MIT did in their Signals and Systems course when taking solutions provided by the students to come up with solutions (tech and non-tech) for the next roll out.

It is no longer the teacher expert, but the team of wise people
One person is no longer enough to organize a course, it should be a team effort, a big team effort, gathering on strengths of multiple people, daring to say that even then everyone needs to learn from one another. And not just the back-end team, it should be multiple instructors.

Clear self-regulated strategies (and digital skills) given to the learners pre-course
No matter how intelligent the learning platform is built, at the end it is up to the learner to self-regulate and structure all the content that is produced in and comes out of a MOOC. As learners we will have to relearn what can be done to optimize our learning and even then we will not be able to go through all that is exchanged... and to be honest, so what? That does not matter, we do not need to grasp everything, just what is of interest to keep doing a great job, learning what we need.

And if you want to try out something new, make it informal first... it is the formal part of the course that got people anxious. Formality puts a much bigger demand on any course: instructions, time, ... Informality keeps it  easier to adapt and be creative.

Overall trying something new is always a risk, and although all of us know you need to pilot every part of a new approach before implementing it, sometimes we just dive in.... or should I say, I sometimes just dive in... and while that is a good approach, at times that approach fails. But in the end, all the lessons coming from that strengthen you for life. Sandboxes are good to try out new stuff, but at times I just want to do it, warrior style.