• October 2, 2014

Online, Bigger Classes May Be Better Classes

Experimenters say diversity means richness

'Open Teaching': When the World Is Welcome in the Online Classroom 1

Brian Blanco for The Chronicle

Wendy K. Drexler, a postdoctoral associate at the U. of Florida who says huge open classes have provided her with valuable learning experiences, is planning to help teach one on technology and learning.

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close 'Open Teaching': When the World Is Welcome in the Online Classroom 1

Brian Blanco for The Chronicle

Wendy K. Drexler, a postdoctoral associate at the U. of Florida who says huge open classes have provided her with valuable learning experiences, is planning to help teach one on technology and learning.

In his work as a professor, Stephen Downes used to feel that he was helping those who least needed it. His students at places like the University of Alberta already had a leg up in life and could afford the tuition.

So when a colleague suggested they co-teach an online class in learning theory at the University of Manitoba, in 2008, Mr. Downes welcomed the chance to expand that privileged club. The idea: Why not invite the rest of world to join the 25 students who were taking the course for credit?

Over 2,300 people showed up.

They didn't get credit, but they didn't get a bill, either. In an experiment that could point to a more open future for e-learning, Mr. Downes and George Siemens attracted about 1,200 noncredit participants last year. They expect another big turnout the next class, in January.

The Downes-Siemens course has become a landmark in the small but growing push toward "open teaching." Universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have offered free educational materials online for years, but the new breed of open teachers—at the University of Florida, Brigham Young University, and the University of Regina, among other places—is now giving away the learning experience, too.

"We have to get away from this whole idea that universities own learning," says Alec V. Couros, who teaches his own open class as an associate professor of education at Regina, in Saskatchewan. "They own education in some sense. But they don't own learning."

Openness proponents contend that distance education often isolates students behind password-protected gates. By unlatching those barriers, professors like Mr. Couros are inventing a way of learning online that feels less like a digital copy of face-to-face classes and more like the open, social, connected Web of blogs, wikis, and Twitter. It can expose students to a far broader network than they would encounter discussing their lessons with a small group of graduate students.

Some open professors are finding, though, that exposure brings its own challenges. Like disruptive jerks who inject themselves into your class. Or a loss of privacy that some students find jarring.

Still, the concept is spreading. The classes have even spawned a new name: Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC. In February, Wendy K. Drexler, a postdoctoral associate at the University of Florida who studied with Mr. Siemens and Mr. Downes, will help lead a new would-be MOOC about technology and learning. Ms. Drexler calls their course, which she took for credit as a high-school teacher, one of the most valuable learning experiences of her life.

She found herself interacting mostly with participants who weren't taking the course for credit. Corporate instructional designers, other classroom teachers, consultants: The chance to engage with so many different people on a focused topic, she says, was "mind-boggling."

Openness vs. Control

But the difficult questions remain.

Start with privacy. How do professors protect students who feel uncomfortable—or unsafe—communicating in a classroom on the open Web? How do they deal with learning content that isn't licensed for open use? What about informal students who want course credit?

And, most basically, if professors offer the masses a chance to pull up a virtual seat in class, how do they make sure the crowd behaves?

Dave Cormier, who co-taught a 700-person open class with Mr. Siemens this year, says he shut off registration because a couple of people had clearly signed up to spam students.

In the class taught by Mr. Downes, a research officer at National Research Council Canada, and Mr. Siemens, a researcher and strategist with the Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at Athabasca University, one woman joined simply to attack the concept of the course, Mr. Downes recalls. She slammed the forum like a "one-woman posting machine," accusing the teachers of being pretentious unqualified technocommunists.

"The minute you open this up to anybody in the world to participate, you are giving up a considerable amount of control—and just going with the adventure," Ms. Drexler says. "Not everybody is comfortable doing that."

The Students' View

But she learned to love it. It's a feeling shared by some other open-course alumni, both students and professors, whose glowing descriptions can make these happenings sound like digital Woodstocks for the educational-technology set.

Not that everything was revolutionary. As a for-credit student, Ms. Drexler jumped through some of the usual hoops: papers, final project, weekly readings (though those were posted openly on a wiki). What was different was the radically decentralized, "kids in control" environment.

Instead of restricting posts to a closed discussion forum in a system like Blackboard, the class left students free to debate anywhere. Some used Moodle, an open-source course-management system. Others preferred blogs, Twitter, or Ning. In the virtual world Second Life, students built two Spanish-language sites. Some even got together face-to-face to discuss the material.

"This is a very different way to learn," Ms. Drexler says. "I as a learner had to take responsibility. I had to take control of that learning process way more than I've had to do in any traditional type of course, whether it's face-to-face or online."

Instructors, for their part, curated rather than dictated the discussion. Each day they e-mailed a newsletter highlighting key points. While 2,300 people got the newsletter, a far smaller group, perhaps 150, actively participated in the course. Only those taking the course for credit had their work evaluated, although in smaller open courses at least one faculty member has volunteered to grade work by nonpaying students.

Much like the founders of Napster shredded the notion of an album, allowing users to remix songs however they pleased, Mr. Siemens is hacking the format of a class.

"It's a construct that is necessary in a physical world," he says. "But it's not a construct that's necessary in a digital world."

The course-hacking did have frustrating elements, though. Users were flooding Moodle at first. More than 1,000 messages were posted to the Introductions forum by 560 participants, according to one of the multiple research papers that emerged from the course, "The Ideals and Reality of Participating in a MOOC."

What's more, the course design "allowed for disruptive trolling behavior in the forums to go unchecked," the researchers found. "This made some participants feel 'unsafe' in the forums and caused them to retreat to their blogs."

Future of Open Teaching

The question is whether open teaching has a future beyond early adapters. Distance educators who haven't taken the plunge yet are interested, but also cautious.

Like many institutions, the University of California at Irvine publishes free online learning materials, such as lecture slides and syllabi. But Gary W. Matkin, dean of continuing education, says he can see inviting outsiders to participate in an online course only if they did so in a separate space.

Partly, he says, it's about student privacy. But it's also about setting a learning context for paying students, meaning what they see and how their education is structured. If instructors don't control that context, he says, "they're in some sense abdicating their responsibilities to their own students."

"Let's say a bunch of dummies got into the class and started asking all kinds of stupid questions," Mr. Matkin says. "How would we preserve the learning of our students and not have it confused and corrupted and messed up by people who really weren't qualified?"

On privacy, some open teachers are already adjusting their courses to address student needs. Mr. Couros, at Regina, has begun more explicitly emphasizing a "safe space" for enrolled students, who are typically hesitant at first and crave a private forum for certain questions. He sets up protected areas for them with tools like Google Groups and Moodle. He even allowed one for-credit student worried about privacy to participate in the course under a fake name.

Mr. Downes, who writes a well-known education technology blog called OLDaily, permits students to create private groups if they like. But that isn't the default position. He also argues that closed classes provide a lot of latitude for misbehavior, such as prejudice or acting inappropriately toward women.

"People say, 'Well I'm a lot more comfortable in private,'" he says. "I sometimes think of that as meaning, 'I'm a lot more comfortable being a jerk in private.'"

Beyond privacy, distance educators also question how well the open-teaching model, which has been limited mostly to educational-technology courses, would apply to more-traditional subjects that may require more guidance for students.

But the biggest obstacle might be technology. At the end of the day, the popularity of open classes will depend on whether learning-management software companies like Blackboard make it easy to publish open versions of online courses, says David Wiley, an associate professor of instructional psychology and technology at Brigham Young and an open-teaching pioneer.

If there were a simple feature to open up a course, perhaps with different tiers of access, "then I would bet 50 percent of people would do it," says Mr. Wiley, who has also been a blogger on The Chronicle's Wired Campus.

For now, anyway, professors who use Blackboard will have to settle for its guest-access feature, which typically has to be approved by both a system administrator and an instructor. Administrators can also assign guest accounts that allow broader participation in course discussions, wikis, and blogs, without exposing confidential information like grades, says Greg Ritter, director of product management. He says Blackboard is considering ways to make guest access easier in the future.

Even Manitoba, the university hosting the Downes-Siemens class, has so far limited its model to a pilot project in an emerging-technologies certificate program. Open teaching is up against academe's history of private classrooms and intellectual-property ownership, says Lori Wallace, dean of extended education. For it to spread more broadly in distance education, she says, would involve "some very significant changes to the culture."

Comments

1. lisamm - August 30, 2010 at 10:29 am

"If there were a simple feature to open up a course, perhaps with different tiers of access, "then I would bet 50 percent of people would do it," says Mr. Wiley, who has also been a blogger on The Chronicle's Wired Campus."

GoingOn Networks' social learning platform allows designers to open up specific areas of the course site to public audiences or restrict other areas of the site to enrolled users. Penn tested the MOOC concept and the technology with a course in Global Environmental Sustainability in 2009. You can view it at https://pennlpscommons.org/.

2. gsiemens - August 30, 2010 at 11:05 am

If anyone is interested in seeing how an open course works, Rita Kop, Dave Cormier, Stephen Downes, and I are offering an open course starting Sept 13 on personal learning environments, networks, and knowledge: https://tekri.athabascau.ca/content/personal-learning-environments-networks-and-knowledge

sign up is available here: http://connect.downes.ca/cgi-bin/login.cgi?action=Register

George

3. wdrexler - August 30, 2010 at 12:01 pm

I understand and respect the concerns asserted by Gary Matkin relative to course structure and instructor responsibility to students. We are taking steps to address these issues in the UF course, and I know George and Stephen provided additional support and assessment to for-credit students when offering the CCK08 course through the University of Manitoba.

There are certain foundational skills necessary for learning in an open online environment. Early research indicates the need for learners to practice digital responsibility (including management of personal privacy and respectful behavior), digital literacy (ability to find and vet resources as well as differentiate between valid and questionable resources), organization of online content, collaborating and socializing with subject matter experts and fellow students, and the ability to use online applications to synthesis content and create learning artifacts.

Most of us who participated in the CCK08 course were comfortable in an online setting and possessed at least some of the savvy required to navigate an online learning environment. As more massively open online courses are offered and further research is conducted, we hope to gain insight into best practices for managing open courses, balancing instructor control and student automony, and scaffolding the processes above to support optimal student learning, especially for those outside ed tech circles.

I believe it is worth the effort. Consider the global outreach, free access for those who would not otherwise be able to take courses, development of a personal learning network of contacts that can support student learning long after a course is over, and access to freely-available content and subject-matter experts well beyond the individual instructor or course texts. As more courses are offered, there is also the potential for improved quality of content, especially in core courses that are offered in multiple formats across numerous universities. With each open course offered, the content repository grows exponentially. New technologies continue to emerge to help us manage that content.

For anyone interested in offering a facilitated open online course (that could potentially grow to become a MOOC), I strongly suggest participating in one of the options highlighted in the "Opening Up Learning to All" link. Experiencing this learning opportunity as a student may significantly influence your perspective as a facilitator.

4. edtechdev - August 30, 2010 at 02:00 pm

Opening up access to teaching materials and videos and so forth is quite common. I've done it for every single course I've taught. It does usually mean you have to go outside of blackboard, however (or take the time to export your blackboard course to another format). Most of us use wikis for this purpose (an youtube/blip.tv/vimeo).

Here are over 200,000 syllabi for courses on various wiki hosting sites, for example:
http://www.google.com/search?q=syllabus+%28site:wikispaces+OR+site:wetpaint.com+OR+site:pbworks.com%29

Anyway, here is just one wiki for a course I taught last summer that lists many online tools you can use in your teaching, especially open teaching: http://detools.wikispaces.com/

5. chedept - August 31, 2010 at 07:17 am

I'm all for opening up teaching--making it more accessible, relevant, transparent. But there's a point at which it's no longer teaching, even if some learning is going on.

How is what is being done here different than, say, what any number of people or groups are doing with sites and blogs. Is Ariana Huffington teaching a course on society and politics? Is Dan Savage teaching a course on human sexuality? Is TMZ teaching a course on whatever it is they waste their time on?

Calling it a course does not make it so.

6. davecormier - August 31, 2010 at 07:57 am

@chedept

That's a question we get quite a bit. I've been hosting what you might call a rolling conference at http://edtechtalk.com for 5 years now. We talk about education and technology, invite guests, and have a fairly standard format. There are (outside of summer) about 8 or 9 shows a week. They are not courses.

The MOOCs that we are running are significantly different than this. They centre around a very specific topic, to be covered over a set period of time. They could, if people are interested, be assessed and accredited (which, in fact, does occur in some cases). As George and I mentioned in a recent educause article, the idea of course is in constant negotiation right now... http://www.educause.edu/EDUCAUSE+Review/EDUCAUSEReviewMagazineVolume45/ThroughtheOpenDoorOpenCoursesa/209320

But no, in my mind Dan Savage, Arianna Huffington and TMZ are not teaching courses right now. I'd be willing to hear arguments that they are... but not by a definition of course that I'm comfortable with.

I'd be interested in what exact feature of these courses strike you as 'uncourselike'. If, as you say, you are in favour of openness, it would seem from your comments that your critique is for the teaching, not for the course. I'm sure we could agree that any number of people take courses without 'teachers' as self-guided courses are very common.

7. michaelnelson - August 31, 2010 at 08:48 am

My biggest concern with this model is this: how can we effectively teach research and writing in a "MOOC"?

That is, how can teachers provide consistent, reliable and useful feedback to so many students? Every course I teach (international relations, international law, african politics...) is heavily focused on research and writing. I can deliver my lectures online to a large audience, but I don't see how I could monitor and evaluate the primary work I would want all of those students to do. For me, it is learning those skills, and not the substantive content, that is often the most important and enduring part of the course.

8. dwilliams5 - August 31, 2010 at 08:48 am

I think that the community of students and faculty who make up a course form something of a tribe.

There is no doubt a size limit on effective tribal size. Larger numbers of people interacting around an issue tend to clump into clans of 3-12 students when working on a medium sized project or issue. I'd be interested to hear about what social structures emerge among active participants.

Scaffolding and aggregating assignments so that those little clans contribute to achieving something fabulous collaborating with one another in the larger network would be a worthy challenge for these kinds of courses, especially when they attract a diverse people with a wide variety of experiences and skills to chip in.

Handling misbehavior, if this kind of things develops, is apt to require a form of local government...the equivalent to mayor (prof?), councilpersons (student reps for groups?), rules enforcement (prof/ta?, emerging student leaders?), etc. particularly if just anybody can join and the numbers are huge. Perhaps that might not be necessary if there is a bit of gate-keeping done initially by having participants write about why they want to be a part of the course, what they expect to get out of it, etc.

9. wdrexler - August 31, 2010 at 08:51 am

Edtechdev and Chedept bring up interesting perspectives around the terms "open" and "course". Here is more food for thought. I really believe there is a distinction between open teaching and open learning. As a teacher, I could conduct my course in a completely closed environment, but offer my course materials in an open forum that anyone can freely access. Is that open or merely transparent? You begin to see a continnum emerging here. On the other hand, as a highly motivated learner, I could piece together a rich learning experience with open courseware in the absence of a teacher or facilitator. Though at some point, I may have to connect with other learners or subject matter experts who can supplement the materials.

The difference between open course and open courseware (or content) is another useful distinction. What truly defines a course? Open courseware is freely available, but posting course materials and a syllabus don't necessarily constitute a course. The examples in this article represent facilitated open online courses. Facilitation is a key component. Yet, there's more going on here than the added guidance or scaffolding of an instructor. The connections to others and exposure to many points of view further enrich the learning experience.

The mere presence of a teacher doesn't necessarily make a good course in any environment. I think Chedept is really asking, at what point does content become a course? Great question.

10. hariseldon - August 31, 2010 at 08:53 am

I watched some well made video lectures on intro chemistry on the MIT Open Courseware website, but I came to realize that real learning only takes place when a student actively engages with the material via, say, a problem set. It is only then that the student finds out how much they understand about the material and where the gaps are. I hope that all of this technology eliminates the enormous duplication of effort involved in having thousands of professors prepare very similar lectures, freeing them to dialogue with students about the material.

11. chedept - August 31, 2010 at 09:10 am

I applaud the efforts and am interested in what comes of it. (I've even enrolled in that personal learning environments, networks, and knowledge course to learn more about all of this.)

My real issue is the lack of a feedback loop. I'm sure you have learning objectives and some of the students do graded assignments, but the rest is just unknowing wishful thinking.

MOOC is a simplified--I won't say naive or cynical--view of what education is. Calling it a course runs the risk of undermining the more-standard models of education. (Would we grant degrees for people who've supposedly enrolled in a great number of these things?) Grades might not be fashionable, but we need some kind of assessment. At a minimum, learning is about demonstrated knowledge or skills.

I'm glad that learned people are spending so much time and energy putting together interesting materials and making them available to a great number of people in a common space, but that is all this is.

12. goodeyes - August 31, 2010 at 09:22 am

25 students paid for the course and 2,300 enrolled not paying for it! "She found herself interacting mostly with participants who weren't taking the course for credit" and the name of this course is learning theory? Is this a joke?

13. dschinker - August 31, 2010 at 09:47 am

Chedept wrote "At a minimum, learning is about demonstrated knowledge or skills."

Really? So if you have no one to whom to demonstrate knowledge or skills, are you unlearned?

Learning need not have such boundaries. Parents of pre-school-aged children see unbounded learning for the joy of discovery every single day.

14. archman - August 31, 2010 at 11:17 am

I have a much better alternative to the "MOOC". People can just buy textbooks and read them on their own. They'll probably learn a heck of a lot more, too. Brilliant. A slightly out-of-date version will sell for peanuts on amazon.com. There, I've just taken the cost problem out of the equation.

Sometimes looking deep inside the box is better than trying to get far outside of it.

15. kcbrady - August 31, 2010 at 12:32 pm

and the spammers got to this article.

If I remember right from courses taken long ago, the original universities of Europe were pretty much open to anybody who wanted to drop in and listen. If you wanted a degree, then you had to pay someone to take you on as a student. Might not be a bad idea for today.

16. fcshofstra - August 31, 2010 at 12:57 pm

I agree with michaelnelson. Discussion and student interaction are key and I love the idea of open learning. But how can anyone direct 2,300 students (or 1,000!) to help them develop ideas of what is good quality information and what is not, or how to construct a persuasive essay that lets them make their point? The idea that students would magically get better at thinking or communicating academically in such a free-for-all environment must be very popular with those who think universities are worthless amalgamations of faculty who are only pretentious, not experienced experts, but I must disagree with that premise.

17. gsiemens - August 31, 2010 at 01:48 pm

@michaelnelson, @fcshofstra

Open courses may not be practical for all situations (I highly doubt any pedagogical model is the answer to all questions). Some courses require high levels of direct instruction or lab settings.

However, open courses, when well-designed, have *far more* interaction than a traditional course. Not all 2300 learners stay in the same virtual space talking to each other. They form smaller networks, move into different spaces, or engage with others on topics of personal interest. The instructor does not have to direct all 2300 students. The the key power shift generated by the web is the loss of ability for a company, a person, or an educator to direct people.

wrt to learning how to find quality information - an open course does not do away with instruction. Most instruction in a class is of the variety that can be recorded and duplicated easily (MIT OCW or Open Yale are examples). We can still lecture on how to find good information or how to write a persuasive essay. But...instead of the instructor being the sole source of guidance and information, she becomes a node among other nodes (important, even critical, but no longer the only or dominant one) in a learning network.

It's not a free-for-all environment. Why do many educators conclude that coming to a particular place requires set structure? Just because we know what we want students to learn doesn't mean that we have to inject the into an organized ("aligned") process of learning outcomes, content/curriculum, evaluation. Nothing about a clear target suggests that a clear structured path is required. We quickly get to the Private Universe problem: pass the test, but miss the conceptual understanding required.

Note to Chronicle: why no "follow up comments via email" option?

George

18. arrive2__net - August 31, 2010 at 05:21 pm

I think it is a good idea to experiment with this idea, MOOC, to see if it leads anywhere, and obviously many of its practitioners think it does. MOOC seems to turn the professor into a facilitator rather than a ... professor. The time of the student seems to be diverted from the professor ( who is otherwise thought to be a proven expert and teacher) and that time is given to other "teachers" and peers whose quality cannot be assured. MOOC almost seems to be saying to the students that spending time on the prof and his material may not be as relevant or effective as spending it with casually interested third parties. In regular college, professor can sometimes feel that he or she just doesn't have enough time to spend with students on the subject, more time is needed, but MOOC seems to just sacrifice the professor's time with the students for time with others. Does this MOOC model work though? Can the dynamic milieu substitute or outperform time with the prof? Maybe time will tell.

Bernard Schuster
Arrive2.net

19. ulopotaat - August 31, 2010 at 07:44 pm

I think it is important to remember the number of students that actively participate in the 'course' until completion. In the case of the 'MOOC' considered here, 2300 students enrolled, and less that 10% actively participated. While enrolment might be considered large, participation and contribution is much smaller. Another of these courses started with about 90 enrolled, and finished with about 8 participating. I considered this to be more of a TOOC = tiny online open course, than a MOOC.

20. ashwinram - August 31, 2010 at 09:13 pm

Thoughtful article. Thanks. I like the comments differentiating "open teaching" from "open learning". I recently gave a talk about the latter, leveraging social networking tools to create a global learning community: http://bit.ly/mmo-learning

In this view, the role of universities (or teachers) is to facilitate learning, but ultimately learners need a "study group" of peers. Learning is a social, collaborative process (hence the recent interest in "personal learning networks").

The MOOC idea is interesting. It's a massive online course, in contrast with OpenStudy.com and others which (in a sense) are massive online study groups. MIT's Intro CS course has nearly 1,000 students in its study group (see http://bit.ly/ocw-os) and it works quite well without an instructor.

It would be interesting to see if MOOC-style "open teaching" could be coupled with OpenStudy-style "open learning" to get the best of both worlds.

21. jpredington - September 01, 2010 at 03:21 am

Curious how FERPA works in this environment. Institutions are obligated to protect privacy of "enrolled" students for whom education records are maintained. What specifically is done to keep the enrolled students (whether auditing or credit-earning) in an environment where non-directory information may be disclosed? How are students made aware of the MOOC-nature of the course in advance?

As a registrar (who at one point was on a Ph.D. path in English Lit and film studies) I find the concept at once very liberating and very challenging.

22. diego_leal - September 01, 2010 at 09:17 am

Just for the record, I wanted to mention that last year I had the opportunity to offer what would be first open online course (as far as I know) in Latin America, following the ideas described in this article.

So far I've done 3 different courses with 4 different groups in Colombia (one of them is going on now), all of them framed inside formal graduate programs. In 2010, people from Argentina put in place a workshop on ICT use aimed to teachers and another open course (not affiliated with any formal institution, as far as I know) that is starting in a few days.

Now, maybe all of these would have to be called Tiny Open Online Courses (TOOCs), as ulopotaat suggested. I guess we would have to agree on where to draw the 'massive' line, of course. In my case, the largest enrollment has been of about 120 people, with different participation rates along the course.

Something that has been suggested is that there are no tools available to easily track the information generated in such a course. So my approach was to try and design the course using public tools that would allow for simple reuse and tracking of both things going on in blogs and other places. I talked a bit about this in my blog early this year (http://bit.ly/doBevD). The good thing is that this 'infrastructure' is being used now by the Argentinean people, and some of my current students are trying to use it in their own environments.

Definitely, there's a lot of exploration involved and, obviously, there are a lot of subjects where a different approach would be needed. I agree that this kind of experience cannot be seen as "the one and only answer" to anything. I guess we agree there isn't such a thing.

That said, I keep thinking about how things such as Blackboard or WebCT started, over a decade ago. Back then, it would be hard to think that so many people would be using such systems years later.

I think we're in the same place here, both in technology and educational terms. There are too many things to be developed and too many experiments to be done. I'm one of those curious about where does this leads, especially when I think about the differences in our contexts, and the challenges we face at a local level. The idea of open teaching makes sense to me, at least when thinking about my local environment (Colombia and even Latin America). Your mileage may vary, though.

23. kquesen - September 01, 2010 at 09:54 am

I've been using a hybrid of sorts this summer and into my fall classes. I keep content (Syllabus, Lessons, Exams and Grades) closed in Blackboard but open up discussion and interaction on a WordPress Class Blog with the social network features of BuddyPress. My class is not about Technology, but Law & Ethics. In three classes I have received positive feedback from students.

Keith Quesenberry
Temple University
http://staging.templetv.net/keith/

24. olmsted - September 01, 2010 at 11:17 am

Edit:
Why not invite the rest of [the] world to join the 25 students who were taking the course for credit?

25. ulopotaat - September 01, 2010 at 12:49 pm

@diego_leal Nothing wrong with TOOCs, I think they increase inner-cranial blood flow and create warmth. And size doesn't matter anyway, right? :D

But I think it is important to be realistic about the size. As the article states, 150 actively participated, of whom about 20-25 were credit students, managed by the two facilitators. The non-credit participants self-managed to a large extent with emergence of mentors, leaders etc. So facilitative load on a course of that size was not onerous.

26. chivas - September 01, 2010 at 04:38 pm

While the concept worldwide teaching and learning is exptremely intriguing, the issue of privacy is even more troubling. Absent malice, it would surely work and the enrichment and advantages afforded all well meaning participants would be immeasurable. However, I'll have to admit that it is the "hater" that I fear most in this adventure. With that, I'd rather see American Institutions of Higher Learning err on the side of caution and limit student and faculty exposure until a proven form of technological protections are in place.

27. gsiemens - September 01, 2010 at 04:55 pm

Thanks all for the comments. An open course makes more sense when experienced than when discussed, as many of the elements of identity, learners autonomy, and instructor role are difficult to understand from the outside looking in. There is a good research opportunity for cynics, critics, and others to jump into the open course through the link I provided in comment #2 above and then offer follow up comments. What worked? What didn't? What was the nature of your personal experience? Did you feel socially isolated? Were you able to achieve a certain level of conceptual understanding (destination learning) in a distributed format? What would you change? and so on...

@uloptaat - you're right, of course: size doesn't matter! I was more pleased with the level of conversation during the course than the actual number that registered. For some reason, however, numbers seem to draw more attention. I guess it's easier to say "2300 students" than to say "distributed, social, participative learning premised on learner autonomy and self-organization".

@chivas - privacy can be a concern. But privacy is a concern in all areas of life, not just learning. The "hater" (to use your term) did produce a fair degree of tension in the course. I don't know of the exact impact, but I did receive several emails from individuals expressing reluctance to participate in the discussion forums due to the tone.

28. ulopotaat - September 01, 2010 at 07:39 pm

@gsemens - yes, a number such as 2300 combined with the use of the word 'massive' is more marketable than: "distributed, social, participative learning premised on learner autonomy and self-organization", especially when the latter phenomena are not unique to open courses. Thus I am wrong, size IS paramount in distinguishing the value of open courses from non-open courses. WIDESPREAD distribution of knowledge is one of the four pillars of connectivist network theory, is it not?

I agree that the best way to evaluate these events (courses?) is to participate in them. I have been a high-flyer in three of them so far. I have enjoyed the interaction, and tend to think of these events as social interactions that produce socially constructed learning, using internet affordances for communication purposes. Since acronyms are all the rage, how about SMILEs, as in Social Media Induced Learning Events. The SMILE acronym helps to highlight for me the fun and creativity I had in the debates in the various forums.

One thing bugs me about the discussion so far, and this is the characterization of the "one-woman posting machine" as a "hater". During the course she was also labelled a "troll". I am apparently in the minority in thinking that this person provided another element to the course, an element of a critical analysis (albeit at times a little harsh and perhaps even leaning towards 'ad hominen' argumentation) and opposing viewpoint that was a welcome contrast to those that I perceived to be fawning over the values and arguments put forth by the facilitators. You probably had to be there to understand this, but the point I am trying to make is that perhaps being a little less thin-skinned about debate is of value in open forums. But I guess everyone's tolerance level is different.

29. mreimers - September 01, 2010 at 09:28 pm

Several of the commentators have suggested that MOOC are not 'real' courses, because they don't give structured personal feedback. I think that many students at large public universities find that experience to be the norm in classes for which they pay considerable tuition. It seems likely that some form of online testing can be implemented for a small fee. If students can show that they have 'learned the material' (by passing a test, as they do now), will teaching classes remain the rationale for large public institutions?

30. val_hol - September 03, 2010 at 09:31 am

I am impressed.
I live in a country, where on-line teaching is just making first steps, and I have been thinking by myself how to organize open teaching. For me, it is obvious that open teaching has got unpredictable potential and its development can go different ways. Maybe, my views can also be of use.

The first challenge for me was how to draw a fair line between paying and non-paying students. I found the solution in offering tuition, materials and evaluation to paying students, and then encouraging them to go on-line on a protected web-site to show what they've learned. I give advice and correct papers of non-paying students when I have time without committing myself to this.
I protect my students in the following way: I screen out spammers and robots at the moment of registration, I talk with those who paste messages of disruptive nature (few of them yet, so I can do that) or delete messages/profiles of those, who persist in wrong doing. The number of participants is under a hundred, so, it's quite manageable.

After this article my experiments may look like a time-back travel, but, I think, it might be interest to those, who are just beginning open teaching and do not feel capable (like myself) handling something like MOOC with thousands of students and a choice of technologies. I believe everyone can get started, doing little by little, it's better than doing nothing.

Thanks for this inspiring and exciting article, it shows the prospects.

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