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Massive Open Online Courses: How “The Social” Alters the Relationship Between Learners and Facilitators
April 30, 2012 - 9:50pm


We're getting close to the tail end of the 36-week-long experiment called #change11, or “the mother of all MOOCs.”

How can I tell?

First, I'm getting ready to facilitate my week, exploring Digital Identities. I'm second-last in the lineup, so the fact that I'm on deck means the whole undertaking is drawing to a close.

But it's also clear we're winding down because the #change11 conversation hubs have begun to resemble, uh, ghost-towns.  Once there were lively debates and intense exchanges. As the winter wore into the spring of the year, though, the tumbleweeds began to tickle.

Note to self: next time you facilitate a MOOC module, pick Week #2, not Week #35.

Any course that runs from September through May requires stamina. When that course is voluntary on the part of both learners and facilitators, and runs as a series of totally separate modules, the drop-off can be fairly significant. Erm, even my own participation as a student has crawled to a stop over the last month or two.

I find myself wondering if the other learners will be keener than I've been? Am I going to throw a MOOC and have nobody show up?

I suppose it doesn't matter. I'm a teacher at heart. I'll put the work into developing my one-week course whether there are going to be 3 students or 300. But as I'm preparing, I'm thinking about what it means to facilitate in a truly social, networked, voluntary environment like #change11.

Or the internet.

As the awareness of the MOOC experiment grows, the term is being increasingly applied to grand-scale enterprises like the Stanford AI course and MITx. While heady, this blurs some very important distinctions.

The MOOC model from which #change11 originates was built on the connectivist learning theory of George Siemens and Stephen Downes. Highly social in format, these courses tend to be experimental, non-linear, and deeply dialogic and participatory. Contributions from participants frequently direct the course of discussion, and the connections and ideas built between learners can be considered as valuable as the knowledge expounded by the facilitator.

On the other hand, the MOOC models offered by the big universities tend towards formalized curricula, content delivery, and verification of completed learning objectives.

Far more embedded in traditional paradigms of knowledge and teaching, these courses only harness the connectivity of social media insofar as they enable masses of people to link themselves to the prestige of a big-name institution. They offer discussion boards, but their purpose is content-focused, not connection-focused.

If I were teaching in an MITx-style course, I'd have a very different module ahead of me, one far more familiar to me as a higher ed instructor.

I've been teaching for eighteen years. I profess to be in favour of learner-centered classrooms. But until this MOOC module, every single course I've taught has on some level obliged the students to be there. I am accustomed to having the institutional powers of status, credentialism, and grading backing me in the classroom.

In the connectivist MOOC model, I don't.

There is no bonus for learners who participate in my week of #change11. They won't get a badge at the end, and there is no certification announcing they completed anything. There's nothing specific for them to complete, unless I design an exit goal as part of the week's activities. But that would be MY exit goal: not theirs. They don't get to put the word MIT on their CV. And while some weeks of the #change11 MOOC have allowed participants to connect with leaders in the learning and technologies field – Howard Rheingold, Pierre Levy – I'm among the less well-known of the 30-plus facilitators in the year's lineup. They won't even get the relational perk of engaging with somebody famous.

Nope. But what they will get – in addition to what I hope will be a fascinating exploration of the idea of  Digital Identity – is hands-on practice in what it means to learn and connect and simply be in this networked, distributed age.

And I will get the opportunity to practice what it means to lead in the age of the internet: to share what one knows in a way that invites others to engage, to contribute, to participate.

Both models of the MOOC serve a purpose, but it is the connectivist one – for all it is less massive and far less a traditional course – that teaches both teachers and learners new ways of coming together to explore ideas.
 

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Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada.

Bonnie Stewart is a Ph.D. student at the University of Prince Edward Island, Canada. In higher ed since 1997, Bonnie has lived and taught on all three coasts of Canada and in Eastern Europe and Asia. Her research explores social media identity and its implications for higher education. Published at Salon.com and winner of the 2011 PEI Literary Award for creative non-fiction, Bonnie blogs ideas at  http://theory.cribchronicles.com and identity and parenthood at  http://cribchronicles.com. Find her on Twitter at @bonstewart.

 

 

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