#EDCMooc – the view from the other side

By Hilary Griffiths

Now the dust has settled I thought it might be useful to post some thoughts on our EDCMOOC experience. Once a week educational technologists, students and academics had the opportunity to meet for a coffee, and to reflect on their experience of participating in a MOOC – these are some of the thoughts expressed during those meetings.

Only two or three of the group had participated in a MOOC before so it’s perhaps unsurprising that the most common reason for participation cited in the first meeting was curiosity – what exactly is it like to be a student on a MOOC?

The general impression after week 1 was one of feeling overwhelmed – both by the range of tools participants were directed to use, the percieved lack of explicit direction or course structure, and the amount of “noise” in the environment. Some participants struggled initially to make sense of how they were expected to use the tools (which were things like Facebook, Google +, and Twitter as well as in MOOC discussion fora.) One participant cited the fact that they didn’t want to have to sign up to Facebook or Twitter but through the ensuing discussion it became clear that given the number of participants you didn’t need to use all of the suggested tools, but could pick a couple you were most comfortable with and still get a good experience of the course.

It was interesting that the participants cited noise as adding to their feeling of being swamped by the MOOC – the sheer amount of information being uploaded, commented on, communicated, microblogged and hyperlinked to was overwhelming, especially if you arrived in a discussion or activity area some time after it had started.  Given the participants use a range of ways to filter and organise the information they receive in their life outside the MOOC, it telling that at least initially they did not seem to apply the same strategies within the MOOC.  Generally better ways to filter and surface activities was seen as key – along with some way of allowing late arrivals to jump in to activities  without having to wade through masses of information, for example a daily digest of key discussion board conversations to allow later arrivals to contribute to the current conversation more easily.

A concern from a current undergraduate student was the perceived lack of validation of her learning. Was she learning what she should be? Was her understanding correct? In the absence of feedback from the MOOC academics the student was relying on a validation by peer consensus in a course where a lack of academic rigour characterised many of the contributions.

My perception was that those who had the most enjoyable and engaged experience of the  MOOC engaged early and managed to form small, self supporting groups which helped reduce information overload and the lack of a present academic by filtering information, alerting group members  to things they may have missed and also offering feedback on their learning. Groups offered a way to move beyond the experience of the central discussion boards,  often characterised by a lot of posts but not a great deal of dialogue,  into an area where participants could start to develop a sense of the experience and expertise of the people they were communicating with. One benefit of the MOOC use of external social media like blogs and twitter are that these conversations can continue after the course has finished.  A final suggestion was that perhaps we should lobby for some kind of advisory service for students to consult before they sign up for a MOOC – MOOCAS anyone ?

6 very good things about MIT’s #medialabcourse MOOC

I started taking MIT’s Media Lab’s Learning Creative Learning MOOC (often referred to as #medialabcourse or LCL) at the beginning of February. It’s something I’ve done in my spare time rather than directly for work but it’s been a great experience and I wanted to reflect on what has worked so well for me.

1. Google+ communities. Google+ turns out to be really rather good for groups and group discussions. The combination of threaded discussion (with email notifications of responses) and micro-blogging type front-page (making it easy to scan through new posts) has certainly promoted impressively engaging and lively discussion. It’s even (and I can’t believe I’m saying this about a Google product) nice to look at.

2. Small groups. People who enrolled in time were placed into small groups, each with its own email list, and each encouraged to set up its own Google+ group. These small groups (my own included) have largely petered-out – but others have survived, often by picking up refugees from the less active groups, and I joined one of those. They provide a safer, less public, arena for discussion – especially for those people who are perhaps less confident or for material that doesn’t seem important / relevant / polished enough to share with the world.

3.Openness. LCL was designed to be almost entirely open, based on P2PU’s mechanical MOOC. Course reading is published on a public website and the main community is an open Google+ group. Weekly emails are sent out to remind people about this week’s activity and reading. Even with the small groups, I get the impression it’s those who left their Google+ communities as open who have survived because they could pick up new members. As well as being a Good Thing, this openness helps to make it easier to navigate the course, and to access the materials from a range of computers and devices.

4. Variety. Each week there are suggested readings, an activity, and further resources. There’s also a video panel discussion, and of course there’s continuous activity and discussion on the Google+ community. Early on the course, the course leaders stated explicitly that people should engage with what they can / what interests them and not feel they have to do everything. The variety of tasks and materials (some of the “readings” are short videos) make it possible to stay engaged even when you have little time to spare.

5. Events. There are live-broadcast panel discussion each week, directly relating to the week’s reading and activity. The video stream for these is embedded within a chat forum so that you can chat with your fellow students while you watch, and submit questions for the Q&A section at the end. These broadcasts feel very personal and inclusive, they are relaxed and conversational in tone. Course moderators join the chat rooms – providing helpful information, support with technical issues, and (maybe more than anything else) a real sense that the online participants do matter. In terms of a teaching device, I’m not sure how well they work – I find myself picking up fragments of the video and fragments of the chat and not properly engaging in either. But they can be useful place to reflect on and refine my ideas and they help give the course a nice pace.

6. Enthusiasm. Mitch Resnik, Natalie Rusk, and the rest of the course team exude enthusiasm for their subject, excitement about the course, and an openness that makes you feel like a real student. They seem friendly and genuinely interested in what online participants are saying. I think their attitude sets the tone for the community as a whole.

Bristol at the #EDCMOOC

A number of staff at Bristol signed up for the Elearning and Digital Cultures Mooc (Massive Online Open Course), here are some of the thoughts of staff now that it has finished

Joseph Gliddon – Learning Technologist, Technology Enhanced Learning Team

For the past 5 weeks my evenings have been taken up with the Elearning and Digital Cultures Mooc (Massive Online Open Course) and it has – for me – been a great learning experience.

It was a chance to reflect on the day job but at one step removed rather than “How can I use technology to improve the learning experience at Bristol” it was more “What is technology doing to learning (and to humans), and is it a good thing”.  Also as a Sci-fi fan it was enjoyable to engage with my interests in an academic setting

It was a “cMooc” with the c standing for connectivism as opposed to an xMooc, which is about providing information in a structured form to the students (the “best” definition of x I can find is x = instructivist  – never let spelling get in the way of a good acronym).  The connections were – for me – what made the course so engaging, the reflections of others on the course materials were incredibly rich and interesting (the course materials were also good).

At the end of the course I had submitted my digital artefact, obtained a “Statement of Accomplishment with Distinction” and (one of my personal goals) extended my personal learning network by over 50 useful people.

So are Moocs the end of University as we know it?  I would have to say no, and there are a lot of reasons why not which I dont have space to go into here, so instead I will close with a brief example of what can be so special about studying at University.

I was working with Dr Tamar Hodos in their office when a student came in to pick up their essay and feedback – having checked with the student that it was ok if I was in the room, the academic went over the paper with the student discussing what was good, where improvements could be made etc, the conversation moved to the teaching and time spent in the lab (student suggested longer lab sessions, and they discussed the potential benefits of this).  This was a really detailed learning experience that (provided the student does take the steps suggested) will make a real difference to the students study.

Now I do realise you cant scale that 1 to 1 detailed contact with an academic up to a 40,000 user mooc, and I think that is why sometimes traditional is best (and yes I did tell Dr Hodos how impressed I was).


Roger Gardner – Learning Technologist, Technology Enhanced Learning Team

I enrolled primarily to see what the MOOC experience might be like. On reflection I don’t think this was sufficient motivation to get me very far. After the first week, despite participating I found myself quite unengaged with the content and much of the discussion. So I am looking forward to the ALT Mooc  (ocTEL) in a few weeks as I suspect the content of that might engage me more. To some extent I got what I wanted from the course, in that I had first hand experience of MOOC-ing and some of its challenges . I know that next time I  need to allow a realistic amount of time to participate, not go on holiday for a week in the middle somewhere with very flaky Internet access, and try to identify and connect with some other participants with similar interests early on if possible. I never got round to the assessment, but started to write a limerick which expresses some (I suspect common) MOOC emotions. It’s on Soundcloud so please feel free to add your comments.

Roberta Perli – Learning Technologist, Technology Enhanced Learning Team

First, I decided to sign up for this this Mooc because I am very interested in online learning. In April last year I attended a 4 weeks online course in e-assessment run by Jisc which was just great, good size (about 30 people) and about the right length.

After reading about Moocs, xmoocs and cMoocs in our reading group during the summer I thought that the Mooc in digital cultures offered by Coursera would be a good opportunity to learn more about Moocs and this ‘innovative’? model of online education. I liked the pre-course activities and interactions with different social networks such as the facebook group, which continues to be fairly active!  I think I got a lot out of the social network, interesting discussions, useful tips, helping people with their research, peer support with artifacts, sharing resources (e.g. list of tools), although I felt quite overwhelmed by the constant streams of information and interactions. I enjoyed the topic of some of the videos but I wasn’t sure about the format ‘four videos + core readings’ for the entire course.

All in all my first Mooc was an enjoyable experience and I think I will sign up to another Mooc in the future if I have have the time to devote to (it needs more than three hours) but one thing I felt was missing was more support in term of online learning strategies to help students engage with the student generated content and learn by interacting with their peers.


Active learning – notes from reading group

Active learning might be an unhelpfully broad topic but there are some very helpful ideas in these papers.

  • Bonwell, C. (1991), Active learning: creating excitement in the classroom, Eric Digest – The article starts by defining what AL is, the key factor being that students must do more than just listen e.g. read. write, discuss, problem solve. It identifies the main barrier to use of AL as risk, for example that students will not participate, or that the teacher loses control.  It suggests ways to address this for example by trying low risk strategies such as short, structured, well-planned activities.
  • Prince, M. (2004), Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research, Journal of Engineering Education, 93(3), 223-232. Splits active learning into constituent parts and looks at the evidence for (often relatively minor) interventions covering each of these parts, in an attempt to identify what really works. A useful reference for anyone looking for quantitative evidence for active learning type interventions and a useful discussion of what leads to successful (or unsuccessful) problem-based-learning.
  • Jenkins, M. (2010), Active Learning Typology: a case study of the University of Gloucestershire. The paper describes how an ‘active learning ‘strategy has been implemented at the University of Gloucester. In the first paragraph Jenkins provides some references on active learning to unpacks its meaning that helped us to better understand the term and put it into context,  for example, …the role of the teacher is not to transmit knowledge to a passive recipient, but to structure the learner’s engagement with the knowledge, practising the high-level cognitive skills that enable them to make that knowledge their own (Laurillard, 2008; 527). page 2. At the same time this is compared to the understanding of ‘active learning’ of the staff at the university which through  a survey were asked to identify their conceptions of active learning. The results identified three categories ‘families’, 1) external (student are active when they learn by doing), 2) ‘internal (student are active when they are engaged in cognitive processes) and 3) holistic (it is a composite of the two, and students are active learning is generally investigative, developmental, creative. An interesting perspective is a distinction in the interpretation where the emphasis is placed on the student or the teacher, Is active learning what the teacher gets the students to do or what learning is done by students? The data showed that there is a split between some staff practising ‘active teaching’ and other practising ‘active learning’. The outcome of the project has produced a framework for staff to work with which is very useful and identifies common elements of active learning in these five categories: Co-learning opportunities, Authenitcity, Reflection, Skills development, Student support.

Applying the Mumford method to report-writing

Philosopher Stephen Mumford has developed a process for writing academic papers, known as the Mumford method. It involves producing a summary of your argument in a very particular format, using this summary when speaking (both as notes for yourself and as a hand-out for the audience), refining it after feedback each time you present, and eventually writing up. It’s been used by professors through to a-level students and always sounded like a convincing idea.

I decided to try it out when working on a recent internal report on Open Education at Bristol, in collaboration with my colleague Jane Williams, and it worked well. We initially produced a handout, roughly in the format Mumford describes. After several iterations of this handout we used it as our plan for the final briefing paper.

Although we started with the Mumford method instructions, I made some small refinements for the slightly different circumstances. My summary was:

  • single-sided
  • landscape with 4 columns of 10pt text (as the points being made tended to be relatively brief)
  • sub-divided into section headings (these did not neatly fit with the 4 columns but that was fine)
  • produced in Google Drive to allow collaboration (this involved using a table for the columns – a little fiddly but workable)

We used this handout both for meetings with individuals and when presenting the paper at larger meetings for consultation, and it was very effective as an aid to discussion.

I was tasked with writing up and found I could relatively quickly write up the report based on the outline (which I had talked through many times by this point). Each of the four columns produced almost exactly one A4 page of relatively spare prose, more than I had anticipated. But the argument remained very clear and it was extremely easy to produce a summary of the key points, drawing almost directly from the handout. It’s definitely something I’ll use again.