One of the design aspects we ran out of time for in the first offering of DALMOOC was the “glue” to pull the two layers together (and the scaffolding and support that would have accompanied that). The original idea was to utilize a daily email that would display various work from course participants as well as being a constant reminder that learners had a choice in how they engaged the course content.

However, this idea has evolved more into a centralized course website that just displays the competencies for that week, the modality choices that can be made, links to the platforms that support those modalities, and some suggested artifacts from other learners to dig into (and maybe connect with those learners). This website would serve as the “Neutral Zone” to provide scaffolding and other support for learners to navigate the dual-layer design.

Whatever form it takes, this “Neutral Zone” space is very important for various reasons:

  1. Learners would be encouraged to realize that there is a choice of how they engage the course content and/or activities. This Neutral Zone would encourage learners to think and learn about how they learn, a process that is important to heutagogy (learning how to learn). If we hide too much of the design process, learners lose the opportunity to expand their skills in this area. Of course, you never want the design of the course to be too clunky or complicated, but smoothing it all out to where there are no conscious choices by the learner is basically just another form of instructor control.
  2. The intent of dual-layer is not to encourage learners to pick the best of two pathways based on instructor’s epistemology, but to realize their own preferences. The term “dual-layer” does imply that one layer might be better or higher than the other. And to many people, one usually is. But those opinions vary widely based on a complex, ever-changing set of sociocultural implications that is different for different learners on different days. This is why some of us that are working on this idea have started using terms like “customizable modalities” more often. Modalities is a better descriptor than layers because it does not imply hierarchy. Cusomizable is probably better that dual because a) there could theoretically be more than two “layers,” and b) it better implies that learners are building an individualized pathway that can change over the duration of the course. Coming back to a Neutral Zone often during the course could encourage the learner (and especially the instructor) to realize that all modalities are valid pathways, and that they can be changed as needed (by the learner) during the course.
  3. Using a specific learning platform usually keeps learners in that platform and encourages preference for that platform. DALMOOC used EdX for the instructivist layer/modality and ProSolo for the connectivist layer/modality. While it would be easy to build the Neutral Zone out of either EdX or ProSolo, the ideal space would be outside of both. Learners often stay within the platform they start in, so it would be a constant effort to pull learners into the other modality. This constant effort to trick them into the other modality could be seen as a enforcing the instructor’s epistemology on the learner, something the customizable modality paradigm tries to avoid. Additionally, many platforms (like EdX) are designed to be sticky, to find ways to keep learners in that space as much as possible. This is not what you want in a customizable modality design. Of course, too many tools can make for a confusing process, so ultimately this Neutral Zone website would need to support single sign on for all other services utilized.
  4. Using a Neutral Zone could lead to the next step of learners owning their data for the course. Of course, the term “Neutral Zone” is misleading in that no technology is ever truly neutral. But when an instructor uses a platform like EdX as abase for their course, they lose control over the data they generate in that course. When learners work in that area, they also lose control over the data they submit. Moving to a Neutral Zone could set the ground work for learners to own their own domain. In other words, they could sign on the the class with their website and then choose what data and artifacts they share with the course, rather than being forced into a contained system.

edugeek-journal-avatarA lot of this is pie in the sky thinking, and I realize that. But there is always a tendency with education that those in charge of the class like to pull learners into their preferred epistemology regardless of if that is what the learner needs or not. Additionally, we also face the tendency of pulling learners into platforms that only support one modality over another, even if that modality is not best for the learner. The overarching aim of having customizable modalities is to resist these tendencies by encouraging true individualized educational pathways for learners as much as possible.

(image credit: dis nfo, obtained from freeimages.com)

Matt Crosslin

Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.

2 thoughts on “Designing a Neutral Zone in Dual-Layer (Customizable Modality) MOOCs

  1. I would love to see more more flexibly structured resources between unstructured web content and classroom lectures (10 min lectures followed by a couple of questions that seems the default mooc pedagogical format). Anything that gives opportunity to participate in socially active and cognitively constructive activities with modality choices that reflect varies student backgrounds would be a great improvement. This would improve both the epistemological depth and efficiency of learning. It is amazing how many amazingly smart content experts as well as mooc platforms are so pedagogically uninformed. I guess the history of psychology, littered with so many dead ends (behaviorism, computational cognitivism) is much to blame. Many content experts think more learning comes from their lectures when in fact much more is coming from their relationships to students and the epistemological structure of their departments.

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