Every Choice is Awesome. Every Path is Cool When You’re in #HumanMOOC

It is hard to believe we are already in the last week of HumanMOOC and I have failed to blog any thoughts or reflections on the whole process. Keeping a customizable pathways course running is quite the undertaking, so I unfortunately had to spend more time on the design and technical sides than the interactive and reflective sides. The feedback and interaction I have been able to partake in has been incredible, and I wanted to reflect on that a bit.

HumanMOOC, like DALMOOC before it, was designed according to what has been called the dual-layer model, the customizable modalitities model, and the pathways model. This evolving-name model is basically designed to deal with one huge issue in education:

This issue being that the biggest problem with education is people.

You see, if we were all computerized robots, educators could just figure out a solution for upgrading us all and it would work for everyone. But we are human, and we all have different preferences, different experiences, different likes, different dislikes, different needs, and so on. Because of these differences, some of us become seen as experts in certain areas by others, creating a scenario where some people have knowledge about some things that others want to gain.

These differences create informational power imbalances that manifest themselves as courses, schools, and universities. Those that control the information, grades, and courses that anyone needs to obtain that knowledge typically create a singular path to obtaining that knowledge and set themselves up as the regulator of that pathway. Of course, this pathway may take many forms like a stream – branching off and coming back, looping around, joining several other streams together, etc. But ultimately, those in control of the stream determine what it does no matter what course it takes. Some people refer to this stream as instructivism, with some estimates placing it as the dominant mindset behind 70-90% of all college education.

Which is not a bad thing to those that like instructivism (and there are many people that do). But the fact that all learners are forced to follow one path ignores the main problem with education (that people are different and prefer different paths).

Many educational theories have arisen to create an alternate learner-centered version of education. Some of these are really just illusionary at best – with students having choices that are still tightly controlled by the instructor or utilizing social media tools under strict specifications. Theories like connectivism are the most learner-centered, but implementing connectivism in a course also often takes away the choice to just follow the instructor that some learners (especially those that are new to the topic at hand) might want.

And so we have this problem in education that most research is trying to solve: how to deal with us being human and all wanting different things. Maybe we create ways to trick people into all wanting the same thing? Or maybe we can standardized everything for the most learners possible? Or maybe we can create personalized systems to serve up one of 50 pre-defined paths and create the illusion of customization? Or maybe scale instructivism or connectivism to the most people and ignore those that don’t fit the one we chose?

So all of this leads to the pathways course design of DALMOOC and HumanMOOC that basically creates parallel modalities, one that is instructivist and one that is connectivist. Course participants can choose one or the other (or both) at any point and change as they like. Those that want to create their own path through the topic (much in the same way one would wander through a garden and take in the sights and sounds and smells as you like when you like) can do so when they like, and those that want to follow a structured path through the topic can find the stream inside the garden and follow it. And switch at any time.

Of course, this kind of choice is a different paradigm for most, and typically brings about some confusion and panic from participants:

I don’t want to miss anything, but there is too much to take in.
I don’t like the LMS, but I still go in there because I don’t want to miss anything.

I don’t like Twitter, but I still go there because I don’t want to miss anything.
I don’t like discussion forums, they are not social.
I don’t like Twitter because discussion forums are more social.
Can we add Twitter to the LMS? The LMS is not social enough.
Can we add a blog hub to the LMS? (or insert Facebook page widget, Google+ integration, etc).
Can you stop pushing Twitter? Its a confusing non-linear mess.
I find blogging boring, can you just publish course content to the blog nub?

And so on. All of these are valid questions and valid points. They have all been said to me at some time between both courses so far. But as you might have noticed, many of these statements are directly contradictory to each other. So which ones are right and which aren’t?

The answer is: “Every choice is awesome! Every path is cool when you’re in #HumanMOOC (or any pathways course)”.

The first thing that many people tend to worry about is “missing anything.” That is a legitimate concern in a course – we are taught to pay attention to everything and to finish everything in order to pass. We are used to being able to do everything because we are required to do everything. But the truth of the matter is, we end up forgetting a lot of what we don’t miss, and also end up missing a lot more than we know. Have you gotten to read every paper turned in to every course you have been a part of? Were you able to hear every class discussion, or every word of the lecture? At some point, we all miss some part of any class and still end up “completing” the course (whatever that may mean).

Unfortunately, a byproduct of being a part of everything is that most people aren’t really a part of everything. Even in a class of 15 students, only a few of them will participate in course discussions while the rest sit in the background. You can only have a few people active in any group type of activity before some start fading to the background. That fading into the background is missing something, even though you might be present.

On the other hand, one of the byproducts of creating so many avenues to participate in for HumanMOOC is that more people can be an active part of something, rather than a few people being active in the one option and the rest just being passive observers. Of course, that means that no one person can do everything. Its just something that has to be accepted as okay, a shift in thinking that says “I will be active in my corner of the course and let the other ones go.” The trade off is that more people can become active in more corners because there are more corners in the first place (an unlimited amount, really).

The other trade-off is that we have to become okay with not liking something that others do like. Not everyone will like any one tool, buy most people are surprised to find out that people actually like the tool they don’t. Those that like to work in the garden of connectivism will usually be shocked to find out that some people like the controlled nature of the stream… or that they even may make that choice knowing that the garden exists.

From what I have generally seen, those that are in the stream of instructivism like that pathway, are aware of the garden of connectivism, typically do not like it’s chaos, and are annoyed by any attempt to trick them out into the garden. Either that, or there are others that are just afraid to try out the garden. Those that are mostly roaming free in the garden are oblivious to the idea that people actually like the stream, and are shocked to find people that choose to be there. Of course, most people tend to mix both but not get why they need the choice, even when faced with the idea that others choose a different mix of the two modalities that differs from theirs at different times, and it is actually the presence of choice that allows that mixture to happened on an individualized basis for all learners in the first place.

So, when asked why we don’t add a Twitter feed into the LMS, or post the LMS content on the Google Plus page, or use a Facebook page for content, or embed the blog hub into the LMS, or require blogging of all learners, or any other combination of the two modalities, the answer is simple: choice. We can’t just pick and choose which tool to bring into the other (that would force an instructor decision on all learners) – we would have to bring them all together into one spot. But this would have the effect of dampening (if not destroying) the option of choice. If we embed a Twitter feed into the LMS, then learners in the LMS stream can no longer choose to not participate in the garden. It is being forced on them front and center. They can ignore it, but even that is a barrier that they have to go around. As much as I love Twitter and connectivism in general, to place a Twitter widget into the LMS would be a way to put my epistemology into every part of the course. Learners can ignore it, but the chances of that are pretty small.

So that is why the pathways design has a Neutral Zone, not because this zone can actually be a neutral space free of power dynamics and instructor bias, but it can expose the power dynamics behind the tools and designs so that learners can make a choice between tools by fully understanding what those choices mean. Its a choice made from a neutralized playing field. But after that choice is made, we have to avoid bringing choices they didn’t make into the pathway of the choice they did make.

edugeek-journal-avatarUltimately, we (education in general) need to get a to place where, no matter what epistemology/ontology/etc the instructor subscribes to, they at least design a course that says “Every choice is awesome! Every path is cool when you are part of my class!” – even if that choice means going down an instructivist path when they want them to go connectivist, or vice versa.

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.

Digging Into What “Choice” is in Customizable Modality/Dual-Layer

After digging more into the idea of “neutral zone” in dual-layer / customizable modality learning design in the last post, I wanted to touch a bit on what “choice” means in this design. “Choice” has several really different levels of meaning in learning, and if you try to create the wrong kind of choices in dual-layer design, you are really just defeating the purpose (not necessarily in a bad way, but just in unnecessary ways).

All learning requires some type of choice, usually situated in the lesson itself. When you create an assignment, there is usually some level of choice to what specific topic the learner chooses to complete the assignment. Some instructors even give choice over the format of the final artifact. A few even give learners the choice of social assignments vs. individual assignments. These are all really great choices to give learners. However, these are not the choices that a Neutral Zone are designed to foster.

Basically, all of these types of situated choices are still occurring in one modality (layer). The epistemological foundation of this modality is instructivism – the instructor is still guiding the overall path of the course, with specific places for divergent side paths. This is a great way to design courses for certain learners at certain times.

However, when considering sociocultural theory, we know that different learners have different needs at different times (and those change for learners on any given day). Some learners on some weeks may not need to be guided by instructors at all. Or the options that are given by the instructor do not match their sociocultural learning needs that week. And so on.

The goal of the customizable modality design is to give learners a more meta level choice of epistemological learning design. They can be guided by the instructor when needed, and create their own experience when needed. Or both.

Therefore, the goal of the Neutral Zone is not to replace one or both of the modalities, but to form a thin guide post to point to the layers that are possible. In general, a basic diagram of this process might look like this:

dual-layer-choice-1

However, the two options that are represented here are not quite that simplistic in actual design. The instructor-led layer could itself be designed using situated choices, double-loop learning, etc. And the connectivist layer would not look that organized. A more accurate representation of the possibilities would be like this:

dual-layer-choice-2

Learners that choose either self-regulated or instructor led pathways would then have all of the choices built into either design by the instructor and/or the tools they use. The instructor-led path could still have choices (simple or complex) situated along the pathway . The self-regulated design would have many pathways (many that are intentionally in there, and many even outside of that).

However, while many learners could choose choose either modality, some might go beyond that in a way that mixes both pathways. It may even be the case that design of one layer/modailty will lead learners to the other layer/modailty. Some learners may create a custom path that could become one of thousands that may look something like this:

dual-layer-choice-3

On top of this, some learners may not even take a linear path, but decide to pick and choose parts of the course as they see fit:

dual-layer-choice-4

These charts also highlight why we sometimes refer to this overall design process as customizable modality.

The basic way to design for this is to create a compentency for the week. Then you 1) provide a platform (like ProSolo) that facilitates the social learning layer/modality; and 2) have the instructor design a lesson that will guide learners to complete the competency and place it in a platform like EdX. Ideally, you would also have tools (including a neutral zone and others) that will connect the platforms in ways so that learners can turn in work for either tool and it is posted in both.

Theoretically, you can also focus in on any number of epistemologies in place of instructivism and connectivism. You could have cognitivism and social constructivism be the two modalities. You could have more than two – creating entire pathways for behaviorism, cognitivism, and connectivism for example (if you really want to take the time to design and align those three).

edugeek-journal-avatarThe importance of this design is that it taps into the research into heutagogy – teaching your learners how to learn. Giving learners choices over what assignments to do doesn’t really reach a level of truly knowing how to learn. Making choices (hopefully someday guided by recommendation systems for scaffolding) on which epistemology to use digs deeper into learning how to learn.

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.

Designing a Neutral Zone in Dual-Layer (Customizable Modality) MOOCs

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.