Are MOOCs Fatally Flawed Concepts That Need Saving by Bots?

MOOCs are a problematic concept, as are many things in education. Using bots to replicate various functions in MOOCs is also a problematic concept. Both MOOCs and bots seems to go in the opposite direction of what we know works in education (smaller class sizes and more interaction with humans). So, teaching with either or both concepts will open the doors for many different sets of problems.

However… there are also even bigger problems that our society is imposing on education (at least in some parts of the world): defunding of schools, lack of resources, and eroding public trust being just a few. I don’t like any of those, and I will continue to speak out against them. But I also can’t change them overnight.

So what do we do with the problems of less resources, less teachers, more students, and more information to teach as the world gets more complex? Some people like to just focus on fixing the systemic issues causing these problems. And we need those people. But even once they do start making headway…. it will still be years before education improves from where it is. And how long until we even start making headway?

The current state of research into MOOCs and/or bots is really about dealing with the reality of where education is right now. Despite there being some larger, well-funded research projects into both, the reality is that most research is very low (or no) budget attempts to learn something about how to create some “thing” that can help a shrinking pool of teachers educate a growing mass of students. Imperfect solutions for an imperfect society. I don’t fully like it, but I can’t ignore it.

Unfortunately, many people are causing an unnecessary either/or conflict between “dealing with scale as it is now” and “fixing the system that caused the scale in the first place.” We can work at both – help education scale now, while pushing for policy and culture change to better support and fund education as a whole.

On top of all of that, MOOCs tend to be “massively” misunderstood (sorry, couldn’t resist that one). Despite what the hype claims, they weren’t created as a means to scale or democratize education. The first MOOCs were really about connectivism, autonomy, learner choices, and self-directed learning. The fact that they had thousands of learners in them was just a thing that happened due to the openness, not an intended feature.

Then the “second wave” of MOOCs came along, and that all changed. A lot of this was due to some unfortunate hype around MOOCs published in national publications that proclaimed some kind of “educational utopia” of the future, where MOOCs would “democratize” education and bring quality online learning to all people.

Most MOOC researchers just scoffed at that idea – and they still do. However, they also couldn’t ignore the fact that MOOCs do bring about scaled education in various ways, even if that was not the intention. So that is where we are at now: if you are going to research MOOCs, you have to realize that the context of that research will be about scale and autonomy in some way.

But it seems that the misunderstandings of MOOCs are hard-coded into the discourse now. Take the recent article “Not Even Teacher-Bots Will Save Massive Open Online Courses” by Derek Newton. Of course, open education and large courses existed long before that were coined “MOOCs”… so it is unclear what needs “saving” here, or what it needs to be saved from. But the article is a critique of a study out of the University of Edinburgh (I believe this is the study, even though Newton never links to it for you to read it for yourself) that sought “to increase engagement” by designing and deploying “a teacher-bot (botteacher) in at least one MOOC.” Newton then turns around and says “the idea that a pre-programmed bot could take over some teaching duties is troubling in Blade Runner kind of way.” Right there you have your first problematic switch-a-roo. “Increasing engagement” is not the same as “taking over some teaching duties.” That is like saying that lane departure warning lights on cars is the same as taking over some driving duties. You can’t conflate something that assists with something that takes over. Your car will crash if you think “lane departure warnings” are “self-driving cars.”

But the crux of Newton’s article is that because the “bot-assisted platform pulls in just 423 of 10,145, it’s fair to say there may be an engagement problem…. Botty probably deserves some credit for teaching us, once again, that MOOCs are fatally flawed and that questions about them are no longer serious or open.”  Of course, there are fatal flaws in all of our current systems – political, religious, educational, etc. – yet questions about all of those can still be serious or open. So you kind of have to toss out that last part as opinion and not logic.

The bigger issues is that calling 423 people an “engagement problem” is an unfortunate way to look at education. That is still a lot of people, considering most courses at any level can’t engage 30 students. But this misunderstanding comes from the fact that many people still misunderstand what MOOC enrollment means.  10,000 people signing up for a MOOC is not the same as 10,000 people signing up for a typical college course. Colleges advertise to millions of perspective students, who then have to go through a huge process of applications and trials to even get to register for a course. ALL of that is bypassed for a MOOC. You see a course and click to register. Done. If colleges did the same, they would also get 10,000+ signing up for a course. But they would probably only get 50-100 showing up for the first class – a lot less than any first week in most MOOCs.

Make no mistake: college courses would have just as bad of engagement rates if they removed the filters of application and enrollment to who could sign up. Additionally, the requirement of “physical re-location” for most would make those engagement rates even worse than MOOCs if the entire process were considered.

Look at it this way: 30 years ago, if someone said “I want to learn History beyond what a book at the library can tell me,” they would have to go through a long and expensive process of applying to various universities, finally (possibly) getting accepted at one, and then moving to where that University was physically located. Then, they would have to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for that first course. How many tens of thousands of possible students get filtered out of the process because of all of that? With MOOCs, all of that is bypassed. Find a course on History, click to enroll, and you are done.

When we talk about “engagement” in courses, it is typically situated in a traditional context that filters out tens of thousands of people before the course even starts. To then transfer the same terminology to MOOCs is to utilize an inaccurate critique based on concepts rooted in a completely different filtering mechanism.

Unfortunately, these fundamentally flawed misunderstandings of MOOC research are not just one-off rarities. This same author also took a problematic look at a study I helped out with Aras Bozkurt and Whitney Kilgore. Just look at the title or Newton’s previous article: Are Teachers About To Be Replaced By Bots? Yeah, we didn’t even go that far, and intentionally made sure to stay as far away from saying that as possible.

Some of the critique of our work by Newton is just very weird, like where he says: “Setting aside existential questions such as whether lines of code can search, find, utter, reply or engage discussions.” Well, yes – they can do that. Its not really an existential question at all. Its a question of “come sit at a computer with me and I will show you that a bot is doing all of that.” Google has had bots doing this for a long, long time. We have pretty much proven that Russian bots are doing this all over the world.

Then Newton gets into pull quotes, where I think he misunderstands what we meant by the word “fulfill.” For example, it seems Newton misunderstood this quote from our article: “it appears that Botty mainly fulfils the facilitating discourse category of teaching presence.” If you read our quote in context, it is part of the Findings and Discussion section, where we are discussing what the bot actually did. But it is clear from the discussion that we don’t mean that Botty “fully fills” the discourse category, but that what it does “fully qualifies” as being in that category. Our point was in light of “self-directed and self-regulated learners in connectivist learning environments” – a context where learners probably would not engage with the instructor in the first place. In this context, yes it did seem that Botty was filling in for an important instructor role in a way that fills satisfies the parameters of that category. Not perfectly, and not in a way that replaces the teacher. It was in a context where the teacher wasn’t able to be present due to the realities of where education is currently in society – scaled and less supported.

Newton goes on to say: “What that really means is that these researchers believe that a bot can replace at least one of the three essential functions of teaching in a way that’s better than having a human teacher.”

Sorry, we didn’t say “replace” in an overall context, only “replace” in a specific context that is outside of the teacher’s reach. We also never said “better than having a human teacher.” That part is just a shameful attempt at putting words in our mouths that we never said. In fact, you can search the entire article and find we never said the word “better” about anything.

Then Newton goes on to mis-use another quote of ours (“new technological advances would not replace teachers just because teachers are problematic or lacking in ability, but would be used to augment and assist teachers”). His response to this is to say that we think “new technology would not replace teachers just because they are bad but, presumably, for other reasons entirely.”

Sorry, Newton, but did you not read the sentence directly after the one you quoted? We said “The ultimate goal would not be to replace teachers with technology, but to create ways for non-human teachers to work in conjunction with human teachers in ways that remove all ontological hierarchies.”  Not replacing teachers…. working in conjunction. Huge difference.

Newton continues with injecting inaccurate ideas into the discussion, such as “Bots are also almost certain to be less expensive than actual teachers too.” Well, actually, they currently aren’t always less expensive in the long run. Then he tries to connect another quote from us about how lines between bots and teachers might get blurred as proof that we… think they will cost less? That part just doesn’t make sense.

Newton also did not take time to understand what we meant by “post-humanist,” as evidenced by this statement of his: “the analysis of Botty was done, by design, through a “post-humanist” lens through which human and computer are viewed as equal, simply an engagement from one thing to another without value assessment.” Contrast his statement with our actual statement on post-humanism: “Bayne posits that educators can essentially explore how to retain the value of teacher presence in ways that are not in opposition to some forms of automation.” Right there we clearly state that humans still maintain value in our study context.

Then Newton pulls his most shameful bait and switch of the whole article at the end: pulling one of our “problematic questions” (where we intentionally highlighted problematic questions for sake of critique) and attributing it as our conclusion: “the role of the human becomes more and more diminished.” Newton then goes on to state: “By human, they mean teacher. And by diminished, they mean irrelevant.”

Sorry Newton, that is simply not true. Look at our question following soon after that one, where we start the question with “or” to negate what our list of problematic questions ask: “Or should AI developers maintain a strong post-humanist angle and create bot-teachers that enhance education while not becoming indistinguishable from humans?” Then, maybe read our conclusion after all of that and the points it makes, like “bot-teachers can possibly be viewed as a learning assistant on the side.”

The whole point of our article was to say: “Don’t replace human teachers with bot teachers. Research how people mistake bots for real people and fix that problem with the bots. Use bots to help in places where teachers can’t reach. But above all, keep the humans at the center of education.”

Anyways, after a long side-tangent about our article, back to the point of misunderstanding MOOCs, and how researchers of MOOCs view MOOCs. You can’t evaluate research about a topic – whether MOOCs or bots or post-humanism or any topic – through a lens that fundamentally misunderstands what the researchers were examining in the first place. All of these topics have flaws and concerns, and we need to critically think about them. But we have to do so through the correct lens and contextual understanding, or else we will cause more problems that we solve in the long run.

What If The Problem Isn’t With MOOCs But Something Else?

Is this another post about how MOOCs are misunderstood ideas that the critics all get wrong? Not quite. There are problems with MOOCs, but I’m still looking at the conversation about MOOCs in general (continuing from my last post kind of). The general conversation about MOOCs (and for that matter other ed tech innovations such as flipped learning, gamification, etc) tends to be all over the place: insightful, missing the forest for the trees, really odd, kind of just there, etc. All of that is great and makes for interesting discussion. One of the concepts that seems to be getting more traction the past few weeks is “motivation.”

The article about “Why Technology Will Never Fix Education” has already been the subject of many insightful observations. I want to zoom in on one part:

The real obstacle in education remains student motivation. Especially in an age of informational abundance, getting access to knowledge isn’t the bottleneck, mustering the will to master it is. And there, for good or ill, the main carrot of a college education is the certified degree and transcript, and the main stick is social pressure.

I don’t think we can just pass over that last statement with just a simple “for good or ill.” There is a lot of “ill” with that carrot that needs to be unpacked. In an article that very correctly examines the problems of inequality in education, a huge systemic problem is skipped over.

Of course, this article is not the only one. Many other articles have pointed at “student motivation” as being a huge problems with MOOCs. MOOCs are like any other education idea: subject to good and bad instructional design. So you shouldn’t blame the overall idea when learners are just getting bored with bad instructional design. But even beyond that, the above quote speaks to how our system in the U.S. relies on motivational techniques that are predominantly extrinsic in nature. We spend decades indoctrinating learners with this context, and then when an idea comes along that relies mostly on intrinsic motivation, we blame the idea itself rather than our system.

What if MOOCs are just a mirror that shows us the sociocultural problems we don’t want to deal with in our system?

What if the problem is not with the learners, but the way they have been programmed through the years? Grades, credits, failure, tuition, fees, gold stars, extra recess for good grades, monetary rewards, etc are all programmed into learners from a young age.

You can say MOOCs are failing because they lack sufficient “student motivation,” but what if it was actually the case that society has been failing for decades and MOOCs are just exposing this?

Of course, we all recognize many ways that society is failing in education. But what if there are other ways? What if relying on too much extrinsic motivation is a failure? What if we are failing to embrace all of the current and historical research in motivation? What if we know a lot about motivation, but fail to real utilize any of that knowledge? On Twitter yesterday, Rolin Moe pointed out that he never reads discussion of Herman Witkin, cognitive styles, field dependence/independence, etc in relation to motivation. In my circles, I have heard Witkin brought up, but to be honest – I can’t recall anyone trying or applying his ideas (kind of in the same way people in education rattle off Skinner or Bandura and then just don’t really use any of their ideas). These are all ways that our educational system was failing just in the area of motivation for decades before MOOCs (or many other Ed Tech ideas) even came along.

Yet what happens is that the ideas like MOOC are blamed for the historical failure of the system, and those that feel more comfortable within that system recommend pulling the wild ideas back in to make them look more like the existing system. Just think about it: what are the recommendations for fixing “student motivation” in MOOCs? Find a way to add back extrinsic motivation!

I would say: no. We need to find a different path. In fictional entertainment, one of the foundational constructs is to reach for is “suspension of disbelief.” You have to help the readers come to a place of either gaining interest in your story or believability in the fiction elements so that they suspend skepticism and engage the story. Traditional education has typically sought for a “suspension of laziness” – looking for ways to get learners to get off their rears and learn (because we always assume that when they don’t want to learn it is their motivation instead of our design). Newer ideas like MOOCs are going past that, to what I guess could be called “suspension of extrinsic motivation” (for lack of better words). What does learning design look like when you remove all of these carrot sticks (or actual paddling sticks) and leave learners to just pure learning? Well… maybe purer learning than what we had.

edugeek-journal-avatarThere are many, many more angles to explore here (not to mention problems with extrinsic/intrinsic motivation constructs), but I am already getting long-winded. The important idea to consider is that instead of pulling emerging technology and design back towards the tradition of what we already know (which is actually a power struggle by those in power), we need to push forward towards the direction that we already know we need to go.

(image credit: Manu Mohan, obtained from

Metamodernist Instructional Design and the False Goal of Primacy in MOOCs

This has been an interesting year in the MOOC discussion realm, with everything from MOOC 4.0 to arguments about who controls the conversation about MOOC research. But a strain that has always seemed to existed in the discussion about MOOCs is the idea of making MOOCs more like a traditional college educational experiences. A recent entry into this stream by the title of “Why is the University Still Here?” caught my eye, and want to address some of the issues that are brought up in this article.

First of all is the idea that “those who wanted to be educated had the means to do so” because of libraries and expensive video lectures. I’m not sure there is much social research that would support that claim, since many people don’t have access to libraries, and even if they do, they run into a complex organizational system that becomes a barrier to entry. If people who wanted education could get it, we are all barking up the wrong tree to improve access in the first place. Why change anything if the people that wanted it can already get it?

Second is the idea that “education is simply not as native an activity for many adults today.” Those that research the blurred line between pedagogy, andragogy, and heutagogy would disagree. People are always learning in many informal and formal ways and always have been – maybe its just that the mainstream of education is finally catching up with this idea. At their most basic levels, the original MOOCs and connectivism tap into the idea that most adults are native to learning and are doing it all the time – its just the formal constructs of behaviorism and constructivism don’t seem to tap into this native learning (for many, many reasons that really have nothing to do with the constructs themselves but the ways many use them).

These two problems lead into the third and biggest issue I have with what the article identifies as the big problems with MOOCs: loss of primacy and motivation.

“Primacy is making education the primary activity of a student’s day, or perhaps more specifically, the primary thought activity of the day…. Primacy is deeply connected to motivation, since it makes learning the default rather than a conscious decision that we make throughout the day…. When we attend a physical university, we automatically give primacy to education…. There is also financial primacy that comes from paying large tuition bills…. New forms of online education like MOOCs lost both forms of primacy at once. By making them free, students had few incentives to not quit any time the course materials got boring or difficult. Without a physical presence, there weren’t the social peer effects of friends encouraging us to attend our classes on time, or shaming us about our poor performance.”

I’d love to know where these peers are that encourage and shame us to do better. I had professors that do that – but peers? They were usually skipping classes and study sessions with me :)

Basically, this is saying that traditional education works because educators have the big sticks of grades, passing, and keeping our money to force us to do good in classes, so our instructional designs are working because we can threaten learners with bad stuff if they don’t do what we tell them to when they get bored. And – bonus! – they will peer pressure each other to submit to this threat by putting them together in a campus.

To me, one of the greatest things we can learn from MOOCs is “what does it mean when we lose primacy and the threat of grades and failure?” What does your teaching or design look like when you can’t rely on bad things happening if learners don’t comply? How do you design for that?

But let’s look more at the ideas of primacy through the lens of how adults now natively learn.  The idea of primacy is a construct that came about through decades of modernist and then postmodernist thought that leads many people to think in black and white either/ors. Depending on who you listen to, postemodernism stopped being the dominant social paradigm sometime between 1975 and 2000, replaced by the idea of metamodernism. For those not familiar with metamodernism, the “meta” is not the same as we see in “meta-tag” or “meta-study”, but related to Plato’s “metaxy” (a swinging back and forth). It is the idea that our society no longer chooses either modernism or postmodernism, but combines both of them – often at the same time. Paradox and juxtaposition are one of the ten basic principles of metamodernism. Cultural theorists Robin van den Akker and Timotheus Vermeulen describe metamodernism as

a continuous oscillation, a constant repositioning between positions and mindsets that are evocative of the modern and of the postmodern but are ultimately suggestive of another sensibility that is neither of them: one that negotiates between a yearning for universal truths on the one hand and an (a)political relativism on the other, between hope and doubt, sincerity and irony, knowingness and naivety, construction and deconstruction.

Many see this as the dominant mindset of our current society, whether we recognize it or not.

What does this mean for education? People no longer have a primacy in their life. Or, more accurately – they have several all at once. Education, jobs, family, hobbies, etc no longer compete for primacy, they all have primacy at the same time. Education is both native and non-native, because people are often learning formally and informally at the same time. People can want education and still not have access to it. Paradoxes are real and embraced.

(I can hear all of the pragmatists out there shouting “no duh!)

edugeek-journal-avatarWith the rise of the non-traditional student on physical campuses, this is also the case for traditional courses. This is the new educational world that we are designing for online and face-to-face. This is the future of quality university experiences. This is how humans are, how we have been for centuries really. We are finally getting to throw off the shackles of either/or black or white thinking (or maybe more accurately, more of us can join those who have been doing so for centuries). This is what MOOCs can teach us (and what they are actually doing a great job of teaching us). Instead of looking for how to re-create traditional education’s accomplishments online, we need to learn to embrace the paradoxes and juxtapositions that have always existed in successful education. This is the challenge for metamodernist instructional design: not instructivism or connectivism, but both. Not content or social interaction, but both (as #rhizo15 has put it: content is people!). Not andragogy or pedagogy, but heutagogy (which combines both informal and formal learning). We should embrace the paradox and reject the thinking that you have to choose between two options that actually both work.

(image credit: James Kunley, obtained from

Why Your Institution Needs Open Online Courses

I will be the first to admit that there are some good reasons to hate MOOCs. The problem that I run into, however, is that when I talk to people that don’t like MOOCs, none of those good reasons are on their list. You usually hear default arguments about drop-out rates, lack of feedback, cost, etc. Not that those aren’t valid issues, its just that the way most people look at those issues are flawed. Most of those flaws have been effectively addressed in research papers and blog posts.

What I would generally say in response to the people that don’t like MOOCs is 1) forget the term MOOC and 2) just focus on the idea of open online courses and why you need them. No matter what your institution is, if you are in education, I would say you need to be doing at least some experimenting with open online courses… and I mean fully open courses, not just ones that are an extension of a college course (i.e. some of your learners are earning credit).

The “killer value” (in my opinion) from a design standpoint with open online courses is that all of the learning is voluntary. No one is holding a carrot of “grades” or “passing for credit” in front of the learners. By investigating what happens in your own open online course, you can see first hand what works and what doesn’t when learners have to be purely intrinsically motivated. This research into practical application can then directly influence the design of your traditional classes. What do the successful parts of open online courses tell you about learners in your institution’s courses? What does learning look like when threats of institutional punishment are removed from the equation? If something doesn’t work in an open online course, should you really consider that a “good” learning design in a traditional course? Sure, you can force them to do whatever you want with the threat of failure – but how effective is that for authentic learning?

Faculty – think about this: what does it tell you about your abilities as an instructor when you are teaching an open course and can no longer rely on graded discussion boards to connect with learners? What does it tell you about your ability to foster community when you can’t force learners to reply to at least two other threads? Think of all that you can learn about yourself and teaching in general from teaching in an open online course.

Sure, you can read the research about these issues and glean some insights from the literature. But those papers are not written in your unique context. Some factors are going to be different in some major way. You really need to know these issues within the context of your institution, your faculty, your class, your instructional designers, your students (and potential students), etc.

edugeek-journal-avatarI would even go so far as to say that every instructor that teaches online should be required to teach at least one open online course every other year or so – maybe even more often. It really is an eye-opening experience.

(Quick note: I realize that there are many, many other killer values out there for open online courses – I am just highlighting one that has been on my mind for a while.)

(image credit: Sanja Gjenero, obtained from

Social Learning, Blending xMOOCs & cMOOCs, and Dual Layer MOOCs

For those who missed it, the Data, Analytics, and Learning MOOC (DALMOOC) kicked off orientation this week with two hang-outs – one as a course introduction and one as a discussion over course design. Also, the visual syllabus, the precursor of which you saw here in various blog posts, is now live. The main course kicks off on Monday – so brace yourselves for impact!

The orientation sessions generated some great discussion, as well as raised a few questions that I want to dive into here. The first question is one that came about from my initial blog posts (but continued into the orientation discussion), the second is related to the visual syllabus, and the third is in relation to the Hangout orientation sessions themselves:

  • Don’t most MOOCs blend elements of xMOOCs and cMOOCs together? The xMOOC/cMOOC distinction is too simple and DALMOOC is not really doing anything different.
  • Are the colors on the Tool flow chart mixed up? Blue is supposed to represent traditional instructivist instruction, but there are social tools in blue.
  • Isn’t it ironic to have a Google Hangout to discuss an interactive social learning course but not allow questions or interaction?

All great points, and I hope to explain a bit more behind the course design mindset that influenced these issues.

The first question goes back to the current debate over whether there are really any differences between xMOOCs or cMOOCs or whether this is a false binary (or not). I have blogged about that before, and continued by pointing out that the xMOOC/cMOOC distinction is not really about “binary” at all as much as where certain factors cluster (more specifically, power). I submitted a paper to AREA this year (that I hope gets accepted) with my major professor Dr. Lin that was basically a content analysis of the syllabuses from 30 MOOCs. I noticed that there were clusters of factors around xMOOCs and xMOOCs that didn’t really cluster in other ways. I am now working on some other studies that look at power issues and student factors like motivation and satisfaction. It seems like not matter what factor I look at, there still appears to be clusters around two basic concepts – xMOOCs and cMOOCs. But we will see if the research ends up supporting that.

So from my viewpoint (and I have no problem if you disagree – we still need research here), there are no hard fast lines between xMOOCs and cMOOCs. The real distinction between the xMOOCs and cMOOCs is where various forms of power (expert, institutional, oneself, etc) reside. For example, was any particular course designed around the students as source of expert power, or the instructor? You can have content in a course that has the student at the center. You can also have social tools in a course that sets the instructor as the center.

Our guiding principle with the DALMOOC was that there is nothing wrong with either instructivism / instructor-centered or connectivism / student-centered as long as the learner has the ability to choose which one they desire at any given moment.

That is also the key difference between our goal with course design and how most other blended xMOOC/cMOOCs are designed. Most blended MOOCs (bMOOCs? Sounds like something from the 80s) usually still have one option / one strand for learning. The content and the social aspects are part of the same strand that all learners are required to go through. Remember, just adding social elements to a course does not make it a social learning, student-centered, connectivist course (especially if you add 20 rules for the forum, 10 rules for blog entries, and then don’t allow other avenues beyond that). In the same manner, just adding some content or videos or one-way Hangout sessions does not make a cMOOC an instructor-centered, instructivist course.

Our design goal was to provide two distinct, separate layers that allow the learner to choose either one or the other, or both for the whole class, or mix the two in any manner they want. But the choice is up to the learner.

And to be clear, I don’t think there is anything wrong with blendedMOOCs. Some are brilliantly designed. Our goal with DALMOOC was just different from the blended approach.

So this goal led to the creation of a visual syllabus to help myself and others visualize how the course works. One comment that arose is that the colors on the tool flow page (explained here) are mixed up: the Quick Helper and Bazaar tools (explained here by George Siemens) are in blue and should be in red. I get that concern, but I think it goes back to my view of the distinction between xMOOCs and cMOOCs. The red color is not “social only” and the blue color is not “content only,” as some would classify the difference between cMOOCs and xMOOCs. The colors are about where the expert power lies. Quick Helper might have social aspects to it, but the main goal is to basically crowd-source course help when learners are trying to understand content or activities. And it is a really cool tool – I love both Quick Helper and Bazaar (and ProSolo, but the orientation Hangout for that one is coming up). But the focus of Quick Helper is to help learners understand the content and instructor-focused activities (again, nothing wrong with that since the choice is up to the learner to give that expert power to the instructor). In the same way, the Bazaar tool is social, but has a set of prompts that are written by the instructor for learners to follow.

I hope that clears that up a bit – the colors indicate where the expert power resides in the design – neither of which are bad in our design. Of course, you as the learner might use these tools differently than that and we are okay with that, too.

The third question is about the irony of using a Google Hangout to explain a student-centered course and then not allow any interaction. I kind of snickered at that one because I usually say the same thing at conference keynotes that talk about interactive learning but then don’t allow for interaction. So it sounds exactly like something I would say. Of course, at keynotes, you usually have the totality of the examination of that topic at that one keynote and then the speaker is gone. A course is different, obviously. But in explaining our reasoning for this issue I would point back to the differences between cMOOCs and xMOOCs and again bring up the point that being student-centered and connectivist does not mean that there are never any times of broadcast from the instructor. A 30 minute Hangout with no interaction fits into a student-centered mindset just fine as long as you don’t see hard fast lines between paradigms.

But I would also point out that the Google Hangout format is too limited for interaction at scale. You are only allowed 10 people in the actual Hang-out. In addition to that, going over 30 minutes gets a bit tedious, and you can’t really do much interaction with learners in 30 minutes even when using the Q&A feature. Not to mention that 30 minute window is set in stone – if a learner misses it because of work or different time zone or whatever: “no interaction for you!” Using a Google Hangout for a global course would be like being the ultimate “Interaction Nazi.” We also noticed a 30-60 second lag between live and broadcast, so that also hampers interaction. Howver, the biggest reason was that we were really looking at ProSolo, Twitter, our Facebook Page, and our Google+ Page as the true avenues for interaction with these Hangouts. Those avenues were active before, during, and after the Hangout for people in any time zone. So the interactivity was there during the orientation sessions, and you actually did see us responding to things from the social channels in both Hangouts. This may change in future Hangouts. The instructors may open up the Q&A function of Hangout. We’ll see.

So, if you have questions about DALMOOC content or design, be sure to post them to social avenues. Or comment here about this post. I am behind on comments (and blogging) due to the looming course launch, but I will get caught up :)

By the Power of MOOCskull – I Have the Power!

Just two days ago I made a comment about how my most throw-away blog posts seem to spark the most interesting discussions. Which is a pretty cool commentary on the Interwebs if you think about it.

The conversation on my last post turned to the difference between cMOOCs and xMOOCs and some thoughts that I have not considered (with great comments from Maha Bali and Alan Levine). If you had asked me just a year ago if I thought there was much of a difference between cMOOCs and xMOOCs, I would have probably agreed that they pretty much overlap and that there is not much difference. But after getting to work on the Dual-Layer cMOOC/xMOOC project as well as conducting some content analysis research on MOOCs over the summer, I tend to have a different view.

That is not to say that there are not elements of cMOOCs in xMOOCs and vice versa. And I am beginning to believe that there are two distinct sources of power in most courses: learning power and designed power (for lack of better terms – I think there are actual terms for these that I am blanking on). The “designed power” is how the course is created by the instructor and/or instructional designer. This is where I identified a problem in the past where instructors communicate one design and then produce another. The “learning power” is what students do with the “designed power” they are given. They might follow directions as told or go off on their own. Which is nothing new – students have been doing everything from study groups to cheating outside of the design of the course for as long as there have been classes. The nature of the Internet in general and open learning specifically probably increases the number of avenues for this “learning power” as well as lowers the barriers to partaking in it. Which is all great stuff.

But I am also a big believer in communication – or more specifically, accurate communication. Jurgen Habermas would probably be a good reference point. But even closer to home, Dr. Scott Warren has created a learning theory based on Habermas called “Learning and Teaching as Communicative Actions“. The basic idea is that you need to know what you want to communicate and then communicate it in the correct format to maximize learning (with apologies to Dr. Warren for the over-simplification). As an instructional designer, I realized that some of the major problems that occurred in learning design were based around a breakdown in the alignment between the “designed power” and the “learning power”.

Additionally, I think that as a profession, we often over simplify some terms. Student-centered is not “student-only”. Instructivism is not “instructor-only.” So, in that sense, there are no pure xMOOCs, pure cMOOCs, pure student-centered courses, or pure instructivist courses. There never have been, because those terms really don’t mean that. For example, student-centered is just “centered” on the student, not “student-only.” There is still room for instructor guidance in student-centered learning.

I think of it this way. If you are a child of the 80s, you probably got the point of the title of this post. He-Man was a classic “so cheesy its cool” cartoon centered around the all powerful He-Man. He-Man has a team of people around him that help him accomplish his quests, but everything still has to center around He-Man saving the day. Even if he is out of the picture for the whole episode, he will still come back in the last minute and make the whole solution about his power. Sure, there is a lot of cool stuff being accomplished by his companions as they do various social interactive tasks, but the power still resides with He-Man, and he determines when the problem is solved.

After all, it is “He-Man AND the Masters of the Universe” not just “Masters of the Universe.”

(anyone else wonder why Prince Adam was running around with a sword and one day just decided to raise it up and say “By the Power of GraySkulll…”? Yeah, lots of drugs involved in the 80s cartoons… which is why they rule…)

Contrast this with the recent Avengers movie. Captain America was obviously the leader at the end, but he really didn’t have a detailed plan that revolved around himself as much as he just set loose the people around him (that were as powerful or even more powerful than himself) to do what they do best. He had no idea where it would go or if it would actually work, and even by the end of the movie the solution really had no relation to his initial plan. It came together because the power was released to the people around him equally and they came to a solution together.

He still had some directions, but think about how Hawkeye, Thor, Iron Man, and Black Widow changed those directions just a few minutes later as the problem got more complex. Even the Hulk went from smashing stuff to smacking down Loki. Because the Hulk is awesome like that. And you get the sense that this was Captain America’s design all along – release the power to those around him.

So that is a nutshell of why I differentiate between xMOOCs and cMOOCs – not on pure designs but on where the power generally seems to be designed to go.

cMOOCs, Connected Courses, or (Just)MOOCs?

Just when you thought things were getting a bit confusing with xMOOCs, cMOOCs, miniMOOCs, POOCs, etc – it seems we now have various extremes existing within each of these classifications. In the cMOOC world, there are now those that argue there really is little difference between xMOOCs and cMOOCs and we should just call them all MOOCs. On the other end of the spectrum are those that say cMOOCs are so different from xMOOCs that they should be called something different, like “Connected Courses.”

As I blogged about recently, there really is a difference between xMOOCs and cMOOCs, and those that want to combine the two are really missing how they are running an xMOOC with social aspects added. When you still retain control over most of what is going on through curration or guidance or whatever you call it, you have an xMOOC.

Those that want to call cMOOCs something else are on the right track. However, I think the term “Connected Course” sounds cool but ends up being a bit problematic. Technically, it means the courses themselves are connected and not the learners. But also, if you Google “Connected Courses,” you find the term has already been in use for a while in many sectors. It usually seems to refer to courses that are aligned across content areas (that is where I first heard the term as an 8th grade teacher) or to a series of prerequisite courses that have to be taken in a specific order.

Also, as George Siemens as pointed out, whether or not these things are “courses” is also arguable.

But the conversation looks to be interesting, so I will be joining the Connected Courses MOOC to see what conversation arises. I might even try to actually finish a MOOC for the first time :)

(Don’t tell the LINK Lab I admitted that)

Probably the most accurate term for cMOOCs is “Connected Learning Open Events” – but CLOE just seems as problematic as (just)MOOC or cMOOC or Connect Course. Set up your POSSE and round up your PLE to jump into a CLOE. Yeah, that will never catch on.

Communal Constructivism and Dual Layer MOOCs

Reading through an article by Noel Fitzpatrick & Roisin Donnelly (“Do You See What I Mean: Computer-Mediated Discourse Analysis”), I came across this quote that seemed to speak directly to our current goal of combining xMOOCs and cMOOCs:

“It would seem, at first glance, slightly contradictory to construct communities of practice which are essentially organic structures which should be encouraged to grow, live and die naturally. The challenge is, perhaps therefore, to harness the organic benefits of online communities for sharing and learning within more formalised educational structures.” (p. 6)

This is our challenge – to combine the organic benefits of communities from cMOOCs with the more formalized structure of xMOOCs. It is fairly easy to conceptualize the idea, but the real problem is the community piece. There are really two issues to consider when designing this community: 1) what to do with that content the community creates, and 2) how to organize the communities to facilitate the co-creation of knowledge.

All courses have some type of community that creates some type of content. The real problem with many xMOOCs and most traditional classrooms is that the content created by the community is rarely used by the community (other than “respond to two comments on the discussion board”), and even if used it often vanishes after the class is over. A lot of that has to do with the paradigm: “I’m the instructor, you’re the student, I give the info, you prove you learned it, and then I start over with a new group next semester.” Even in social constructivist designs, the focus may be on what individuals learn and not what they can contribute to the general knowledge in the overall field. Fitzpatrick & Donnelly had another quote that caught my attention:

“With communal constructivism, students and teachers are not simply engaged in developing their own information but actively involved in creating knowledge that will benefit other students and teachers; the focus is on learning with and for others.” (p. 7)

Communal constructivism is not a new term, but one that is often left out of the discussion (except in a few cases). However, the idea is not that foreign since we often see this idea modeled in Reddit. But, of course, Reddit users post links to existing ideas instead of creating their own. What if there was a system like Reddit that connected to blog posts by learners, and then other learners could up vote certain ideas and posts to the level of becoming class assignments or even class content? This would be one way to do something meaningful with the content that the community creates. But really, the broader idea would be to create a system where the focus in on learning with and for others. This is just one idea to accomplish that.

Which, of course, leads to the second issue to consider: how to organize communities. One challenge George Siemens is looking at is how to leverage problem-based learning (PBL) in communities so that these community groupings are not just about discussing content but actually using new knowledge to solve problems. And, if learners have their own data to use, this could also be taken to the level of situated learning.

Of course, most instructors that know what these concepts are also know how to make them happen: create a well-designed PBL lesson and divide students into groups. Except… we’re in a MOOC situation that needs to scale to thousands of learners. This was where my previous idea of cell group models comes in: allow students to self-organize into groups based on whatever groupings they like (geographic, existing relationships, common goal, etc). Or let them sit back and lurk. But each group would identify a volunteer leader to keep things rolling, add new members (if needed), adjust roles when existing members leave, solve problems, multiply the group if it gets too big (and identify another leader), escalate problems they can’t solve, and decide to call it a day when the group organically dies off (even if before or after the end of the course itself).

In order to do this, we would have to stop thinking about group work in the typical ways we usually do: instructor assigns groups, forces all people in groups, and groups never change the whole course. We need to think of these groups in a different paradigm. If you are familiar with river tubing, think of how groups form in that activity. For those who are not familiar, here is a visual:


As individual tubers float down the river, they drift in and out of groupings as needed. Maybe they stick with people they knew the whole time. Maybe they make new friends as they go and the group grows. Maybe one group wants to go look at something that the others don’t. But the groupings of tubes are constantly changing, growing, and morphing. Some stay solo, some stay in the same group. But as the river (the course) flows, the structure is flexible enough to change over time. (I wish I could find an animated gif of river tubers to better illustrate)

So, layer this flexible grouping system on top of a Reddit system that allows learners to create and up-vote learner content (that can then be used as the problems in PBL), and allow the groups to form around these ideas. It would kind of be like tubers that discuss what drinks to bring, then putting the ones that won the vote into coolers, and those various coolers end up being what draws in the groups of tubers (which would of course change and morph as they float down the river).

Like I have said before, conceptualizing this is easy, but making it happen is a beast to be tamed. Obviously, there are many ways to rig together a system of cloud services and open source installations to make this work. But this is a data analytics course… so we will need to collect data in order to practice what is being preached. Rigging a system together would mean losing a lot of data (and what we get may not interface easily), so at some point we need to find some programming funds to create something.

But this leads back to the xMOOC layer. So far, all of this is mainly focusing on the cMOOC layer in a dual layer course. In  many ways, the xMOOC part is easiest to figure out in and of itself – EdX does a great job of creating a platform for instructivist transfer of knowledge (that many learners want). The goal of a dual layer MOOC is to create multiple pathways through learning, so that students who feel they need more interaction can get more interaction, and those that feel they need more instruction can receive that. Or, those that want to change between the two once or multiple times can. That part is the tricky part. Sure, we can just design lessons that match up and give learners access points to easily change… but again, what about the data? Why did those learners decide to switch at that point? There needs to be a system that collects data on the why and not just the clicks. We need a system that can collect everything from possible frustration to qualitative reasoning… but again, not by going to third party solutions that might lose some data (or not be able to connect the data that is collected because the collection schemas were too different).

Of course, a lot of this mirrors what Dave Cormier has already blazed a trail into with community management. So I can’t claim much of this as my own ideas. Except for the tubing metaphor… because I am Texan and tubing is the state “lazy afternoon activity” of Texas.

Another level of community we need to consider is creating a personality for the course in the way that Jim Groom has mastered. That’s probably going to be a whole other post, but all courses have a personality – the question is are you using yours in a way that engages students or just says “I’m a boring instructor with no personality that just does what millions of other instructors have done before me.”

These are just some ideas for how to solve the challenges before us. I am sure there are other better ones out there. What will we end up doing? I guess you can sign up for the actual MOOC itself to see how we all figure this idea out. If we figure it….

Why Design a xMOOC / cMOOC Hybrid? LTCA Theory

So a lot of interest in the earlier post about creating a dual-layer cMOOC/xMOOC, as well as some of the inevitable backlash. The biggest question rattling around seems to be “why?” Well, my first response is: ask George Siemens – this is all his crazy idea. But I wouldn’t be blogging about the idea and sticking with the team if I didn’t think there was something to the idea. We may run into a huge road block down the road and decide to ditch the idea. But the conceptual part of it is fascinating.

I think some of the initial confusion over the idea stems from the divide between theorists and practitioners. As much as I love theory, many theorists tend to get a little too “either/or” minded for practicality. Its either quantitative or qualitative. Its either behaviorism or constructivism. Its either xMOOC or cMOOCs. And so on. In a practical sense, learning never falls along such clean, neat lines. One moment you need to transfer your expert knowledge to a blank slate, the next you need to let your students struggle and construct meaning from chaos because there are just things you can’t copy and paste into their brains.

In my Ph.D. pursuits, I have been exposed to a new emerging theory called Learning and Teaching as Communicative Actions. This theory is being created by Dr. Scott Warren at the University of North Texas based on the works of Jurgen Habermas. Without communication, learning can not happen. LTCA theory breaks communication down into four forms present in learning:

  • Normative communicative actions are those that communicate knowledge based on past experiences, such as statements in class instructions that lay out expectations for student activities.
  • Strategic communicative actions are the most familiar educational communicative actions – these occur most often through lectures, textbooks, and other methods where specific reified knowledge is transferred to the learner.
  • Constative communicative actions are debates, arguments, and discourses that allow learners to make claims and counterclaims. Constative communication is also where social constructivism connects with LTCA theory, as students come to agreement over constructed knowledge through these communicative actions
  • Dramaturgical communicative actions are those that allow for expression. Learners can reflect or create artifacts that express the knowledge they have gained as well as who that knowledge makes them as a person.

Just looking at all four, I think it becomes pretty obvious that each one requires different paradigms, different design, and different technology among other issues. Yet, we need all four to facilitate effective learning. Lately I have been pondering whether some of our problems in education stem from us trying to cram all of these communicative actions into one software solution, one instructional style, one epistemology, etc. Then, beyond that, we tell all students that they have perform all four at the same time as the other students, “because its not time for discussion yet!” or whatever it may be.

So, the idea of MOOC layers is really looking at a four pronged approach to the idea of teaching and learning as communicative actions using LTCA theory. Yes, we could insert strategic communicative actions into constative communicative actions as the instructor sees fit – but are we really going to do that for all students just because two need it? What if a student that needs strategic actions could just duck out and receive that instruction without disrupting the flow for those that don’t need it?

So, the idea I am digging into is that strategic communicative actions are the domain of the xMOOC. And no matter how much you love or hate xMOOCs, you have to admit that this is what they do best. Dramaturgical communicative actions would be the domain of the cMOOC, especially if we could use things like assignment banks and blogs and basically the entire A Domain of One’s Own set-up. Constative communicative actions would be the domain of the design of the course, using activity design to encourage students to interact and debate. Normative communicative actions would be a mixture of the profile system that pulls students together in groups to create their own norms and the instructors vision for the content norms.

The imperative here is that all of this must scale to massive numbers. This is MOOC design, after all. I know there are ways to do all four prongs in one class without dividing out  into layers. But that will only work if the class is small enough. Whatever criticism you have of the whole idea of “massive”… I agree. Education always works better with smaller numbers. But that is not the reality we are being dealt right now. More and more learners are being crammed in our classes – and they don’t even seem to care how this affects their education. So until the customer (learners) wakes up and starts demanding smaller classes, we have to start figuring out this scale thing. That is reality we live in, and that is the reality we are trying to figure out the best solution for.

Designing a Dual Layer cMOOC/xMOOC

So the task is to design a MOOC that leverages the best of both worlds – xMOOCs and cMOOCs. George Siemens put together a team to look at this possibility for the next MOOC he is designing, and had a meeting called “Design Jam.” Since he works at my University now, I was able to beg/plead/bribe my way on the team. The biggest thing I learned from the Design Jam?

George Siemens and Dave Cormier bicker a lot. And it is very entertaining.

But aside from that, we have a lot of work ahead of us. The main design issue seems to revolve around having multiple paths through the content, mostly focused on creating a connectivist, learner-centered group work approach for those that prefer it, and also an instructor-centered path that guides the learners through the process for those that want that.

Easy, right?

So the basic idea is that learners would enter the course and be presented with the option of going through one of the two routes. Maybe at some point an Artificial Intelligence data-driven program will even be able to recommend the path for them. Learners would enter one of the two paths and follow the paradigm presented. At any time that the learners on the cMOOC track need help (or at some point, when the AI data identifies a need), they can be directed towards the appropriate part of the xMOOC track for help. At any time the learners on the xMOOC track start to get comfortable with the idea of interacting with others (or the AI data identifies this), they can move into the cMOOC track. These movements could be a one time switch at any point, or a constant movement back and forth depending on the learner. Or the leaner could stick on the track they prefer the most. Or do both. Or lurk on one or the other or both. The system would basically look something like this:


(edit – not sure why I designed the original image from right to left. But click on the image for a larger version)

The idea is pretty straight forward, at least at a conceptual layer. This is an idea that I have been batting around in my head for a while and that many others at the Design Jam identified.

The technology behind it is another question.

The xMOOC path is pretty much in place with EdX. They have a good module-based system for presenting and assessing instructivist knowledge. Add on top of that they have connected to other systems through single sign-on and they are down with APIs… they have a system that is ready to connect with other systems as well as allow learners to move in and out as need with ease.

The cMOOC system that sits alongside that? That is another beast. Technology exists to create a learner-centered system (see A Domain of One’s Own)…. but how does this scale to possibly tens of thousands of learners?

Dave Cormier spoke of a system of community managers that he has found success with and that reminded me of something I read about the largest church in the world several years ago. This church in South Korea has close to a million members, yet connects every one of them to the community through a system of small groups that they call cell groups.

The idea of cell groups is an interesting one because it is based on the idea of organically formed groups that change, grow, die, combine, and otherwise fluctuate as needed. They can form based on location, shared interests, existing relationships, common goals, etc. The groups basically process the teachings of the church together and what they mean for their lives. If people join the church, they can join an existing cell group or form a new one. If existing ones grow too big, they can multiple into two or more. If a group dwindles, it can shut down and the remaining members can join other ones. Each group has about 8-20 members and one or more volunteer leaders that guide the group and run weekly meetings.

Every 8-20 groups are organized into sections, with the volunteer cell group leaders in the section meeting once month to go over issues. Every 8-20 sections are group together into districts, and so on. After a while this may not apply to education in a course that runs for maybe 5-8 weeks. But the idea would be to create a support system for the volunteer cell group leaders that could be based on, say, Teacher Assistants (aka “section” or “district” leaders) instead.

So the idea could be to organically form cell groups in the cMOOC, with each group forming based on location, shared interests, existing relationships, common goals, or whatever they like and they self-selecting a group leader. Roles for group leaders can be laid out a head of time. These could then be further grouped into sections under TAs as needed to deal with bigger issues that may arise. groups can then work together, grow, multiple, dies off, etc as needed for the life of the course, sending issues to the TAs as needed. Volunteer cell group leaders could meet in groups occasionally or as needed for guidance and help.

The problem comes with the software needed to do this. Kin Lane was brought to Design Jam to discuss APIs, and the idea of learner profiles was brought to the table during this discussion. These profiles could be used to help learners identify interests, goals, relationships, etc. Learners could then use their profiles to start forming groups as well as identifying these groups to the profiling system. The data behind the profile system could also identify potential group members. As groups grow, they could multiply (especially as new learners enter from the xMOOC strain). As other groups dwindle from drop-outs, existing members could use the system to identify new groups to join.

This software would also need to identify and map the cell group system in order to group cell groups into sections. It could also identify outliers that haven’t joined a group and see if there is an issue (some may just want to lurk, but others could be confused).

Further design of this system could even create a system for creating interactive spaces that don’t rely on third party products like Google Hangouts or Skype. Not that those are bad, but a lot of important data could be lost in those systems. If something like WebRTC could be integrated into this API driven profile system, learners could form, interact, and leave groups as needed throughout the lifetime of the course and just use the profile system to interact with video, text, etc through their browsers instead of a third party service. Since the cMOOC, xMOOC, social, and pedagogical systems would all be connected, massive amounts of helpful data could be collected throughout the entire class, further refining the system down the road. What leads to new group formation? What leads to groups dissolving? What leads learners to switch from cMOOC to xMOOC or vice versa? On and on.

This is not a fully realized idea or system. But its like we are working on the Sharknado perfect killing machine combination of xMOOCs and cMOOCs. Interesting stuff.