Home » Meta MOOC thoughts - how this MOOC works, or doesn't » Some things I think I might have learned so far…

Some things I think I might have learned so far…

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  • User freedom can be a curse.
  • Guide your novices, and set your experts free.
  • Sometimes less is more.
  • Things that are similar should look and feel the same. Things that are not should look and feel different.
  • Be kind to your users.
  • Iterate. Iterate. Iterate.

User freedom can be a curse.

I read etmoocing, and a quote from his previous MOOCing experience, and a student who felt overwhelmed by large amounts of information. reminded me of something.

“In the first few hours of the first day, the text of the course became massive. Our newcomer felt buried. He sent a group message to the facilitators on the second day of the course, saying the experience was overwhelming and “too free.”

One of  Nielsen’s ten usability heuristics  (the standard rules for designing user interfaces) has to do with User control and freedom. Typically, you want your user to have freedom and control. Except, of course when freedom and control is precisely what you need them not to have, or precisely what they need not to have. Users complain of having both too little and too much freedom. And different users may complain of both about the same experience. The balance, tension, and choice between both is important.

For example. In an cMOOC, users have freedom to do whatever they want, follow whatever paths they wish, connect with and learn from whomsoever they want. For some users, this is way too much freedom, and way too little structure. For some that’s not the case at all. And for some, that’s the case with some areas, and not with others.

This cMOOC has tried to address this using the scheduled blackboard sessions, so there is structure if you want it or need it. And it’s introduced a mentoring system (which I hope works out well). But the wealth of material is huge, the time spent picking through it to find the path you want can be inefficient, and finding a network that caters to your needs, styles, and requirements time consuming.

Users on the MOOC are both celebrating and confounded by the freedom. There may be a balance issue here. If learning has as one of it’s concerns efficient learning (and it should – novice learners may spend up to a quarter of their time attempting to solve difficulties with no result, and abandonment, postponement, incorrect conceptualisation, blaming behaviour, lowered efficacy and esteem, and decreased effort and quitting may ensue) then novice learners need guidance. Which means less freedom.

Sometimes less is more.

There’s two parts to this idea. The learners focus, but also learning interface complexity.

Learner focus.

The community have responded to the difficulties of new MOOC users by saying focus, have a question in mind, don;t need to know everything, pick a simplified and focused path. This is sage advice for new learners. But it’s also not easy to achieve. Because of the user freedom. Personally, finding the resources that just speak to the path I need is not easy. There’s a huge volume of information, distributed across multiple sites, media and technologies that are undifferentiated in terms of the information. Each media is streaming every channel, all topics, all the time.  It can be like watching TV, while making a podcast, and simultaneously reading a graphic novel, listening to the radio, and chatting with your entire family at the Christmas dinner table. Which brings us to point two.

Learning interface complexity.

Minimalist design is Nielsens’s eighth heuristic. Google’s search design is minimalist. And, for the most part, it works supremely well. If you know a little about the internet, it requires almost no learning to use. It’s incredibly uncomlicated, and using it is automatic, intuitive, and takes no mental resources from the task you are trying to achieve. It’s like walking home on the route you’ve driven ten thousand times. Most of your mental resources are available to scroll through your shopping list, or plan your evening’s TV. The cMOOC is spread across multiple platforms. Twitter. The blog hub. Blackboard. Google +. Individual blogs. Hangout.

This is as far from minimalist design as you can get. So, it’s like walking home. On a route you’ve walked ten thousand times. While on a unicycle. Backward. Which is on fire. Juggling three chainsaws and an angry badger. While trying to read the Encylopaedia Brittanica and doing a driving test.

Too much complexity, and too many interfaces mean your learner spends all their time mastering the interface. A common complaint, how do I work Google + (which is, itself, hardly minimalist). Add in twitter, Blackboard, blogging, Hangout, and all the presentation bells and whistles, and you have a lost user.

Keep the interface simple, choose a single main mode of information dissemination (which carries everything). Support it so users can prepare in advance. Have other media optional, but included. Introduce channels of some description, that are easy and meaningful, and allow filtering.

Guide your novices, and set your experts free.

If your novices need guidance (and they do) then your experts need freedom to spread their wings. The evidence seems to show that novice users need help, and structure, and probably a fairly instructionist or scaffolded contructivist teaching

But your experts

  • probably have learning strategies that are efficient, and trying to alter them will be detrimental
  • probably know how to locate, filter, access and assess the new knowledge they want
  • probably benefit from project based or discovery work where they are collaborating with other experts more than with an instructor
  • are probably capable as acting as knowledge resources for one another

A cMOOC is a good place to be an expert, if you can find other experts.

Things that are similar should look and feel the same. Things that are not should look and feel different.

This is number for on Nielsen’s Heuristics. Think of….your desktop. Icons that you click on to make things happen look kind of the same. Menus that you click on look different, but similar to each other. And they do something different – they drop down to give you options. In an interface, this is useful. It means you recognise things, and gives the interface an easy to use, intuitive aspect. The user recognises the interface. They don’t have to learn it. Nielsen callis it “Recognition, not recall”. It comes in at number 6. #etmooc is spread across multiple interfaces. All of which look quite different to one another. The more resources you have to pour in to learning the different interface styles, the less you have to learn and engage with content.

Again, keep your interface simple. Multiple interfaces, applications and media are causing headaches.

Be kind to your users.

Let your users know where they are in your interface, and make that knowledge intuitive, and useful. They should know eher they are, and how much is left to go. There should be an easy way to go back from where you came, and they shouldn’t feel lost. Once again, too many platforms (Twitter, Google+ etc etc) is unkind to novice users. Be kind to your users. Make things easy to find, easy to use, easy to understand, and easy to learn. Let them know a path. They don;t have to take it. They can ignore it. But let them know what a path looks like. Let them know a way from A to D, and give them an idea of when they arrive at B and C, and how long it will take to get to D and what the journey will look like.

Some users don’t need this. So don’t force the journey on them. If you do, they’ll leave. Give them the freedom. But some do. And if you don’t provide it, they might leave too.

Iterate. Iterate. Iterate.

This the MOOC does well. Want to change something? Go suggest it, mention it in passing in Blackboard, put up a blog post, post it on Google+ ,mention it in Twitter chat, and a mod will pick it up.

There’s a collaborative Google Doc for suggesting changes. Alec has set up new forums at the drop of a clever and responsive hat.

Iterating means looking at how something is working, and redoing it, changing it, trying a new or different way of doing it. And the #etMOOC  is good at that.

I’m learning a huge amount here. Alec’s exhortation to make my learning visible has brought a huge amount of value to the experience, and a huge amount of focus and value to my efforts. (Something @MuireannOK and the team at DIT have been working on with me for a while now…) The team are dedicated, competent, passionate, expert, and warmly approachable. The idea is inspiring, idealistic, and, I think, exhibits some of the finest facets of what being an educator should actually be about. The experience they have given me – of being a critical and producing learner, has been immensely beneficial, and I wish to thank them for it. The resources they and the community are providing will keep me reading, working, developing and challenged for months to come.

There’s a nice pdf from MIT about Nielsen’s heuristics here, for anyone who fancies a read.



  1. Thanks for sharing! I will focus!

  2. I love how you mentioned the need to guide novices and set experts free. I think there is enough flexibility in the design to allow for this, but perhaps stronger mentorship or structure is needed for novices? I’m not sure what this looks like, but you’ve got me thinking!

  3. Gene Peuse says:

    Excellent advice. Thank you.

  4. Great post with lots to consider ..

  5. Nobleknits says:

    Thanks for clarifying some of what I’m feeling about the novice/expert divide in #etmooc. The concept of differentiated instruction and very consciously making it work is one that I think needs to be considered.

    • wiltwhatman says:

      Thanks Noble.

      The divide is both an opportunity and a challenge, but maybe a conscious attempt to facilitate, bridge and differentiate instruction is a good direction. ( that’s a good phrase – differentiated instruction – catches the idea really well)

      • lisamnoble says:

        D.I. (differentiated instruction) is expected to be a standard part of every teacher’s toolkit where I teach, and I sometimes struggle with the fact that we’re not always great at it with one another. If we can have patience, and come up with endless strategies for the incredibly wide range of learners in our classrooms, I think it’s incumbent on us to do that for our peers as well. I think we MUST make that conscious attempt. I’m going to write more about this in my own blog – even something as simple as regularly repeating instructions in a webinar (for writing on the whiteboard, or raising your hand, or talking – i know that I know what “grab the mike” means, but others may not.). Thanks for the thinking prompt.

      • wiltwhatman says:

        Hi Lisa,

        same here – we teach to multiple challenge levels, and to multiple styles and preferences simultaneously, and I agree, it is incumbent on us to do so with ourselves. I think it also improves our own educational practice.

        I’ll check out your blog when you post (maybe you could tweet me – @wiltwhatman), as I’m very interested in the nuts and bolts of delivery, and how best to achieve that online. Currently, a focus I have is on translating the classroom flexibility I have (where I can see ,respond and alter focus, method and pace) to online practice. Online work does not have to be unresponsive.

        You might like Diane Laurillard’s Conversational Framework – it’s an attempt to create an all inclusive and flexible pedagogy that fits on and offline situations. I’ll post a link when I don’t have a sleeping baby attached.

        Thanks for the thoughtful and engaging post, and it looks like we have a mutual interest.

  6. carlaarena says:

    Keith, you’re certainly tapped into essential issues for newbies in the MOOC world, and I’ve certainly felt that way years ago when I began in this online world and attended my first MOOC which was not called that way at that time, but he training sessions are going on for a decade. The Electronic Village Online sessions ( http://evosessions.pbworks.com) have the same kind of approach to learning in the sense that we use multiple distributed platforms, which certainly pose an initial challenge to newcomers, especially in week 1. But then, if you persist, magic happens and learning gets to a new dimension.

    • wiltwhatman says:

      Hi Carla,

      I’m planning to stick with it, and I can see my way to the benefit, learning and value.

      That said, I wonder how many won’t, and, in part, my post is an attempt to think about them, and how to up the persistence and participation – a constrcuctive conversation MOOCs participation rates seem to need.

      Thanks for posting the MOOC link. I’m an ESOL teacher by trade, so I might try to join you.

      • carlaarena says:

        Keith, I totally see your point, and I think it is an invaluable contribution for any MOOC organizer. And I agree with you that many participants will give up even before they consider trying… As for the EVO sessions, it would be a pleasure to have you around. There are many interesting topics. I’m comoderating one on neuroscience in education.

        By the way, I’ve seen you are in Ireland. Do you know that the next WORLDCALL conference will be held in your neighborhood, in Glasgow, Scotland. It is a conference held every five years with TESOL educators from around the globe. I might be there!

      • wiltwhatman says:

        Hi Carla,

        I think I’ll have too much on to be an active participant, but I will catch some of the sessions.

        (I’m a neuroscience novice, and curious, so, schedule permitting, I’ll catch that)

  7. eportfoliolisad says:

    Hey Keith…great post (as always!) Totally strikes a chord with me as I signed up for the OLDSMOOC on Learning Design that started a week before this one and had switched off before Week one with the seeming volume of emails/environments/tasks sent before it actually started! I think Alec et al are doing a great job with this. Only hoping to keep up with it when we start back to class next week…..see you then!

  8. We have a similar interest. My research interests are the use of problem based learning objects (in collaborative online learning environments) and their impact on engagement. I’ve been working with adult literacy learners. I’m also working as a research assistant in developing tools for learners who have ESL and literacy needs…I’m interested in online learning environment and instructional design.

    With these research interests in mind, I agree with your post. We need to differentiate, so all can access. I also think that each participants goals will be different as they 1) disengage due to being overwhelmed (i.e. goal may be to “try again,” 2) learn how to use the interfaces across which the MOOC is happening, and 3) push to develop competencies (e.g. information seeking – filters etc.)….and the list goes on.

    I’d like to offer an alternative idea of “delivery” of content. I thought the whole idea of a MOOC (and this is my second…I drowned in the first…eek!) was learn what I want, when I want, how I want. Just – in -time learning. Each participant will have a different set of problems they seek and try to solve as they try to find order out of the chaos. Skills any learner needs to develop (me included) is to find the information needed (or develop the skills to), decide what the problem is, and communicate the learning somehow. Each person’s journey will be different, but it is the challenge – the one we each decide to take on – that brings us back.

    So, similar interests? Yes…how can we best guide learners through this problem based learning environment (i.e. MOOC), specifically if they are ESL learners with literacy needs?

    Thoughts? Find me @Judames

    Thanks for a great and thought provoking post. It’s great to finally meet those with similar interests. Let’s connect on G+ as well!

    Some reading re: PBL online and PBLOs can be found here:


    The key, what will the interface of our next MOOC be as we design for ESL and literacy learners….infographics as communications, multiple languages, and yes…user friendly interface!

    • wiltwhatman says:

      Hi Judith,

      thanks for the thoughtful and considered comment. And yes, we do have interests, and possibly problems and solutiojns in common. It’s a big conversation, and one I’m looking forwqard to having.

      ” I also think that each participants goals will be different as they 1) disengage due to being overwhelmed (i.e. goal may be to “try again,” 2) learn how to use the interfaces across which the MOOC is happening, and 3) push to develop competencies (e.g. information seeking – filters etc.)….and the list goes on. ”

      I think you are right here, both in the reasons you put forward, and in the idea that the list goes on. The motivations, needs, contexts, prior knowledges, and reasons for engagement/disengagement are multiple, and varies, and in order to provide an educational experience that is likely to foster engagement amongst these different learner types, differentiation, and designing for differentiated access is important.

      Prt of the problem is in maintaining motivation and persistence in the face of challenge levels (learning new tech, interfaces, skills, ways of communicating, gathering and synthesising information, new modes of learning, validating learning, and learning skills). The challenge level can be immense for a new learner, or one new to this mode, or one who does not have strongly developed skills in self directed learning. Maintaining motivation, persistence, and mental effort in the face of a high challenge level / significant degree of novelty/ heavy and sustained cognitive load is difficult.

      So, how to provide or design for the type of experience that takes all this into account, and is adaptable and flexible enough to form around student contexts and needs?

      I think I need a post to think about all of this. SAnd I think it will be my next post, or the one after.

      @ChristophHewett posted a tweet about spomething similar to this… “Just came to me now. cMOOCs aren’t learner-centric, They’re crowd-centric – big difference.” He’s planning to blog post about it, and the problems he has had with cMOOCs not being student centred. One of the etmooc moderators is also interested in the conversation … @valerielopes, and I think she plans to blog too. We said we would try to crosspost and comment with one another. So…could be a project for all of us?

      • I’m in! I will read all of your posts and post myself at http://journeythroughetmooc.blogspot.ca/?m=1

        My blog is not currently comment worthy, but now I have a little direction thanks to facilitators, my peers, an dare I say, my ability to filter and find the information that is relevant to me 🙂 I’ll push through and continue posting and will share via Twitter and G+, as well as blogs. This looks like the “platform” for me…focus now.


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