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We wanna be free, to do what we wanna do…

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Apologies for the title. Always a Primal Scream fan. And the title of the song is Loaded, which seemed apt.

This is my reply to Stephen Downes article, Connectivism and the Primal Scream, which was, in turn a reply to my article on HybridPedagogy.com, In Connectivism, No One Can Hear You Scream: a Guide To Understanding the MOOC Novice. It’s a lengthy reply, and, when I have time, I’ll post a summary.


Fist off, I’d like to acknowledge the response from Stephen. It’s typically detailed, broad ranging, and is an interesting, thoughtful response. It’s also a huge honour to be involved in a thoughtful verbal tussle with someone so central to the ideas of networked learning, and one of the founders of the modern idea of MOOCs. I’d like to thank him both for the response, and for the level of detail and thought it comprises. I find myself short on time and resources, and my response is neither as detailed, or polished as I might like. I hope, as a consequence, that it does no disservice.


Although there’s quite a lot I disagree with, in the context of novice MOOC users, in Downes’ arguments, I do think his points about Connectivism, Networked learning, and aspects of how we learn and are motivated, are probably more generally applicable outside of the novice context. But, as my article was focusing on the motivation, confidence level, and challenges faced by novices in cMOOC environments, that’s the thread I’ll unravel here. My article was intended not as a general criticism of Connectivist theory, but as a criticism of how it designs, or does not design, for novices specifically.


So, let’s cut to Stephen’s reply.


The key – Connecting, and how that might present a problem


Downes opens by reframing my argument slightly, in the context of his own educational experience. I argue that


To learn in a cMOOC you need to connect, and to connect in a cMOOC you need to learn.


Downes rephrases this, in terms of traditional learning.


“To learn in traditional education you need to be able to read. To be able to read in traditional education you need to learn.”


He also argues that in his practice, he spends considerable time teaching students to read, not just in terms of barebones literacy, but also in terms of critical understanding.


It seems, from this point, we have common ground. Supporting novice learners is a necessity.. Presumably lack of such support for a novice who needs it may well be disastorous. Which seems, in a nutshell to be my point.




Downes moves on to tackle my arguments regarding motivation. He states


“From this introduction Brennan moves to a discussion of motivation. This is the real beginning of the argument; everything to this point simply sets the stage.”


I’d disagree here slightly. My argument is manifold. The need to support student’s in tool usage is key, in my perspective, and lack of support is a key stumbling block. My description of motivational processes is an attempt to scaffold that experience with a narrative. But lets leave that aside as not central.


“Interestingly – and, given all that I’ve written on the subject, a bit ironically – he cites Albert Bandura on the relation between motivation and self-efficacy”


Apologies here, to Downes. And sincerely so. I’m far from an expert on his ouevre, and may well have missed many things ( for example, his take on Sweller et al who I cite in my bibliography I came to well after the article submission). I’m happy and eager to remedy that shortfall on my part, and any pointers would be gratefully received. It’s an opportunity to learn, and links to the material would serve to deepen my reading, and benefit from his analyses.


Downes identifies some of our common ground – “in order to learn, you have to want to do it, and you have to think you can do it.” In terms of the article I’d very broadly agree here, and I’d very broadly agree with the account he gives of exceptions. Pavlov and Skinner spring to mind.


Downes uses the Behavioral aspects he outlines to illustrate contexts where me might learn despite our desire, or motivation. And he draws out situations where self-efficacy and motivation may not be sufficient to accomplish learning, or essential..


I think we are in agreement here. Nothing in my article is intended to say, definitively, that self-efficacy and motivation will cause learning to happen universally, or are universally applicable. The context of the article is novices, learning in Connectivist environments, so Downes examples of being hurt by fire, or learning to fly from a pilots manual while a plane is about to crash, though valid, have limited applicability to my argument.


Downes also applies to the idea of value – our sense that something is worth doing. This may also relate to utility – our sense that doing something will enhance our ability to achieve, to control our own lives, make decisions, and be agents in terms of our own futures, contexts, conditions and choices.


These are not mutually exclusive. My intention was not to indicate that self-efficacy is the only ,motivating factor, nor the sole determining factor in learning experiences. Merely that it is a powerful factor in novice learning experiences. Utility, value and self efficacy have links.


Downes states “When learning isn’t something the person isn’t naturally or by circumstance driven to do, we need to appeal to motivation.”




“The sort of learning Bandura’s observations apply to is the sort of learning where there is a body of knowledge that is clearly defined and set before the person in a circumstance where, as often as not, the person might be doing something else, or want to be doing something else.”


I disagree.


Self-efficacy, and it’s role in motivation and demotivation is applicable both in contexts where we have already motivated students, and where we have unmotivated students. It is applicable in, as Bandura terms them, taxing situations, in situations in which people may be averse to the task at hand. But, more generally, self-efficacy determines our sense of how capable we are at a pursuit, problem, or environmental challenge, regardless of whether we wish to engage with it or not. It’s a measure of our sense of our ability to achieve, which is not based necessarily on an absence of desire to achieve. The concept of whether the person wishes to be doing something else, or not, is not key to the mechanism. It has an effect on how likelt we may be to choose that, or persist in that course of action, but it’s possible, of course, to have a high sense of self efficacy, and have that undermined. It’s also possible to have a low sense of self-efficacy in a particular area, but to be motivated to attempt a course of action.


Consider a motivated learner, who wants to learn. A final year student in high school, with moderate self-efficacy in  maths before they begin their final year (They conceive of themselves as average, in math) but have a high desire to achieve in the subject, and a high sense of self-efficacy with regard to their work ethic and it’s ability to yield results. They attribute worth and utility to the subject ( college entrance, and aces to a particular career patjh).


Designing activities for this student which lead to a sense of achievability, and which maintain the already established motivation of that student with challenging, yet successful learning experiences will, in all likelihood maintain that motivation, persistence, and yield the greatest opportunity for success. Designing activities for that student that are not achieveable by them, or are too challenging or difficult for their knolwedge level will demotivate them, regardless the fact that they are already motivated. Delivering consistently confusing, poor instruction will have a similarly demotivating effect.


Self efficacy is a concern both for motivated learners, and less motivated ones.




Downes subsequently argues


“Very rarely does a teacher simply set out a task that the student can simply choose to do or not do. When teachers set tasks, there is almost invariably an element of coercion involved – you need to do such-and-such a task in order to pass, in order to earn a credential, in order to get a job.”


Coercion, here, is, I think, problematic. It has little to do with self efficacy measures and concerns.


Firstly, it’s possible to motivate without coercion. Value – the sense that a course of instruction is worth something, and utility come into play here.. Often a person’s motivation matches up quite closely with what Downes terms coercion – the desire to find work, or to improve their empoyment prospects, be promoted, or increase their competence, or achieve a qualification. In taking advantage of this utility or value aspect, educators can, and do mobilise intrinsic motivation, the students own sense of the what they feel they need to do and why. The argument that there is almost invariably an element of coercion involved seems to need further support. It also has, I think, nothing to do with self-efficacy, per se. Additionally, self-efficacy is considered to be an intrinsic motivation.


In addition, the choice Downes set forth seem to represent an artificial dichotomy. Coercion, or complete autonomy. There is a contimuum of motivation existing between these points The binary distinction seems artificial.


Downes uses this dichotomy – between autonomy of choice and coercion – to illustrate how Connectivism differs from other educational contexts. But, as the dichnotomy is artificial, and, perhaps, limited, it seems a limiting and incomplete illustration. He also seems to argue that self-efficacy concerns are only an issue where individuals are unmotivated.


“In connectivism, participation is presumed from the outset to be voluntary. Students bring their own motivation with them. We don’t create conditions of coercion, so we don’t have to employ a variety of motivational techniques to compensate for a student’s loss of self-efficacy and motivation in an environment of compulsory learning.”


“I have often argued, you only need to motivate people when you’re trying to get them to do something they don’t want to do”


As we have seen, self-efficacy is not a function solely of learning experiences which are desired or undesired. It is applicable in contexts in which students are motivated, and learning is desired. This would seem to answer Downes’ point here.  It is also not coercive. Indeed, Banduras mechanisms do not involve coercion. And loss of self-efficacy can, and does still occur amongst motivated students.


For novices in MOOCs, my argument was that motivated individuals are being badly served by experiences which undermine their sense of self-efficacy, or fail to cater to it. This seems almost the opposite of the point Downes seems to suggest.


My article does not  suggest methods of coercion be applied. And nothing in self-efficacy theory as described by Bandura requires coercion. The methods, in fact, are noteable for their absence of coercion (design achieveable experiences with feedback, and a space for your learners to become independent once mastery is achieved, encourage your students to think they can achieve, design experiences that decrease fear and anxiety, design experiences that allow people to see peers succeed).


Self-efficacy theory is, in part, about motivating people. And it is, in part, about maintaining existing motivation. And it is, in part, about ensuring that motivation is not undermined, or damaged where it already may exist. Inappropriate educational experiences, environments, and challenge levels damage motivation. This, it seems reasonable to say, is to be avoided. I feel, perhaps, that Downes arguments do not addresses this point in his reply.


“My attitude is that the objective of an educational system is to help people do want they want to do, for themselves, rather than a mechanism that gets people to do what we want them to do, for us.”


There is no sense in which self-efficacy theory is necessarily a method for getting people to do what we want. It is not a theory which assumes people are unmotivated and need to be coerced. It is not a theory which espouses a host of motivational techniques with which to coerce unmotivated people. It is a theory which details intrinsic motivation. As a criticsm of self-efficacy concerns for motivated novices in MOOCs, this seems misplaced. Downes arguments, are, I hope, misapplied.


Cognitive Load.


Downes points out a certain lack of depth in my analysis and description of Cognitive Load. Here, due to the word count limit on the article, I will hold my hands up and offer a mea culpa. This section is less detailed than I would have liked, but as detailed, I think, as the section needed and would support (the editing process, however, I feel made the right choice in cutting this section down) . I think Downes separating of ideas, and threads here is more accurate and accomplished than I achieved.


I’d note that Downes discusses Cognitive Load, largely without engaging the idea of novices – the participant demographic I’m talking about.


In this section, Downes invokes games and interface designers. I am making a leap here, and assuming he might be referencing Nielsen’s ten Usability Heuristics. If it’s a different system, and there are other’s I’d be curious to know which. An opportunity to learn is an opportunity to learn. If it it Nielsen, then Connectivism I’d argue does well on some heuristics, less well on others. But that’s another article… ( MIT’s UI design course has a good seminar on Nielsen)


Speaking of the provision of help, Downes states


“The problem is, if the educators do this, you lose the ability to do it for yourself. There’s nothing more frustrating for me as a learner to find that either (a) the educational designer has thought too little of me, and made the learning too slow and dull, or (b) the designer didn’t think of me at all, and didn’t provide any introductory guides or starter kits. I’ve encountered both online, and frequently.”


Here, we seem to be in agreement. Too simple and you lose people. Too difficult…and you lose people. I’m simplifying here, of course.


“At a certain point in a complex world a learner has to be able to set the bar for him or herself, to set the challenges appropriately, and find the relevant resources.”


I think we’d agree here. I absolutely agree in fact. I would say, support your novices, and set your experts free. Self efficacy theory is clear here too. If you don’t design this freedom in, you will damage your students sense of themselves. Where we disagree, I think, is specifically at the novice end of things.


There’s a large amount of evidence that unsupported novices do, in general, worse than supported novices at complex tasks. Simply put, good, direct instruction of novices tends to mean they learn faster, retain for longer, and transfer skills into the real world more capably than novices who are unsupported. Often by considerable margins.  The current, mainstream pedagogical debate is detailed  in the final section of this page entitled “Direct Instruction versus Constructivism Controversy”. The  evidence includes randomly controlled trials. It’s not 100% conclusive, but the weight of evidence backs the direct instruction approach over both unguided instruction, and transmission teaching, for novice learners.


My argument is not, to be clear, that users should never set the bar with regard to difficulty levels. Or that autonomy for users here is to be avoided. It is that too much autonomy for novices can be damaging.


“If Google tried to organize the internet into some sort of ‘diffculty level’ for you, the results would be endlessly frustrating. The presumption that the instructor or the learning designer is more likely to be able to select material and work at the right level is difficulty is probably misplaced. Every minute spent by any person either bored to tears or frustrated to tears in a traditional classroom is evidence of that fact.”


There are two issues here. I’m not suggesting Connectivism choose the material. I’m suggesting that novices and experts need different instructional strategies, in general. The ultimate aim of preparing novices with good design choice is not to limit them. It’s to facilitate them. Providing novices with a variety of supports to come to terms with the pedagogy, media and context does not have to involve limiting their choice.


The second issue is this. For novices, selection and focus are key. Focus is key to decreasing cognitive load for novices. It is not a jail term for their entire learning experience. The fact that you will need to drive on a motorway or freeway is not an indication that this is a good place to start. The fact that your first driving lesson might have been in the car park of a disused factory with no other cars doesn’t mean you are condemned to driving at 3am on empty roads for the rest of your life. For novices, in general, careful instruction, and care with design yield results that are superior to autonomy.


“The presumption that the instructor or the learning designer is more likely to be able to select material and work at the right level is difficulty is probably misplaced.”


You expect a driving instructor to keep track of your progress, and assign tasks and routes that are appropriate. In part, because of the Cognitive Load involved. A good instructor does this well. A bad instuctor badly. A consistently bad instructor who either challenges you too much ( and that can be terrifying) or too little may well cause you to change instructor. A very odd instructor ignores it completely as you veer towards the onramp in lesson two.


Good design tracks your knowledge level, needs, and cognitive load, and designs for it. And adapts itself as that changes.


Speaking of cognitive load, and the idea that extraneous tasks are to be avoided when learning new or complex tasks, Downes states


“But if this thesis were completely true, there would never be any word problems in mathematics, engineering or physics, because the cognitive load involved in reading the text, comprehending the worlds, and translating them into the theorems being learned are extraneous to the theorems themselves, and hence, make them more difficult to learn.”


Downes is speaking in general here,I think (I’m open to correction, but this does not seem to be an issue specific to novice needs, the focus of my article) “But if this thesis were completely true” –  I don’t think it is completely true, or perhaps I mean to say, applicable in the same way in all contexts. I’m referring to novice experiences. In addition, reading, where text is clear, and the reader is reasonably skilled, presents little additional load. Downes’ assertion does not seem to be specific to the novice context.


Additonally I would say this. Cognitive Load is composed of three parts, or threads. Germane load, Instrinsic Load and Extraneous load. Extraneous load and germane  are the main concerns here.


Instrinsic load is the difficulty of the concepts themselves. We may (arguably) be able to parse this a little in how we break things down, but it’s, overall, not going to change much. Parallel parking versus coming to a stop. Friendship versus dating.


Extraneous Load has to do with Instructional design. Too many distractions, and attention is deployed elsewhere.  For example, a teacher plays a YouTube video in class, tells you to listen carefully to it, and then has an in depth discussion over the mic with a learner down the front who has asked  an interesting question. Your driving instructor tells you to reverse around a corner, and then has a loud personal conversation on their mobile phone about their marital infidelities.


Germane Load has to do with processing, bulding up schema, tieing information in to what is known already.


Prior knowledge is key here. It determines how much new information can be taken in. If you have high prior knowledge, you can take in more information, and process it, and accept a higher germane load. If you are a novice, you can process less information.


If you know how to make an omelette, making a pancake is relatively easy. If, like my grandfather, you have never cooked anything more complex than toast, the cognitive loads involved are much, much higer.


For novices, Cognitive Load presents significant problems. The multiple platforms, the information sifting, technology tools usage, lack of centralised focus, all mean that extraneous and germane load can be hugely problematic. There’s a lot of information to process. There’s less resources available to process it.  Lots of the information that’s out there is extraneous, complicated, and, importantly, unfamiliar. Whether you think word problems in maths are light load or not does not change this.


cMOOC information is presented in multiply different ways ( contravening, potentially, several of Nielsen’s Heuristics ). Across multiple media. With multiple points of reference. And to someone unfamiliar with it, the Cognitive load is huge. If I am unfamiliar with information sifting online, the mechanisms of social media, the dynamics of twitter, and I have little prior knowledge within which to frame it, the resources I hacvve to deploy are limited. There’s ample evidence to indicate that low prior knowledge learners run into difficulty in autonous environemnets. Again, the existence of word math problems does not alter this.


My argument, rests, in part on this idea. For novices ( whom Downes has not yet addressed in his section on Cognitive Load) Connectivism presents well defined and understood cognitive load difficulties. I am not clear on how Downes reply addressed this. The point still, it seems, stands. As does the responsibility to design for it.




Downes now addresses the competent self.


He argues “First of all, as I have so often argued, connectivism is not constructivism – there is no obligation for the educator to be absent,” In constructivism, (insofar as I understand it) the teacher is not necessarily asbsent. In unguided constructivism perhaps, but as recent debates have pointed oput, unguided constructivism is, apparently, rare. But  Constructivist scaffolding, and Vygotsky’s More Knowledgeable other, who may be a teacher, indicate Constructivism does not currently require the absence of a teacher. Several of the replies to Sweller et al from constructivists detail constructivist scaffolding, which is a form of direct instruction.


“But more to the point, if people come to depend in general on educators, and only educators, for reassurance and encouragement, then they will be sorely unprepared for life.”


My article details the requirement and experiences of novice learners in cMOOC environments. There is no sense in which, I feel this can be read as a prescription that people in general should come to depend on educaors, and only educators for reassurance. This is not a point I make. It would be bizarre and odd if I did, I feel. Indeed self-efficacy theory is quite clear that this is not the case, and should not be the case. This point would seem to be unrelated to the article I wrote. I’m unsure why Downes raises it.


“One of the ways a connectivist course becomes massive is that it eliminates the psychological dependence on the instructor and encourages participants to learn to depend on each other for these necessary supports.”


The above perhaps relates to my opening salvo. To depend on, and connect to other participants, you need, ideally, to not be a novice. If you are a novice, such connection may be unavailable to you, or too difficult to meaningfully engage with. Hence the need for designed support. If you are a novice who feels they are drowning as a function of the technical and pedagogical complexities, utilising those same complexities to solve problems with those complex systems seems problematic.


When cognitive load as a function of the medium qand the message are the problem, referring participants to clarify the problematic message, using the problematic medium,, without dit=rect support is unlikely to succeed.


I should also be clear here. I’m hugely interested in, and potentially invested in Connectivist learning experiences, both as purely Connectivist experiences, and as blended pedagogies  to underpin more traditional, or structured experiences.


“This is a role of an educator that I have emphasized a lot – the idea that the role of the educator is to model and demonstrate. The idea here is that the student experiences vicariously success in the field by watching the expert do it, and eventually to do it themselves”


I think we are in broad agreement here. This is one of the roles of the educator. That said, the effect appears to be magnified when we see people we conceive of as similar to ourselves succeed. And de-emphasised when we see people we conceive of as different.


I’ll admit a gap in my knowledge here. How people of various efficacy and ability levels feel when they see experts succeed. That said, it is helpful for experts to make mistakes, and demonstrate coping mechanisms.


“But if you hide the expert performance entirely, you never see the point of the exercise in the first place. You have to show the whole spectrum, from novice performance, to expert performance”


I agree. Nothing in my article states that expert performances be hidden, or that the spectrum not be available, Plus, it’s the internet. Even if desireable, it’s not possible. I’m not certain why this seems to be raised as an objection. Possibly because I raise the consequences of seeing people you see as similar succeed  when you fail, and the responsibility this puts on designers shoulders ( potentially lowered confidence, efficacy, abadnonment in the short and long term of study in that area, depression). But this does not seem an on target point.


“And, most importantly, you don’t ‘design for experts’ or ‘design for novices’. You create an environment in which all levels can participate with equal facility, where people at lower levels can learn from those who are more experienced,”


I disagree. One can design for novices ( support mechanisms, taking into account prior knowledge, and how much or little cognitive load that involves) and for experts ( lots more freedom, autonomy, higher challenge levels, greater autonomy is setting challenge levels) These need not be mutually exclusive. The same experience can contain both. It often does.


Lets take the driving lesson example. They are, clearly, designed for novices, or experts. Freeway, or carpark. Indicating, or three point turns on ice near a school run?  The choices here are determined by novelty or expertise levels. Lessons are designed with these levels clearly in mind. In teaching languages, what you engage a basic student with less than 50 words in a language, and how you provide is hugely different to what you provide for a near native speaker. In cooking, the lesson you design for an individual who has never cooked is hugely different to that which you provide for an experienced chef.


One does, indeed, design for experts, or novices. For prior knowledge reasons, cognitive load reasons, and efficacy reasons.


Downes moves on to novices and success.


Novices and success


“The core idea being expressed here is that novices need support of various sorts, and because connectivism does not provide this, or even acknowledge the need, people fail. “Yes, people fail. But I think connectivism actually does a better job supporting the progression from novice to expert stage than traditional learning”


The comparisojn is not, necessarily, with traditional learning.


“Here’s why: connectivism does not treat people as novices their entire lives”


I must admit, this seems a misplaced assertion, argument or criticism. Nothing in my article suggests treating individuals as novices for their entire lives. It does suggest designing for the needs of novices in contexts where they are novices.


“Ideally, they should stop being novices some time before tenth birthday. They should stop being novices somewhere around the time they able to acquire the ability to read, infer, navigate and socialize.”


This seems a limited, limiting, and I think incomplete account of what it means to be a novice. For example, I can read, write, socialise, and am 40. I started farming last year. I was a city boy before that, from a family of urban dwellers stretching back generations.


I am a novice farmer.


“If a grown adult still requires a teacher to provide encouragement and support, positive role models, to select resources and scaffold learning experiences, then that speaks to the substantial failure of the traditional system of education.”


I learned to drive at 32. I was a novice driver. I plan to learn to weld and horseride this year. I will be novices at them. Novicehood is not a function of age. The fact that one is a university student, teacher, pensioner, or child does not preclude one being a novice at something. I cannot see how it would. Far from treating novices as novices being appalling, it seems apt. For my first horseriding lesson, I sincerely hope they take it very easy on me. For my first welding lesson, I trust I’lI be given significant support and guidance. I’m counting on it.


There are all sorts of other things I plan to take joy in as a novice as I grow older. Growing peaches. Making cider. Learning to code. Making an app. Far from considering it a failure, I would count on support being provided. It seems implausible that we will fail to experience learning environments in which we are novices beyond the age of ten. An educational environment which did not scaffold would, demonstrably, be lessening my chances, and failing me as a novice.




Downes final section deals with failure. He argues I fail to define it clearly. I think that is probably an apt and accurate description, and point. It’s not, I think key, or fatal to my argument.


He argues that one idea of failure I raise – the failure to connect – is faced by all individuals in all educational experiences. He is right here of course. It is. This does not seem to absolve Connectivism of a responsibility to design for it however. And, in contexts where that failure is a function of novice status, a lack of prior knowledge, and high cognitive load, and is avoidable, it’s eminently treatable.


I argue (tritely, I’ll admit, and I feel, given the attention and detail Downes goes to in response, that this triteness of mine is misplaced, and regrettable, and this is a sincere apology for any sleight or insult that could, understandably, have generated) that multiple platforms, mediums, messages, cognitive demands, unfamiliar technology, tools, and teaching methods make life for the novice difficult.


Downes reply invokes an experience, or metaphor I feel is inappropriate, and not a good fit.


“When I look out my window I see several hundred trees (and a crow). I can pick out the one dead tree, the one white spruce, the tree closest to me, the tree about to fall down, and the crow.  Why is this significant? Well it’s not, really, except to point out that an inability to deal with a large number of things is an artificial and self-inflicted incapacity (albeit one your traditional teachers may have helped you acquire).”


Typically, we have prior knowledge of trees. Recognising trees, does not, for many of us, represent a significant cognitive load. We have lots of practice, and expertise, typically, in the field of tree recognition (apparently, it’s not as straightforward as we might think. People have arguments over what a shrub a tree, a bush, or an entirely different type of plant can be. It’s highly controversial, to the right people. The secret life of trees, I think, has a whole section on it You can be looking at what you think is a tree, but it’s actually a large bush…apparently). Perhaos a better way to think of it is to ask how many of us could tell lodgepole pine, scots pine, douglas fir, sitka spruce or leylandii apart.


Similarly, distinguishing a crow from a tree is not a difficult task for the majority. The Cognitive Load is low, the prior knowledge is there. We are, most of us, not novices in recognising trees, or crows as distinct entities. For this reason, the example is, I feel, ill fitting.


Some of us are novices in social media, and in the types of tools and information sifting connectivism demands of us, in ways that do not characterise the ability to recognise that a tree is a tree.


This does not mean that we are permanently incapable of it. And I agree with one aspect of Downes’s arguemt here. It may be that we are not prepared for it by traditional educational contexts. But the fact that there are novices in this area attempting courses means that we have a responsibility to cater for them. To argue that they should have been better prepared is to ignore the reality of their experiences that we need to engage with.


Downes compares my point about the decentralised information inherent in cMOOC structure with supermarkets, and cityscapes.


“Cities have the same problem. The people are located in different buildings, all over the place, and you can’t buy gas and engine oil in the same place you buy perfume (well, except at Wal*Mart).”


Again, few of us are novices at supermarket shopping. Or at what cities look like, and how we travel around them. The point is well made, but is not appropriate to my article, which deals with novices. Downes examples do not deal with the novice experience, and serve to illustrate a different point. That the experiences we are familiar with pose no significant problem to us.


Of course they don’t as they have no significant cognitive load, they are familiar to us, and we have ample prior knowledge.


A better analogy would have been, imagine doing a treasure hunt, in a foreign city. You have written directions, in a language you don’t understand. The language is written in Cyrillic, but you have a two way dictionary, a pen, and paper. You have forty two items to find, but everyone around you speaks the language. All you need to do is ask the right questions. And understand the right answers.


Nothing could be easier.


If you’ve made it this far, Stephen, congratulations, and, once more, I’d like to express my appreciation, for the response, for the opportunity to learn, and engage, and for the detail and depth of your reply.


I perhaps failed to include you in the roll call of practitioners I lauded, but that’s a function of lack of experience on my part, and not intended as any form of sleight. Not having experienced Plenk, or CCK, I was unable to speak from a position of experience.


I hope it suffices to say that, despite my criticisms, I value the work, ideas, expertise and ideals Connectivism has brought to bear, and my intentions are to improve it’s connections and expression in my own practice.



  1. I did make it this far, and thank you for the detailed response. I can’t reppky in depth right now – and I might not have the chance to, please don’t take it personally if I don’t, my time isn’t alway my own, especially this week (and I go camping for 4 weeks starting next week…).

    But here’s an interesting thought. Let’s take the case you propose, and ask, how _would_ we approach the problem?

    … imagine doing a treasure hunt, in a foreign city. You have written directions, in a language you don’t understand. The language is written in Cyrillic, but you have a two way dictionary, a pen, and paper. You have forty two items to find, but everyone around you speaks the language. All you need to do is ask the right questions. And understand the right answers.

    I’ve been reading recently criticisms that Connectivism isn’t testable. But far from it, I think it’s eminently testable, and here is a good example. How could we find the 42 items?

    – hire someone, and they’ll just tell you what they are and where they are, then they’ll go get them for you. (This is ‘direct instruction’) This method will win all the efficiency tests, but it’s manifest that they’re solving the wrong problem – they think recovering the objects is the point, when really, it’s having *you* recover the objects that is the point.

    – hire an interpreter. Here it’s a bit less like direct instruction, but it still sort of misses the point, because the point of the challenge is that you don’t understand the language.

    – take a class, with scaffolded instruction, learn the language, read the instructions, and find the objects. Would work, mostly, provided the instructions weren’t too idiomatic. But would take four years.

    – painstakingly use the dictionary and translate the instructions. Might work, but might not, because a language is far more than just the words. Also would take a year.

    – or the connectivist route. Connect with some people, show the,m the instructions, and work with them to find the objects. Takes a lot of interaction back and forth, and nobody has the full picture, but eventually, in a day or two, the task is accomplished (and you’ve made a bunch of new friends, and maybe learned a few works of some language written in a cyrillic script (probably Russian, but who knows?)).

    This is testable. I would actually try it myself – but again, my time isn’t my own, and I can’t afford to fly to Russia.

    • wiltwhatman says:

      Thanks for the reply.

      And, of course, far from taking the ( only relative ) short reply personally, I’m hugely appreciative of the time and effort you’ve already expended here.

      My time is also not my own.

      I appreciate the responses you post above, and feel, if my article were a generalised criticism of Connectivism, which it isn’t intended to be, I might be holding my hands up in defeat.

      But it’s an account of the experience of some novices, and so, I feel the examples miss that target somewhat.

      Let’s say the language of the treasure hunt is Russian. And let’s take your suggestion that we connect to solve the problem. But let’s say, the people I am to connect with only speak Russian, and I only speak English, and we don’t share an alphabet. This would seem to represent, perhaps more accurately, the experience of a novice who has issues with the connection experience.

      Although the enterprise is still, notionally, possible, how many people could we reasonably predict might, at this juncture, give up.

      Enjoy camping.

      • If I may jump in on this hypothetical situation of a treasure hunt in Russia, my experience tells me that if you really *need* to find those objects, then you won’t be bent on giving up the chase despite the various difficulties thrown your way. Especially if you chose to put yourself in this situation – e.g. you enthusiastically signed up for the treasure hunt because you thought it would be fun and exciting -, it’s not likely you’re going to give up that easily.

        Here is what I would probably do if I only spoke English and the people I connected with only spoke Russian.

        First, I can try and get someone to draw me a map with names of places labelled on it. This way, even if I don’t understand the language, I can painstakingly match a group of letters on my map to a street sign I encounter. It’s going to take a long time at first and it may be difficult to read this person’s handwriting sometimes but, assuming all the streets are marked properly, I can still gather the objects.

        Another strategy I’d use is to show the written directions to the Russian speakers and have them point to the route I’m supposed to take. I’ve found that it doesn’t always work well because we might not have the same conventions for indicating directions.

        At this point, someone would often end up sympathising with you – maybe they’ve been in such a situation before and understand what you’re going through – and actually take you to the next object. Along the way, you pick up a few words of Russian from this person and you grow a tiny bit more familiar with the city. Your next object will be that much easier to find because you can now greet people politely in Russian and you know where one or two main streets are.

        I suppose I don’t need to keep going forever with this metaphor: the process will definitely be that much longer and more frustrating that you’re handicapped by your lack of Russian language skills but you’ll get there having learnt a great deal, feeling exhausted but satisfied that you carried your mission through.

        Even if you’re not successful with picking up those 40 objects – say you only collected 12 -, you won’t be completely fulfilled but you’ll know exactly what you need to learn for your next adventure. I bet next time you go on a treasure hunt in a foreign country, you’ll learn at least the rudiments of the local language 😉

  2. wiltwhatman says:

    Hi Hardcore,

    and thanks for jumping in.

    My contention is not that the task is impossible. It’s not. And it’s not that it’s unachieveable by someone who is highly motivated. Because it’s not. And those people who persist in the face oif such huge difficulty are probably particularly high in self efficacy already. They are the people who need the least help. Unfortunately, they are not necessarily characteristic of the majority of novices.

    It is the case that, in many, and possibly the majority of cases, most people would not choose to pursue it, would give up, and return home.

    The more confident you are of success, the more likely you are to try to succeed. The less confident you are of success, the less likely you are to try to succeed. We know this, because it’s been extensively tested, measured, experiemnted on. The data here is sound, and extensive.

    For those people who are highly motivated, but give up, providing them with support makes it far less likely they will give up. Designing the activity so they are more confident of success, and providing them with scaffolding to achieve those, will significantly help them to achieve and succeed.

    For example, a direct instruction session on asking basic direction questions, and in understanding the common answers, as well as practice circumstances that will lead to confident mastery, might go a long way to maintaining the motivation of someone who wanted to achieve this task.

    Again, we know this, becasue it is based on extensive testing, data and evidence. When you support novices, they learn faster, more comprehensively, have better retention and transfer, and complete courses of studey and tasks with a lot more frequency than when you leave them to their own devices.

    Basic instruction on the script, alphabet, and vocabulary that would be found on maps, streetsigns, and internally in buildings would help hugely too.

    This type of help would be counterproductive to an expert – someone who already spoke the language, and might well cause them to drop out. Providing it for your novices makes it much more likely they will persist at the task you set them, and get a lot more out of the attempt.

    We design for who our learners are. Not who we think they should be, or who we would like them to be. Our concept of how we would achieve and approach a particular task is not necessarily theirs.

  3. Hi Keith,

    It’s a good idea you had to start over down here…I’ve discovered at my own expense how narrow the comments become after 3 replies !

    After reading your last comment, I feel that I better understand the kind of situation you’re focusing on. I might have taken your example too literally 😉

    I’m just wondering how, in a dispersed online environment, one can help novices with low self-efficacy make the most of a course. How are we to know who they are and what their individual needs are before they end up completely overwhelmed?

    Identify pre-requisites and have special introduction sessions for those who feel they would benefit?

    What’s your take on this?

    • wiltwhatman says:

      I think novices would have to self identify. And I think the question you are asking is much more interesting than the article. That said, this is the conversation I wanted to begin…

      I’d suggest a couple of things.

      In the acknowledgement email, explicitly state, in clear temrs, the platofrms, the skills, the tasks and the workload you expect your participants to cope with, and develop resources to help them develop these in advance. Also, explicitly cover possoible paths through the MOOC ( with good advice. Don’t do everything, if you are new pick a platform, use the seminars as q and a sessions, follow the mods, ta’s and organisers on the platform you choose so you can ask for help), and lay out potential paths to lower cognitive load. Tognazzini puts it well – give your novices well defined paths, and let your experts go off road.

      For the help resources, clarity is key here. Too many MOOCs have unclear instructions, badly written help resources, a single page with a mishmash of resources or poor choices. Be kind to your users. Make it easy to find help.

      Develop reuseable resources that target the technologies and literacies you are designing your MOOC to employ. Have the resources clear, have them task based, with carefully designed instruction, and have them, as the users become familiar, replicate the contexts and situations your users will be expected to deploy these skills in.

      So, for example, handhold you users through setting up a twitter account with designed resources, and tweeting, retweeting, tweetchatting, following, embedding links. Then have them do an actual tweetchat with other learners doing the same preparatory course, in a way that matcheds the tweetchats they will find themselves in (so, the multiple questions format is typical) .Have a poweruser, mod or organiser on hand to help, because they will need one. Align the tweetchat furter by having your learners find three resources that deal with a topic, idea, or technology that is useful in the MOOC context, and have them tweet them to the other users. Use these resources in the blog section, as part of the authentic practice ( teach them the technical aspects og blogging, and hub connecting, get them connected to the hub, have them blog about someone else’s resource in the context of their own practice, and have them comment on three other blogs, fopr example). Have all this ready to go, and deploy well in advance.

      Be explicit about the pedagogy, and how it works, in a variety of formats, and include an explanantion (or, more probably, link to one) in the welcome email.

      Get good moderators, orgaisers, powerusers, brokers and ta’s. They can catch people before they fall through the net, and can watch out for those who have done the preparatory course. They can catch complaints, answer questions, encourage and cheerlead, and direct people to resources, give them the hashtag. Motivated, knwoedgeable and self directed helpers are a huge asset.

      Use the seminars well, and often, and have good q and a’s, and follow up, and include technical sessions with help and centralise things like the blog hub, so refer to it often, get the mods to link from it, and post resources from it.

      As I said, it’s the beginning of the conversation

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