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Category Archives: Meta MOOC thoughts – how this MOOC works, or doesn’t


How to respond to criticism and influence people

This is a post intended to cheerlead. To express appreciation for the example being sdet by the MOOC organisers, and to talk about how that example, in part, has a large determining influence on the MOOC experience. I apologise in advance for any gushing, typos, formatting weirdness, or weirdly wired thoughts. I’m crying from tiredness.

I’ve been struck by several things during #etmooc. Some I’ve posted about – notably issues with learning curves, drowning in technology, connection, learning and information.

I’ve posted about the difficulties of being a novice in a Connectivist environment, of maintaining motivation, and I proposed some solutions.

Here’s Alec’s response to post criting the MOOC from a novices persepective, The Sense of self, how a MOOC can make or undermine you (and by criticism I mean reflection, and constructive suggestion)


And here’s Alison’s. (as well as favouriting my tweet publicising the blog post)

So now, it’s time to focus on them. Because this is as good as it gets in terms of educators. This is something to aim for. This type of honest, open, and accepting engagement is something for an educator to aim for. This is some of whast exhibits educational excellence about #etmooc – not only from Alec and Alison, but from other organisers, contributors, and session facilitators.

These are fantastic responses. Both in terms of how they speak to the organiser’s, moderator’s and session facilitator’s ability to engage meaningfully with critical thought, but also in terms of how an educator can and does shape the learning experience as a function of their own profile, personality, responsiveness and engagement.

Enthusiasm is excellence.

Both Alec and Alison have a reservoir of enthusiasm, for participants, the process, for engagement, for meaningful criticism, for problem solving and sharing, and for reflection, for learning shared, demonstrated, challenged, achieved. They have obvious, and generous expertise. Their form of feedback is exemplerary, and in this, they are both efficacy builders, cheerleading on complete strangers for whom they have voluntarily created a free and engaging educational experience. That their feedback is excellent is extremely important for the health of the connected community, that it is enthusiastic, competent, passionate and engaged is something which is key to it’s fertility and functuioning. I’d argue it’s a driving force, and fundamentally shaping force. And here’s why.

Bandura on cheerleading from the front.

Bandura argues that the qualities of the instructor are key in maintaining motivation. In online learning, you want a credible, expert, competent, passionate and positive instructor, who seems similar to you, and can make mistakes and cope well with them – students value learning from their instructors coping mechanisms, work harder and longer, and have a greater sense of their own capacity and ability under the influence of instructors with these characteristic, and succeed more often in their goals as a result.

Enthusiastic, passionate, positive, and expert instructors, facilitators and educators are key. They increase the individual and collective sense of possibility. Put simply, if someone you think of as credible and competent, who are passionate about what they do, is providing an educational experience, they  increase your personal sense of what you can achieve, and enhances your sense of self to such a degree that you will try harder, for longer, achieve more, and conceive of yourself as a fundamentally more powerful, capable and able learner.

Now that is something. That is a thing to be as an educator. And it is my experience of Alec, Alison, and any interaction I’ve had with other organisers, volunteers, and facilitators.

I’ve talked about self-efficacy before, and Bandura, and the sense in which self-efficacy, that sense of personal ability, but also of engaging in a project which gives you the tools to succeed and how that has an effect on your sense of self and your sense of possibility.

Being an efficacy builder.

Bandura has this to say about self-efficacy builders…

“People who are persuaded verbally that they possess the capabilities to master given activities are likely to mobilize greater effort and sustain it than if they harbor self-doubts and dwell on personal deficiencies when problems arise.”


“Personal goal setting is influenced by self-appraisal of capabilities. The stronger the perceived self-efficacy, the higher the goal challenges people set for themselves and the firmer is their commitment to them.”

What a thing to be able to do. Enable people to reconceive of themselves, to aim higher, shoot farther, and pursue their ambitions with more determination, persistence, and success.

This is why I think Alec and the moderators are key to the project. Key to it’s success. Key to my maintaining effort, being persistent, and thinking myself capable in the face of considerable difficulty. In all honesty, I don’t think I would have persisted (not because of any problems with the MOOC….but because of the insane time pressure and scheduling in my offline life) without their enthusiasm, expertise, competence, belief and passion.

A heartfelt thank you, and a professional appreciation.

Diane Laurillard says that teachers are responsible for shaping the environment in which learning is to take place…that they are (often) the prime shapers of that environment, and responsible for it’s landscape.

You’ve done a good, inspiring job. That’s shaping the learning environment of your participants, extending their sense of their own capabilities, and pushing people to make and demand more of themselves as they reconfigure their ambitions to in concord with their extended sense of themselves. At it’s heart, this is why many of us are educators. The process of watching students reconceive of themselves as more capable, greater, more able and powerful entities that they had thought as a function of a proces we have facilitated is….amazing.

I think at it’s best, this is the process you have created. A process which can extend the sense of capacity, utility, capability and power to shape of it’s participants.

Feedback as habit forming. Feedback as value creation.

Instructor feedbck is also key in two other areas, both of which speak to motivation, and experience and environment shaping.

Students in online courses immensely value feedback. If you want sudents to value learning, and deploy more persistence, be more moptivated, and try harder and longer, then giving them good feedback is a direct way to do this. There’s a lot of evidence to indicate that instructor feedback is hugely strong in the process of students attributing value to their learning. And when they attributre value, they work harder, and longer.

The organisers have been all over twitter and Google+, retweeting, commenting, encouraging, suggesting, tweaking, responding, reshaping, suggesting supporting and resourcing.

This feedback has been key in maintaining community motivation, shaping and providing value, keeping participants engaged, and getting the most from the MOOC and the MOOCers. Getting feedback from educators of the calibre of Alec and the moderators, and from other p[articipants, has directly led to me working harder, working longer, and getting more from the experience. I would not have thought what I thought, worked how I worked, posted as I posted, and sacrificed precious time and rationed resources without it.

The final reason why the personality and profile of the moderators and Alec has been key, and hugely dynamic is this.

In an online educational experience, the quality of the instruction feedback has a huge impact on the quality of the participant feedback. Feedback from facilitators/instructors has a large determining effect on community feedack and engagement. If instructional feedback is competent, quick, constructive and meaningful, then community feedback is going to be hugely shaped by the example. As an instructor, you demonstrate the typoe of feedback you want, and your participants are likely to echo it.

The feedback from the organisers has been…amazing. Frankly. The overall feeling of the MOOC has hinged on it. It’s been crucial and determining. Participants are engaging weith one another meaningfully, critically, enthusiastically. This is in part due, of course, to the natiure oif the participants. But a huge part is also due to the effect of the organiser, volunteer and facilitator engagement.

Instructors are doing Herculean work commenting on blogs, picking out commentas in sessions, tweeting, retweeting, researching, driecting and engaging learners. This has a massive and positive shapinf effect.

As an educator, it’s a model and inspiring example of how you need to engage with your online learners. It has shaped the environment.The character of the moderators is mirrored in the MOOC. If the currency of this MOOC is generosity,  it finds it’s issue in the generosity of the organisers. We are connecting in a landscape shaped by careful, competenmt, passionate, motivating and ability enhancing individuals, and the shape of what we experience, and how we engage in part reflects their excellence.

I for one am surprised at how much that has shaped and enhanced my experience.

I think Bandura would approve.


Some things I think I might have learned so far…

  • 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.

The online tutor, Thelonius Monk or Simon Rattle.

There’s a nice article here, “Portrait of an Online tutor as Thelonius Monk” by Paul Maharg, that got me thinking about teaching styles, strategies, and dynamics in collaborate. (it’s a good, short clear article, that uses a good metaphoir to describe a looser more collaborative style of teaching).

Maharg’s ideas is that excellent online tutors mix scaffolded, structured sessions with improvisation, that lessons are a meeting point between teacher and student, and that, as well as having a set bag of tricks, teachers need to improvise with, and riff off their students.


In his own words

“Imagine tutoring as if you were a musician in a jazz trio. When you rehearse,
you might play and think about the music on your own, but it’s only when you get
together with the group that you begin to explore the musical piece and work out
improvisations as a group. You take account of the character of other musicians’
play, you use your instruments and styles to play off, answer and elaborate,
build upon each other, all within a framework of conventions that the group
implicitly accepts and works within. You’ll use the styles of contemporary and
earlier musicians, and incorporate that in your performance. You’ll have bits of
improv routines you’ve learned (‘licks’) and you’ll be coming up with new
phrases that you embed in your learned routines”

This is a solidly constructivist way of doing things. You encounter the student, with their history, preferences, needs, contexts and experiences, and the interaction shaped the learning.

And the Simon Rattle school? Straightforward instructor centred, behaviourist lessons, with linear, relatively unchanging structure. There’s a conduuctor, there’s an orchestra of 4, or 120, and the orchestra are largely directed, controlled, funnelled, and the course of the concerto is set, and to be followed. Performances vary slightly, but what characterises them ultimately is a large degree of conformity.

There’s places for both. A colleague of mine attended a seminar on social constructivism. He loved it. It spoke to him as a teacher, as a philosophy graduate, and it spoke to his experience and hopes for his own teaching. But no way in hell was he going to employ it in his primary practice. He’s a firearms instructor. Responsible for police training in both policy, and deployment of firearms. He’s solidly Behaviouriust, relatively uninterested in what’s happening internally for his students. He has a set of learning goals that are non negotiable, that are measureable, and that he absolutely must hit.

In another context, a friend spoke to me about a colleague of theirs, responsible for training the police re relating to the LGBT community. And, once again, he is solidly Behaviourist. When he encounters homophobes in training, he has no hope, or desire to change what they think, feel, or the reality they have constructed. He’s just interested in changing behaviour. He has bno possibility to change what officers think of people who walk through a police station door, but he does have  possibility to change how they act (when change is necessary…I have no intention here of painting the police force as homophobic)

These thoughts surfaced in the Twitter session last night.

Moderated again by Valerie, and by Michelle (thanks again), and some interesting differences to Alec’s Orientation.

This was a more instructionist / instructor centred approach. I know in some circles, that’s considered a criticism, and in some sacrosanct, but I mean it just as a description. This was more of a skills based seminar, and more for novices, and a somewhat instructor led / centred approach

The interactive whiteboard wasn’t used, and that led to a less improvised and improvisational seminar/class. There was improvisation, and responsiveness to the students in the room, there were other students being given the mic and running parts of the lesson. And there was impressive flexibility from the main tutor when the web tour facility broke down (she used slides, and then shared an app on the screen so we could follow what she was doing in twitter).

But it was, or seemed, more instructionist. And that worked well.

Key, perhaps, was that the interactive whiteboard wasn’t used. It can be incredibly difficult to draw a class out with the “any questions” gambit. But the interactive whiteboard, and the “I’d like everyone to use the board to share their thoughts on this” or “what do you think when I say Digital Citizenship” gambits work really well when used with  a whiteboard students can type on. And if you are a Thelonius Monk style teacher, that’s the material you need to riff off. For some teachers, the desire to be improvisational is there, but the strategies for enabling improvisation may be lacking. Alec had good strategies.

So, here’s what I learned from thinking about this.

  • Try to establish the collaborative space by using something that piques curiosity, engagement or humour. Or all three, Alec used a map of the world to get us to notice and use the interactive features. This was good, as it didn’t seem important, pressured, but also was quite motivational. I want to see where people are from, and I want them to see me. So, I engage.
  • Use the collaborative whiteboard, but use it with open questions (that can be answered in multiple ways) and  generally avoid closed yes/no questions.
  • Use the whiteboard several times, as the first time or two it can be tricky.
  • Leave plenty of time when using the board, as it can take time for everyone to contribute.
  • Think abpout whether to specify thaty contibutions come through the whiteboard, or opening it up so they can also come through chat and talk (though these worked well for the end of session q&a). Alec’s approach seemed to work – initialy specify the qhiteboard, and, in latter sections, suggest the whiteboard first, and then open it up to chat once there’s some stuff up.
  • Closing down the whiteboard, and opening up a new non interactive slide is a good way to re-establish structure. There are times when you might need the seminar to be instructor centred
  • the raised hands button on collaborate doesn’t seem to be fantastic. When using it for voting, it’s unclear to the students what’s happening, and a transparent voting system that registers votes clearly is much more engaging, and as a way of attracting instructor attention, using chat to ask a wquaetion seems better – imperfect, as questions can get lost once they scroll, and lots of interaction causes it to scroll quickly, but the hands up button just seemed to be confusing. No one knew who had used it.
  • Audio seems to be an issue in collaborate. I don’t know if this is because it’s a new technology for people, and they need time to work with the interface, or people havn’t done the pre collaborate setup. But it’s something you’d need to be aware of, and maybe work on with a novice group.