Wednesday, August 15, 2012

#moocmooc Day 4 task: participant pedagogy and cMOOCs

The following is included as section 2 in our research-in-progress paper: “Developing a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) at a College of Education: Narrative of Disruptive Innovation?” (Schrire & Levy, 2012).

2. The Case for MOOCs

2.1          20th Century Pedagogical Models

Over the past few decades, information and communication technologies (ICTs) have been integrated into teaching and learning to support a variety of pedagogies: behaviorist, cognitivist, constructivist, and – as pointed out earlier, connectivist theories, on which MOOCs are based.

Behavioristmodels underlie the “drill and practice” computer programs that dominated CAI from the 1960s through to the beginning of the 1980s. These attempted to improve on paper-based instruction and the value of the programs was usually determined by the extent to which it was sensitive to user difficulties and provided meaningful feedback and remediational sequences to incorrect responses. Since it is relatively easy for a developer or teacher to compile exercises, feed the questions, answers, and feedback into a computer program, these programs continue to flourish in thousands of commercial instructional sites on the Internet. Dede (2008) observes that the underlying pedagogy in many learning management systems (LMSs) closely resembles CAI. Their obvious disadvantage is that they are usually based on a paradigm of learning that encourages “reaching the correct answer” rather than on the generation of questions. It is easy to see why this approach is not the one that will develop the knowledge and skills of the movers and shakers in today’s or tomorrow’s knowledge economy.

Cognitivisttheories, which emphasize the mental models actively created by the learner in his/her interaction with the environment, are still based on the premise that a knowledge object can be well defined and that a task has a few possible correct ways of being approached. They do not provide answers regarding the learning of ill-defined content, which is what is increasingly presenting itself to the 21st century learner.

Constructivist theories better explain learning occurring in vague contexts. Constructivism is based on a world view that knowledge is necessarily a product of our own cognitive acts, and that learners construct understandings through their experiences (Confrey, 1995). In such a view, learning means that students themselves are constructing and reorganizing their own conceptual frameworks, in a “gradual process during which initial conceptual structures based on … interpretations of everyday experience are continuously enriched and restructured” (Vosniadou & Ioannides, 1998, p. 1213). To the view of thinking and learning as an individual process of restructuring, Sfard (2008) adds the communicative facet, coining the term ‘Commognition’: “…thinking is an individualized form of interpersonal communication… whatever one creates is a product of collective doing. Even when sitting alone at her desk and deeply immersed in thoughts, a person is engaged in a conversation with others” (p. XIX). According to constructivism, it is the teacher’s responsibility to expose the learners to new conceptions and to different ideas offered by others, in addition to her or his responsibility for offering generalizations and formal terminology. However, even pedagogies which have as their central focus the knowledge that is constructed by people communicating or working together on given tasks (Schrire, 2004), are not sufficient to explain the processes whereby people will learn and act in the knowledge society of the 21st century; nor can they provide a basis for instructional design that is both broad and effective in a networked world. Moreover, both technological and social networks thin (Siemens, 2010) and might even remove classroom walls, thus inevitably subverting the classroom-based roles of the teacher as these have been “taken-as-shared” (Cobb, Yackel & Wood, 1992) in Behaviorism, Cognitivism and Constructivism alike.

2.2          21st Century Pedagogical Models

Aiming to consider the broad and wide effects of the network society on learning and teaching, George Siemens has developed Connectivism as a learning theory for the digital age (Siemens, 2005). Connectivism is based on the idea that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks (Downes, 2007). Connective knowledge is the knowledge that results from connections among properties of different entities. As a theory developed in an age of abundant information and connections, connectivism assumes that the learner’s role is not to memorize or even understand everything, but to have the capacity to find and apply knowledge when and where it is needed (Anderson & Dron, 2011). In line with Bruns’s (2008) concept of ‘produsage’, connectivist learning is also based as much upon production as consumption of content, while the role of the teacher is both a novel role – to enable collaborations with and among the learners in order to create and re-create content, and a constructivist role – to design interactions in which learners make connections with existing and new knowledge resources. Unlike earlier pedagogies, the teacher is not solely responsible for defining, generating, or assigning content.

As new technology enables – and even forces – the 21st century learner to learn in a very different way and at a very different pace from any other time in history, the need arises for adopting new learning structures, networks, and tools. These structures should fit complex learning of distributed knowledge – the type of learning that is best explained by Connectivism. A MOOC is one such learning structure. MOOCs were described in our 2011 paper as “a conglomerate consisting of various layers: weekly live sessions…; recordings of all these sessions; a complexity of discussion forums within the course Moodle; the course Wiki and the course Blog; and the unique course aggregator named the Daily” (Levy & Schrire, 2011, p. 6).  Such description indeed reflects networks, both of human participants and of information chunks. MOOCs of that type can therefore be labeled “Connectivist MOOCs” and are further detailed in the next section.  

2.3          Connectivist MOOCs (c-MOOCs)

The first MOOC took place in 2008 and was facilitated by Siemens and Downes, who have developed the theory of Connectivism. The challenge in a connectivist MOOC is for each learner to construct a personal learning environment (PLE), or a personal learning network (PLN), by eliciting what is personally meaningful from the network of information and interactions. The twin concepts of the PLE and PLN have emerged during the last five years as alternatives to more traditional environments such as the learning management system (LMS) and institutionally-based courses, and a developing body of research has been produced around these alternative learning structures. One of the first MOOCs, the PLENK2010 ten-week-long open online course (Siemens, Downes Cormier, & Kop, 2010) focused on these alternatives, attracting a very large number of participants from all over the world. This MOOC was not conducted in a single place or environment, but was rather distributed across the web. The learning in this unusual course resulted from the activities each participant chose to undertake, and was therefore different for each person. An overwhelming collection of ideas, stories, questions, and representations, were expressed using a large variety of tools and technologies, and widely distributed across the web. Managing all of this was challenging; however, as it turns out, the course participants had not only voluntarily jumped into this ocean of complexity, but many of them contributed to making the learning network even more complex, more connected, and more rewarding (Levy, 2011; לוי, 2012).

Learning in a Connectivist MOOC is “…highly social. The learning comes from content presented by a lecturer, and then dialog via social media, where the contributions of the participants are shared” (Quinn, 2012). The domain MOOC.ca (maintained by Stephen Downes) refers to MOOC’s connectivist origins and gives a partial list of those MOOCs which are considered as based on the connectivist model. 

The type of learning that has been found to occur in those MOOCs appears to be based on processes that educators wish to encourage in their students in order to prepare them for life and work in the 21st century. This is an age of competition on a global level, information glut, and rapid technological change, where the individual – just like the organization – has to learn to construct and restructure his/her knowledge and constantly reinvent him/herself. Anderson (2008), referring to the knowledge society, pinpoints two major forces shaping the knowledge society: “greater intercultural interaction, enabled by global electronic networks, and an economic system in which knowledge functions as a commodity” (p. 7). In the face of such a “given,” the global citizen needs to learn how to construct knowledge and develop adaptability, the ability to work in teams, and skills relating to the retrieval, organization, and critical evaluation of information (Mioduser, Nachmias, & Forkush-Baruch, 2008). There is no doubt that such a change in conceptualizing learning and teaching should be considered in colleges of teacher education; however, there is also no doubt that resistance will present itself, as was indeed the case in our own initiative.

2.4          Other types of MOOCs (x-MOOCs)

Interestingly, since submitting our previous paper in August 2011, and while investigating our college of education’s organizational and managerial culture and structure in order to determine where and with whom we could develop and pilot a MOOC, the “language of MOOCs” (Watters, 2012) has taken an unexpected turn. Right until the fall of 2011, the term “MOOC” was not used much by educational technology scholars and was not acknowledged at all in the mainstream public discourse. Within the limited community of educators and educational researchers who did mention the term “MOOC”, it unequivocally denoted a practical application of connectivism, as has been discussed in sections 2.2 and 2.3.

The turning point seems to be with the AI (Artificial Intelligence) MOOC, an experimental open online course offered in the fall semester of 2011 by two well-known computer scientists from Stanford. The first wide publication of this course in the New York Times (August 15, 2011) didn’t even mention the term “MOOC”, but the title – “virtual and artificial, but 58,000 want course” (Markof, 2011) – ignited a new wave of educational initiatives aiming to reach massive audiences of (mainly college-level and up) participants. The first to couple the Stanford AI course with the term MOOC was Stephen Downes himself, in his OLDaily newsletter (August 17, 2011). With sarcasm, but - in retrospect - also as a self-fulfilling prophecy, Downes (2011) writes: “The Stanford ‘open’ AI course has attracted some 58,000 students and an article in the New York Times. So now the MOOC will be deemed to have been officially ‘invented’ by Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun. Credit? No, not a chance.”

The experimental AI course ran for 10 weeks. Out of more than 60,000 preregistered participants from around the globe in September, about 1500 completed the course in December 2011. Sebastian Thrun himself left Stanford in January 2012 to form the new open online learning venture Udacity, commenting that after reaching out to such mass numbers of students he could not go back to teach in a traditional class. In a blog post from February 29, 2012, Quinn first distinguished between two types of MOOCs: the Stanford model and the Connectivist model. The goal of both types, writes Quinn, is to enable a free and “high quality learning experience to anyone with sufficient technical ability and access to the Internet”, but as opposed to the social nature of the connectivist model, in the Stanford model “the experience is,effectively, solo” (Quinn, 2012).

During the spring of 2012 the wave turned into a Tsunami. Numerous news articles, blog posts, media interviews, and social networks posts flooded the Internet with new MOOC announcements, calls for participation, and critiques. Within a few weeks, MIT announced MITx; a consortium of Ivy League universities including Stanford and Penn State established Coursera; and Harvard University joined forces with MIT to create EDx – to name only a few. In March, Hill (2012) wrote that “there are really two variations of MOOCs with quite different approaches – witness the Stanford and MITx version vs. the rhizomatic version”[2]. In an internet interview on April 23th, Downes was asked “Did you expect to see MOOCs explode in popularity so quickly?” (Downes, 2012-a). The most press cover, however, has been based on the Stanford model of MOOCs. In May, Martin Weller – a professor at the Open University of the UK – wrote in his Ed-Techie blog: “with the Stanford AI course, then the announcement of UdacityEdXcoursera, and Curtis Bonk’s course, it seems that barely a week has gone by without some major new announcement” (Weller, 2012). Audrey Watters, an educational technology blogger who writes for “Inside Higher Education”, added in her Hack Education blog in June: “when I write about MOOCs (and I admit, I do write about MOOCs a lot lately), I feel the need to attach a bunch of adjectives to clarify what I mean by the term.” She also calls for doing “a better job distinguishing connectivist MOOCs from the Stanford model” (Watters, 2012).

While the “O” that stands for “open” is thought to be the dominant letter in the original connectivist branch of MOOCs, “M” seems to be the dominant letter in the Stanford branch. In a recent email sent to all those who once pre-registered to one of Prof. Thrun MOOCs, he wrote: “I am writing you to ask a personal favor. I am trying to break the student record for the largest online class ever taught with my new class “Intro to Statistics”, which will begin June 25th.  Sign up, forward this e-mail to your friends and family and let’s set a new record!” (email communication received June 17, 2012). 

A month later, Downes (2012-b) referred to the Tsunami in his OLDaily newsletter, with a citation from Inside Higher Education: “So this has been all over the news today - “A dozen more universities have signed partnerships with Coursera, a company that provides hosting services for massively open online courses (MOOCs).” The attached map details these institutions all over the United States.

In the same post, Downes (2012-b) also proposed a new terminology: x-MOOCs (like Coursera) providing open online content, practice and activities in the domain in question; and c-MOOCs – connectivist MOOCs – providing not only open online content in a domain but also immersion into a community of practitioners associated with that domain. Whether the two models will eventually merge, how the MOOC phenomena will develop, and how such innovations influence higher education are yet open questions.

2.5          Summary: The case for Connectivist MOOCs in teacher education

Our work, started prior to the current public interest in the MOOC phenomena, is, without any doubt, based on the Connectivist vision of the c-MOOC. We see this model as aiming to bring about change and innovation on a number of levels:

Pedagogical – with a redefinition of what is meant by “learning”, “teaching”, and “assessment”. The redefinition of pedagogy will affect learners and teachers alike.

Content – once a traditional course (even a traditional online course) becomes a MOOC, it demands deep-level revision of content. In addition, as the content is distributed and takes on a “life” of its own, independent of its point of origin, a MOOC necessarily involves the erosion of traditional boundaries regarding content creation and development.

Technological – MOOCs are founded on technologies that encourage interaction between people, people and content, and people and interfaces. However, in addition to Web 2.0 learning tools that are already accepted in the “mainstream,” additional tools are required, such as aggregators and RSS feeds that scan the MOOC for significant content that can be brought to the participants. The technological component becomes additionally complex when the MOOC is planned in both an English-language and Hebrew-language environment, as in the reported case.

Organizational and cultural – the MOOC instructors have to collaborate in ways that they have probably not before experienced and restructure their courses; the MOOC learning and teaching community envisaged for the educational establishment forming the context for the present case would require acceptance at top management and middle management levels, as well as intensive technological support from the ICT academic team and systems management department.

It is against this background that a c-MOOC is seen as representing suitable preparation for developing, not only specific content knowledge, but also the 21st century literacies noted above. The original plan proposed in the summer of 2011 for our college of education arose from the conviction that it would provide a model for learning at a time when traditional school learning is widening the rift between learners’ experiences in and of the world and their experiences in formal school settings. What has changed in this interim is, first, the rise of the MOOC phenomena, as has been discussed in the previous sections; and, second, our understanding of the complex factors involved within an organization “considering” a c-MOOC, because of the broader implications it has for the meaning of education. We elaborate on the latter in the full paper from which this section has been taken.


[1] Others are also using the terms c-MOOCs, rhizomatic MOOCs, and participatory MOOCs to define MOOCs based on connectivist theory.

[2] “Rhizomatic learning” is highlighted in the conference presentation of Dalit Levy, slide 16 - http://www.slideshare.net/damom7/the-case-of-a-massive-online-open-course-mooc-at-a-college-of-education

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