From #Connectivist

Are MOOCs dead yet?

or What I Learned from MOOCing…

The first MOOCs, now called cMOOCs (for connectivist or connectivity), were a breath of fresh air in academics.  George Siemens, Stephen Downes, and David Cormier created a vibrant, engaged learning community in which a variety of voices stepped forward to direct discussions.  There was no central instructional voice lecturing too the community, but colleagues discussing.  I learned more from the Change 11 MOOC than I had in over 10 years of higher education teaching.

By the end of 2011, I was experimenting with MOOC concepts in my class, and by the end of 2012, I had completely reorganized my classes and reconsidered what I do as a Teacher.  I also offered the MOOC concept to my campus administrators for some special projects they were considering, to no avail.  Of course, they would come back later and praise me being on the forefront of this type of concept.

But something happened in 2012: the MOOC bandwagon.  Suddenly everyone was offering MOOCs, but they were not the courses I had come to admire.  They were little more than repackaged online classes.  There was no engagement, no mentorship, and no community.  These xMOOCs, as they are now called, were built primarily to monetize the MOOC.  It seemed like every week there was a new “MOOC” coming on line, or worse, a new company offering MOOCs.  It was a nightmare, especially for people like me that were taking connectivist concepts that were the foundation of the MOOC, and applying them to our classes.

Connectivist MOOCs are still amazing, when you can find them.  Open, online peer learning communities that come up for a limited time for people to gather and discuss aspects of teaching and learning are amazing.  For this I’ll point to last year’s Learning Beyond the Letter Grade, which was another amazing opportunity for those ready to discuss how to deal with student assessment in the future.  Unfortunately, most of the MOOCs out there were pale imitations of these communities, or they were only automated online courses.

So, has the bandwagon left?  While I would like to see an end to poorly considered online courses, I think they will be around for a while.  It is thought time that we start to reflect on what we have learned or taken from our experiences with MOOCs.  A few years ago, I blogged about MOOCification; what can we adapt from the MOOC for our classes and learning communities?

Actually, the first thing I took away is to stop thinking in terms of classes, and instead think of my students as a learning community.  While it does not seem like much, cognitively, it was a major leap.  This one idea was a major take home message for me from Change 11.  Dialog between members in a learning community is a powerful engagement too, and really helps participants.  One thing I loved in Change11 was the daily newsletter.  Not only did it help remind me what we were discussing, it sometimes gave me more to think about, and it always showed me what other community members were discussing.  Even if I did not post or respond that day, it was a way for me to stay engaged.

I started doing this in my classes, and I love it.  Sending out a daily newsletter helps me to explore with students a topic in more depth.  It keeps our learning community connected, and I’m starting to see that it helps strengthen student engagement.

Another aspect that was amazing was the weekly guest lecture.  How amazing it was to actually hear from a person working on an innovation, instead of listening the one person each week talk about innovations.  Having new speakers, and then a chance to dialog with them and the community was an incredible opportunity.

A counter to the changing lecturer of Change11 occured in another pedagogy MOOC that I won’t name, and helped emphasize to me the importance of having multiple voices in a class.  Each week, the organizer would lecture.  These were horrible, as everything was colored by the presenters opinions.  Instead of being able to make our own determination about an innovation, or even have meaningful discussions about the innovation, the presenter gave us a packaged pseudoanalysis of the idea (and if it was not one of their ideas, it was deemed worthless).  In other words, it was an ego driven period of weeks where the presenter got to listen to their own voice.

I started working with this concept by inviting graduate students to come and speak to my freshman biology class.  Each week, a graduate student comes in and talks about their research, and puts it into perspective regarding our topic that week.  For example, someone comes and talks about a signal-receptor pathway during the week we are talking about cellular communication.  It gives students a practical outlook on the material, a new voice to hear, and it gives our graduate students an opportunity to work on their presentation skills.  For me, that’s a win-win!

The original MOOCs, and their cMOOC descendants, have a great deal to offer in the ways we approach teaching and learning.  The concept of social learning is critical, and Web 2+ and mobile media provides amazing tools to engage students.  While the cMOOC serves advanced active learners, methods from this form of learning community can be adapted for undergraduate classes.  Playing around with connectivity ideas, and adapting them to undergraduate classes has been extremely rewarding.  I would encourage others to look at some of the innovative course deliveries in the past five years, and look to see how they could be adapted for your setting.  Even if it does not work the first time around, I’m sure you will learn something about yourself as a teacher, and about your students.

Daily Writing, a way to build engagement

During my first MOOC, I became fascinated by the daily newsletters and the interaction among people based on comments in these newsletters.  When I started adding connectivist (MOOC) constructs into my class, the first was to send out newsletters to challenge my students (and anyone else interested) to write and interact.  These were low stakes writing, and initially I had students maintain blogs to curate their responses and interactions.  I’ll talk about how disastrous it was for me, and how ultimately profitable it was for students, in a later post.  The main focus now is just the idea about daily writing for engagement.

The core of this construct was that the students received a daily newsletter about a specific topic that we were covering.  Usually this was a concept that students struggled with, or a topic that I wanted to integrate with central concepts of biology, like evolution.  If you’re interested, you can visit the newsletter archive here:  http://biomoocnews.blogspot.com/

At the end of each newsletter was a challenge.  The challenge fell into a few different categories:  Describe the topic in your own words; watch an expert in the field, then discuss what you learned in this topic; answer to a case study; relate to some real world example.  Student responses had to be a minimum of 150 words, on topic without hyperbole, and showing collegiate level writing.  They also had to respond to three of their peers.  Didn’t matter if it was right or wrong, it just mattered that they met the minimum requirements.  When they did, they got credit.  Usually they had 48 – 72 hours to write their post.  These were low stakes because I was not nit-picking their work to give them a “grade”.

I would go in and “rate” their post.  If it was particularly insightful, I might add comments.  If it was wrong, then it gave me a chance to go in and do some remediation with the student and class.  One semester, once the forums were closed, I would add my response.

Of course students grumbled and complained about having to write so much, but every time I’ve done this, I’ve found the students more aware of what was going on in class.  They could answer questions in class that students in previous semesters never seemed to get.  The biggest change was that the students didn’t feel they needed to cram for exams (when I still gave them).  They realized that they were studying all along.

One great anecdote was a student that came into my office after the final exam.  She complained about not learning anything in the semester, and that the writing did nothing for her.  She knew that she had failed the exam, and was telling me this because she was going to challenge the grade.  I just looked at her and said, “are you sure you failed the exam?”  Her jaw dropped open when I told her she got a high A on the exam (above 95%).  She fell into the chair in utter shock.  It took her a few minutes before she could speak, then cry.  She confessed that she had never done well in science, and by the end of the meeting she admitted that she must have learned something.  Other students have told me that they would actually ask each other questions to start online discussions in later biology classes.  I’m going to be sending out surveys to former students to see what they took away from my class, so that will be a future post.

From my perspective, what I found from doing this:

  • Most students meet the 150 word limit, stay on topic, and show collegiate level writing.
  • About 60-75% of the class will actually write significantly more than 150 words.
  • More students respond to my in-class questions, and they do better on in-class case studies.
  • The average on the final exam went up 10% or higher from classes where I didn’t do this type of activity.
  • Students started to spontaneously bring in news articles (newspapers, popular magazines) about biology that had interested them.

Ultimately, the students are building a learning network (aka, a learning community).

Now for the challenge:

The first time I did this was with blogs.  That was a horror story to maintain and grade.  I was a wreck by the end of the semester, so I moved to forums.  That’s better, but you still have to go in and mark each student; a task that becomes progressively harder when you have more and more students.

What I have been working on now is automatic completion status in MOODLE for when the students meet the criteria (thanks to my GTA Kyle for helping with the programming).  Hopefully we can get it so that students get the completion once they post and reply three times (the tricky part is getting it to accept word count and key words).  I can always go back and adjust if I find a student that did not do the work, but that is easier than making sure everyone got the completion status manually.  This will give me more time to respond.