Open content,  openness

What is the learner responsibility in open education?

I gave a presentation for George Siemens last night as part of CCK11 on, you've guessed it, digital scholarship. It was a bit rambling, but generally well received. I noticed a couple of comments on Twitter along the lines of 'how does this relate to the course content?'

Having done a few such sessions this isn't the first time I've seen such queries. I don't mean to dismiss these, I think they raise an interesting issue for open education.  

Firstly, if a student is getting a course for free do they demand the same type of QA as one they've paid for? I really mean this, if MOOCs are serious then maybe they need to be offering the same quality levels of traditional courses. On the other hand, I haven't been following CCK, I'm willing to do a free presentation, but if I have to link it to course objectives, then I'm less likely to do so.

Secondly, in an open, connected world of abundant content, perhaps the key skill is to learn how to make the connections between a wide range of free content and core principles. This is also a reflection on the changing nature of the educator – the role of the 'lecturer' is not to deliver the content but to find it, structure it and help interpret it.

Lastly, I wonder if, even in this more advanced set of learners, it demonstrates that old learning habits die hard. We are accustomed to signing up for a course, and whether it's free or not, being directed through it very explicitly. If so, then the applicability of the MOOC to all subject areas and levels may be rather limited. Which brings me onto my bigger point – if you are signing up to a MOOC as a learner is there some implicit contract you are agreeing to?

Out of the total numbers of educators there are very few who have run an open course, (I can think of 10 maybe), and there is a slightly larger number of people who have presented on them, but still not many – in my university there are probably only a handful of us. So it's worth sharing our experiences of them as we go, as I expect it will become more common. Generally I like doing them. I think the open aspect means I can explore ideas, and use these sessions as a bit of a test-bed. After all, I'm doing it for free, so I may as well get something from it. I've developed ideas from these sessions and particularly the feedback you get into published work. They also help connect you with good people, and expand your network. The sessions are usually more interactive and encouraging than face to face ones I find. And, perhaps most importantly, I can do them from my home, while having a glass of beer (shhh, don't tell anyone).

So I'd encourage people to have a go at them, but participants should also be aware that these sessions aren't devised specifically for the course in question.


  • Noise Professor

    Interesting thought – the implicit contract. I’ve been wrestling with the idea of the applicability of MOOCways to other disciplines – I’d love to see that energy in other educational contexts, and in other disciplines. I’m wary of writing off whole disciplines as unsuitable (the way that folks still do about online or distance education in general – “Oh, you could never teach X online”), but some disciplines seem to lend themselves more naturally to the mechanics of the MOOC. Some thoughts here:

  • Martin

    Maybe we should be more upfront and make it an explicit contract. I don’t think there’s anything peculiar to MOOCs which make them only applicable to certain domains, except maybe a bit of comfort and familiarity with the technology at the moment. As you say, this was exactly what happened with e-learning – I remember back in 99, when I ran an e-learning course which was about computers & the net, colleagues saying it wouldn’t work in their discipline. But this is the way adoption goes, the first few courses will often be about the technology itself. This is for 2 reasons – 1) the medium is the message so any glitches as you work through are ‘learning experiences’ 2) real estate in a course is precious, so you don’t want to waste valuable space in a course on Shakespeare teaching people about the tech.
    However, as the tech becomes more pervasive, robust and essay to use, it spreads to other courses.
    It may be that some disciplines are more conservative than others, eg law may struggle with the concept of a mooc, but pedagogically I don’t see mismatches.

  • VanessaVaile

    The answer to the question, ‘how does this relate to the course content?,’ is ‘That’s up to you.’
    Making the connection – or not – is up to the learner. That and deciding what we want to follow is also up to us are the grounds rules going in. Very clearly laid out too.
    We learners can’t have it both ways, deciding what to take, what to leave and how to connect what we keep, but still expecting instructors to hand it out ready to wear

  • Scott Johnson

    It must be possible to to have some sort of organization to a MOOC. Yes, of course the learner needs to take responsibility for building some of the structure into the MOOC but even a free concert provides a venue, and this particular one doesn’t even bother with that.
    What is the difference between the old model of institutional neglect of the student’s needs and the benign neglect visited on the 21st century ’empowered student’? The online tuition-paying student is already disenfranchized by lack of true membership (no student cards, no student discounts, no voice in student associations, unresponsive ‘help’ desks–you even have to print your own tax receipts and diplomas).
    I sense no obligation from the presenters, which is fine for some people. As Vanessa says, we were told coming in the rules were open to how we applied them ourselves. But at some point this non-exchange loses its power to hold people together and devolves into a collection of individual bloggers barking at themselves.

  • Frances Bell

    Having followed the MOOC phenomenon with interest since taking part in CCK08, I am very interested in this post and the comments. After all, the concept of free (informal) learning through distributed activities and communication is not new see Maybe it is the ‘course’ angle that is different from some other informal learning, with its implication of ‘curriculum’ and assessment.
    I found quite a few ironies in CCK in the contrast between the subject of how learning occurs and the designed ‘learning activities’. Personally I enjoyed most of the Wednesday Elluminate presentations as they generally provoked discussion and provided variety. It was the Friday sessions that I found much harder to take as they tended towards monologues from the course leaders with occasionally lively chat channel. I am interested to see that the Moodle forums (always regarded as a bit suspect) have been dropped. In CCK08 they were the scene to some lively discussion and a bit of antidote to ‘death by powerpoint’ as this extract from an animation of contributors shows
    Of course the question of what ‘free’ means to students and teachers in this context is a much bigger one.

  • Cristina Costa

    I can’t say much about MOOC courses because everytime I try to join it I end up feeling really overwhelmed and doing next to nothing.
    It’s funny Frances mentions the webheads because I have co-lead online sessions with them and also done research on them.
    There are two things I like about the group: firstly, is distributed leadership and secondly is direct applicability to one’s practice.
    Some people who joined the year before are often invited to become mentors of the new cohorts. This is extremely important. Provides the sessions with new approaches, it also helps the new participants as the new mentors can still relate to the ‘struggles’ they went through and help others overcome it. Parallel to that, is also the personal support that is provided. We even call it humanware! 🙂
    There’s a lot of reflections going on during the 7 week intense sessions, but it’s reflection in action. Many of the participants end up the 7 week course already with collaborative blogs and other activities. Then they carry on talking to each other and developing other types of partnership even after that ‘more directed’ period. They shape their learning curriculum by connecting what they are learning/ need to learn with their practice. the syllabus is flexible enough for this to happen.
    In short, I think it’s important to give people a steer, because otherwise they don’t know where to start, but most importantly is empowering them to apply it to practice and have them discussing as they go along. That is when true learning happens: when you apply what you believe in to your practice.

  • NinaFCollins

    The issue of learner contracts for unpaid courses is an interesting one. CCK11 is the first MOOC I’ve done. And although I’ve browsed through others’ posts, and made the odd Twitter post, I haven’t contributed much in the way of content. I feel I should be making more effort by way of blogging or creating notes on other shared spaces. So I regard my responsibility as supporting my fellow learners development, just as they support mine by the work they create. Responsibility lies in reciprocity. However, this would be difficult to formalise in a MOOC.

  • Peter Reed

    Interesting post.
    I started to follow CCK08, but didn’t really engage. However, I wonder if your post discusses the responsibility of the tutors in MOOCs more-so than that of the learners.
    My first thought was, if the session isn’t constructively aligned, why bother? Do we as facilitators have the responsibility to ensure our content is in context – obviously this is impossible when said content is accessed openly, and therefore learners will align as necessary. But when structured into a course, I can’t help but feel there needs to be ownership and organisation somewhere – on the part of the ‘organisers’ or the facilitators.

  • Gordon Lockhart

    Use of the word ‘Course’ in ‘MOOC’ is maybe unfortunate as it encourages false expectations conditioned by associations with learning objectives, well-defined syllabuses and regular times for content delivery. Whatever the rights and wrongs from a learning theory perspective, connectivism’s chaos and confusion is clearly not for everyone. I think that the most important aspect of a MOOC-like learning event is the virtual proximity of a critical mass of connected learners over the same period of time and from this foundation there is surely scope to have just about anything in the way of structure, facilitation, contracts etc to meet the requirements of different circumstances, disciplines and so on. I’ve tried to expand a bit on this here:

  • Vanessa Vaile

    When/if we feel too disengaged (or unable to create our own engagement model) and leave, at least no student loans will be stalking us. It goes without saying that if we want to use MOOC principles in (mooqueness? moocosity?) or moockify courses we develop or classes we already teach, then we are going to have to make changes. I’m pretty sure they will be more Modest than Massive.
    My first was PLENK2010. I’m in (following, taking?) both LAK11 and CCK11, more active in the latter. Less active than the indefagitables. More active than in PLENK. Coming here from years of shameless lurking in Webheads and two active Multiliteracies helps.
    Definitely, let’s find something else to call it other than a “course.”

  • Antoesp

    Interesting post and great comments. I agree that the term “course” is inappropriate to be applied to a “platform for innovation”, as Siemens defined MOOC in a blog post. These kinds of pilots look like meta-courses and research settings and for now they can be defined with terms as “uncourse” or “unconference”, merely highlighting how much they differ from the notion of “course” and “conference” as typical “loci” of formal learning experience that we are commonly well acquainted with.
    I am a “recidivous” and always erratic MOOC’s learner, but I don’t feel guilty for that. Understanding and accepting the learner’s experience that a MOOC usually provides was not straightforward for me. I often felt discomfort, a sense of inadequacy, sometimes a sense of uselessness. Probably due to my expectations and acquired attitudes as a ‘good’ online learner in formal elearning courses.
    I have to say that my discomfort mostly stems from the lack of perception of a threshold to be passed, the lack of perception that my learning experience can be “trasformative”. I started to feel better when I perceived that “living in a MOOC” can have as much value as chats among coursemates along cloisters at the university, informal conversations among colleagues near coffee machine at work, and informal encounters in different ‘loci’ in my digital landscape. But this was not enough. In one of my occasional posts in PLENK2010 I tried to define my view about a learner’s experience and responsibility in a MOOC:
    “I believe that harnessing the value of technology-based informal learning deals with managing a good balance between serendipity and intentionality. It deals with a double ability: on the one hand the ability to lead your attention towards threads of discussion which reasonate what you are studying or working on, or merely are interested in; on the other hand, it deals with the abilty to surf the complexity of an open environment, in which interdisciplinarity, different stages of competence and the interplay of personal, professional and scholarly level of conversation offer new views to be sifted and expanded.
    The more you “live” in such social spaces, the more you need sophisticated literacies to integrate them in your own learning journey”.
    That said, a number of issues remain unsolved:
    – What is the impact, the applicability of this kind of learning experience to formal higher education contexts and to different subject areas?
    – To what extent the flexibility of behaviour provided to MOOC learners contrast with the privileged profile of an active, collaborative learner?
    – How much the proposed model of networked learning is inclusive? What about the thousands of lurkers in MOOCs? To what extent would university’s responsibility differ about that?
    – What new forms of assessment and accreditation could add value to learner’s experience, thinking of a MOOC adapted in formal settings?
    I think some interesting responses might come just from a research action undertaken by a group from the National Research Council of Canada within the PLENK 2010 MOOC.
    Indeed a MOOC is only one of the possible shapes of the idea of an’online open course’, as an emergence of open education movement (see the interesting PHD thesis by Andres Meiszner:
    In this sense, from the perspective of an elearning course designer, a MOOC allows you to reflect on pros and cons of open boundaries in design new academic learning experiences. But this is another story.

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