Online communities – notes from the reading group

Amy read Professors share ideas for building community in online courses. The over-arching narrative of this piece was that ‘humanizing learning’ was the most effective was to build online learning communities, which occurs when students connect on a emotional and social level when engaging with the community. The author, Sharon O’Malley, suggest six methods for achieving this:

  1. Let students get to know you – instructors need to present themselves as ‘real people’ – this can be done by appearing goofy or telling genuine anecdotes in videos, for example. Students should also be encouraged to reveal their non-academic lives, in order for others to feel more like they know them personally, rather than just in the learning context
  2. Incorporating video and audio resources and feedback
  3. Meet in real time – students can talk to each other in real time and make instant connections
  4. Work in small groups – students get connected with others in their group – instead of feeling like they’re in a class of fifty, they feel they are in a class of 5, 10 etc.
  5. Require constant interaction – group projects and collaborative writing assignments force students to engage with each other out of the session
  6. Rise to the challenge – building community takes time – it takes planning and experimentation. Stick with it if it doesn’t immediately work!

Roger introduced a Building learning communities card activity. This is an activity from QAA Scotland, designed to stimulate discussion about what helps an effective learning community. The activity cards suggest the following factors:

  • Clearly defined and inclusive values
  • A clearly articulated and shared purpose
  • Clearly articulated and shared purpose goals
  • Active and vibrant interaction
  • Owned and managed by its people
  • Dedicated structure
  • Collaboration
  • Adequate and appropriate support
  • Understood and respected expectations
  • Adequate and appropriate resources
  • Built in evaluation

The instructions ask the group to consider which of these are essential and which are “nice to haves”.   The activity was certainly effective in stimulating discussion in reading group.]

Suzi watched Building Community: A Conversation with Dave Cormier – a recording of an edX webinar from 2014 – video. Here Cormier, who coined the term MOOC, talks to edX about how they could and should use online learning communities.

Cormier talks about four models of learning that you could scale up online:

  • One-to-one (adaptive learning, tutoring on skype?)
  • One-to-many (video lectures on MOOCs)
  • Cooperative learning: many-to-many, all working on the same thing
  • Collaborative learning: many-to-many, shared interest but each with own project

Collaborative learning is the one which he thinks is particularly – perhaps only – served by online communities. The real life equivalent being chaos, or maybe conferences (which, arguably, don’t work well for learning).

He draws the distinction between mastery learning (where skills can be ticked off a list as you progress) and complexity. Communities are not a particularly useful tool for mastery, or for checking who has learnt what. They are much better suited for complexity. This seemed to echo discussions we’d had about the difference between using gamification and using playfulness in learning – gamification being more for mastery, playfulness for complexity.

Cormier offers some tips on building a successful community.

  • A community should have, should move people towards building, shared values and a shared language.
  • Drive participation by having a famous person (but this can become one-to-many) or by asking annoying questions that people can’t resist engaging with (eg “how do we recognise cheating as a valuable part of education?”).
  • Shape participation by assigning roles to people and having course leader presence to set the tone.
  • Give people ways to get to know each other and make connections: recognising who people are and recognising aspects of yourself in them.

His view on evaluation and measuring success might be more specific to the MOOC context. He suggests borrowing techniques from advertising to demonstrate their value (but he doesn’t give details). The outcomes he suggests you might hope for are things like building more interest in your research area, or building the brand of an academic / department / institution.

He also asks some interesting questions. About the authenticity of work we give to students – how will their work persist? Can it be right that so much of students work is destined to be thrown away? About life beyond the community – how will the community persist? Communities are emotional – you shouldn’t just pull the plug at the end.

Lots of this is challenging in an educational context. For instance, communities take time to build but we generally work with units that last for a teaching block at most. Our online Bristol Futures courses only last four weeks. I wonder if this is to do with setting expectations. Perhaps we need thin and thick communities: the thin communities being time-bound but with much more scaffolding and a narrower purpose, the thick communities being more what Cormier is talking about here.

I also read The year we wanted the internet to be smaller (on the growth of niche communities in 2017) and 11 tips for building an engaged online community (practical advice aimed at NGOs). Both are interesting in their own right and worth a read. In both the idea of shared values, shared language and a sense of purpose came up. They also talk also recognition: communities as a place where you find “your people”. This resonates with my positive experiences of online communities but is, again, challenging in an education context. As Suzanne pointed out I think – if the tone and being among “your people” is important you must be able to walk out and find something different if you don’t feel comfortable. And it may be far better that you work with people who aren’t just  “your people”, or at least who don’t start that way.

Suggested reading

Online communities in education

From other sectors

Education communities – articles that are 10+ years old

Suggested listening

Thoughts from a recent GW4 meeting at University of Bath

 

On Friday 23rd March, Mike, Naomi, Robyn, Han and I headed over to Bath for the latest GW4 meeting of minds. As decided in the previous meeting, the main topics for discussion were e-assessment and portfolios, but we also discussed MOOC development and learning analytics. Unfortunately, no one from Exeter could make it up this time, so it was us from Bristol, along with colleagues from Bath and Cardiff. As before, we used Padlets to pool ideas and discussion points as we discussed in smaller groups.

Portfolios 

Portfolios seem to be a common focus (dare I even say, headache). Bath and Cardiff have been using Mahara, and have been trying to overcome some of its limitations in-house. There was a strong feeling that none of us have found a portfolio which delivers what we need, and that if we ganged up on the providers they might be able to find a solution. The next step is to try to define what it is we do need from a portfolio, which tools we use (or have already investigated), and what we can do to find a common solution. Some immediate themes were e-portfolios as assessment tools (and how they integrate with current systems), GDPR implications, students being able to share parts of portfolios externally and internally, and how long students can have access to their portfolio.

MOOCS

As something we all have experience of, to a greater or lesser degree, there was inevitably quite a bit of discussion around MOOCs. We talked about the processes we follow to develop MOOCs, and the different support we provide to academics. For example, Gavin from Bath showed us how he uses Camtasia to produce videos in house; in fact, he was able to knock up an example of such a video in 20 minutes during the session, with mini interviews and shots from the day. We also discussed the data we get from FutureLearn, and how we all find it difficult to do anything with that data. With so much information, and not much time, it tends to become something we’d all like to do more with but never quite find the time for.

The discussion also retuned to an idea we’ve been kicking around GQ4 for a while, that of a collaborative MOOC. We discussed the idea of perhaps making courses for pre-entry undergrads, or students embarking on PhDs, or perhaps staff development and CPD courses for new academics (which Cardiff are already building a bank of in FutureLearn). The idea of creating small modular courses or MOOCS, where each of us could provide a section which is based on our own expertise and interests, was also popular…let’s see how this develops!

E-assessment

Tools and systems around e-assessment was also a common theme. As well as thinking about Blackboard assignments, use of Turnitin and QMP, there was also talk about peer assessment tools and practice and adopting a BYOD approach. It seemed that we all had experiences of e-assessment being very mixed, with huge disparity in adoption and approach within our institutions. We’re all working on e-assessment, it seems, for example our EMA project, which is quite similar to that of Bath. However, other trials are also going ahead, such as Cardiff’s trial of ‘Inspera‘. I think we’re all keen to see what their experiences of that project are, as the Scandinavian approach to e-exams has often been heralded as the future!

What next?

For the future, we discussed more of a ‘show and tell’ approach, where we could get a closer look at some of the things we’re up to. There was also talk of upping our use of communication channels in between meeting in person, particularly using the Yammer group more frequently, and perhaps having smaller virtual meetings for specific topics.

It wasn’t decided who would host the next session, particularly as Exeter weren’t represented, although we did tentatively offer to host here at Bristol. But, seeing as Bath really did set the bar high for lunch expectations – with special mention to the excellent pies and homemade cake – if we do host I think we’d better start planning the food already…!

 

 

MOOCs: what have we learnt? – notes from the reading group

Steve read HEA: Liberating learning: experiences of MOOCs

MOOCs are increasing in popularity. Will this continue? Registrations, drop outs, completions. Will they disrupt HE?

10-person sample size, people who completed Southampton MOOC. Want to understand motivations, opportunities, problems. Discussed findings with five academics who taught/led it. Aware of small scale, so no recommendations – but reflections and suggestions.

Themes from findings:
1 Flexible, fascinating and free – can fit into lives, customise pace, no financial commitment.
2 Feeling part of something – social & international aspect, even for passive ‘lurkers’
3 Ways of learning – prefer sequential over dipping in/out.
4 A bit of proof? – cost sensitivity to purchasing accreditation. Only 1 wanted this.

Four-quadrant model for MOOC engagement, suggests stuff to include. Two axes:
personal enjoyment vs work/education
studying alone vs social learning

Steve also read What are MOOCs Good For?

MOOC boom and bust? High-profile implementation at San Jose failed, inc backlash from academics. General completion/dropout rate  (SB: do we care about drop outs? Most are window shoppers). Experiments and options/opportunities are still expanding. In summary, more data needed but need to moderate expectations – still a place for innovation, also integrating with traditional teaching – take best bits of both?

Roger read: Practical Guidance from MOOC Research: Students Learn by Doing

This is one of a series of blog posts by Justin Reich, who is Executive Director of the Teaching Systems lab at MIT, which ” investigates the complex, technology-mediated classrooms of the future and the systems we need to develop to prepare teachers for those classrooms.”
In this post from July 2015, Justin’s main point is that when developing MOOCs it is better for student learning to focus on development of interactive activities as opposed to high production videos.  He mentions particularly the value of formative peer assessment, synchronous online discussion and simulations “that create learning experiences that students may not have in other contexts”.
If making videos then focus on the early parts of the course, as watching tends to drop off later in courses. There is some evidence that students prefer Khan academy type screencasts with pen animations rather than talking over slides.

Suzi read Why there are so many video lectures in online learning, and why there probably shouldn’t be

The article argues that video is expensive, particularly if you aim for higher production values (which many people do). Their methodology was a literature review, interviews with experts, and studying the use of video in over 20 MOOCs. There’s no evidence that video does (or doesn’t) work as a learning tool, and little or none that high production values add much. Learners wrongly self-report that they learn well from video (cf the study of physics videos – Saying the wrong thing: improving learning with multimedia by including misconceptions

They argue that people should:

  • think twice before using video
  • use video where it really does add value (virtual field trips, creating rapport, manipulating time and space, telling stories, motivating learners, showcasing historical footage, conducting demonstrations, visual juxtaposition)
  • focus on media-literacy for the content experts and DIY approaches (eg filming on mobile phones)

Suzi also read 10 ways MOOCs have forced universities into a rethink

Broadly an argument that MOOCs are changing HE. MOOCs have given universities the impetus to experiment with pedagogy (notably, fewer lectures), assessment, accreditation, and course structure. They have made more common to think in terms of a digital education strategy. They are also disrupting universities: HEIs are no longer the only providers of HE and cheaper degrees are becoming available. They’ve highlighted an unmet demand (for something like evening classes?) and particularly in vocational and practical subjects. Clark talks about global networks of universities being like airline consortia – the passenger buys one ticket but makes their journey over several airlines.

Mike read  ‘7 ways to make MOOCs Sticky’, a blog post by Donald Clark and also ‘Bringing the Social back to MOOCs’ by Todd Bryant in an EduCause review.

The former looked at design to keep a MOOC audience coming back.  The latter looked at how MOOCs can encompass social learning (rather than just provide content). A point of contention between the two is the importance of social learning – overemphasised if you believe Clark and missing from many MOOCs if you believe Todd.

Clark, drawing on MOOC data from Derby’s Dementia MOOC, listed 7 ways to retain learners. For me, his seven points divide into three related areas, audience, structure and the value of social. He framed the discussion in the recognition that we cannot apply metrics from campus courses to things that are free, open and massive  courses. Clark is often a provocative commentator though, and his downplaying of the social is interesting.

An overarching theme of Clark’s post is audience sensitivity, though at times the audience he is most sensitive to seems to be himself. In my experience, this is a tough challenge for MOOCs. To Clark this is about not treating MOOC learners like undergraduates who are ‘physically and psychologically at University’. He rightly states they have different needs and interests. As someone who has helped design MOOCs, it is hard to make something that is all things to all people, and often it is about providing a range of activities, levels and opportunities for learners to engage.

Related to audience sensitivity, Clark sees a value in keeping MOOCs shorter (definitely wise), modular (allowing people to dip into bits), with less reliance on a weekly structure and coherent whole. This is maybe less about keeping learners, and more about allowing them to get what they want from parts of a course. It would be great to come up with ways to evaluate MOOCs for learners who want to take bits of courses. Post-course surveys are self-selecting and largely made up of completers. It is also a tough design challenge to appeal to such learners whilst also trying to deliver depth and growth through a course. Clark is involved in some companies who develop adaptive learning systems, perhaps reflecting a similar philosophy. Adaptive approaches may provide some answers in the future.

Clark is also is not a fan of the weekly structure, at least in terms of following through with a cohort. I think many learners like both the structure and the social, and these is are the main differentiating factors for MOOCs that mean they are not just a set of online materials. Many learners find the event driven, weekly structure motivating, and it is event many enjoy and learn the social element of MOOCs more than the content. I was always keen to draw out the social elements, to give learners the chance to contribute to the course and learn from each other.  Clark is somewhat scathing of social constructivism and the kind of learning emphasised in C-MOOCs.

This is in contrast to Bryant’s article. For Bryant, too many MOOCs are ‘x-MOOCs’ – largely about content and neglecting the social.  Interestingly, he does cite features of EdX and Coursera that have the potential to change this by allowing learners to work in groups and buddy up during courses. We would have really valued such features when I was working on MOOC about Enterprise. FutureLearn is not currently well equipped in this area.  He goes on to explore other ways of helping people collaborate off platform through user groups and crowd sourcing/ knowledge building tools. This would work well for some, but doubtless exclude others. He considers simulations, virtual worlds and ‘alternate reality games’ – simulations played in the real world. These could all play a role, but for me, alongside a core MOOC structure. Bryant sees MOOCs as a potential ‘bridge between open content and collaborative learning’. I suspect Bryant and Clark would value very different kinds of MOOC. Should we try to appeal to both extremes (and all in between) or pitch the MOOC at a particular audience? Probably the latter, but it still isn’t easy.

#EDCMooc – the view from the other side

By Hilary Griffiths

Now the dust has settled I thought it might be useful to post some thoughts on our EDCMOOC experience. Once a week educational technologists, students and academics had the opportunity to meet for a coffee, and to reflect on their experience of participating in a MOOC – these are some of the thoughts expressed during those meetings.

Only two or three of the group had participated in a MOOC before so it’s perhaps unsurprising that the most common reason for participation cited in the first meeting was curiosity – what exactly is it like to be a student on a MOOC?

The general impression after week 1 was one of feeling overwhelmed – both by the range of tools participants were directed to use, the percieved lack of explicit direction or course structure, and the amount of “noise” in the environment. Some participants struggled initially to make sense of how they were expected to use the tools (which were things like Facebook, Google +, and Twitter as well as in MOOC discussion fora.) One participant cited the fact that they didn’t want to have to sign up to Facebook or Twitter but through the ensuing discussion it became clear that given the number of participants you didn’t need to use all of the suggested tools, but could pick a couple you were most comfortable with and still get a good experience of the course.

It was interesting that the participants cited noise as adding to their feeling of being swamped by the MOOC – the sheer amount of information being uploaded, commented on, communicated, microblogged and hyperlinked to was overwhelming, especially if you arrived in a discussion or activity area some time after it had started.  Given the participants use a range of ways to filter and organise the information they receive in their life outside the MOOC, it telling that at least initially they did not seem to apply the same strategies within the MOOC.  Generally better ways to filter and surface activities was seen as key – along with some way of allowing late arrivals to jump in to activities  without having to wade through masses of information, for example a daily digest of key discussion board conversations to allow later arrivals to contribute to the current conversation more easily.

A concern from a current undergraduate student was the perceived lack of validation of her learning. Was she learning what she should be? Was her understanding correct? In the absence of feedback from the MOOC academics the student was relying on a validation by peer consensus in a course where a lack of academic rigour characterised many of the contributions.

My perception was that those who had the most enjoyable and engaged experience of the  MOOC engaged early and managed to form small, self supporting groups which helped reduce information overload and the lack of a present academic by filtering information, alerting group members  to things they may have missed and also offering feedback on their learning. Groups offered a way to move beyond the experience of the central discussion boards,  often characterised by a lot of posts but not a great deal of dialogue,  into an area where participants could start to develop a sense of the experience and expertise of the people they were communicating with. One benefit of the MOOC use of external social media like blogs and twitter are that these conversations can continue after the course has finished.  A final suggestion was that perhaps we should lobby for some kind of advisory service for students to consult before they sign up for a MOOC – MOOCAS anyone ?

6 very good things about MIT’s #medialabcourse MOOC

I started taking MIT’s Media Lab’s Learning Creative Learning MOOC (often referred to as #medialabcourse or LCL) at the beginning of February. It’s something I’ve done in my spare time rather than directly for work but it’s been a great experience and I wanted to reflect on what has worked so well for me.

1. Google+ communities. Google+ turns out to be really rather good for groups and group discussions. The combination of threaded discussion (with email notifications of responses) and micro-blogging type front-page (making it easy to scan through new posts) has certainly promoted impressively engaging and lively discussion. It’s even (and I can’t believe I’m saying this about a Google product) nice to look at.

2. Small groups. People who enrolled in time were placed into small groups, each with its own email list, and each encouraged to set up its own Google+ group. These small groups (my own included) have largely petered-out – but others have survived, often by picking up refugees from the less active groups, and I joined one of those. They provide a safer, less public, arena for discussion – especially for those people who are perhaps less confident or for material that doesn’t seem important / relevant / polished enough to share with the world.

3.Openness. LCL was designed to be almost entirely open, based on P2PU’s mechanical MOOC. Course reading is published on a public website and the main community is an open Google+ group. Weekly emails are sent out to remind people about this week’s activity and reading. Even with the small groups, I get the impression it’s those who left their Google+ communities as open who have survived because they could pick up new members. As well as being a Good Thing, this openness helps to make it easier to navigate the course, and to access the materials from a range of computers and devices.

4. Variety. Each week there are suggested readings, an activity, and further resources. There’s also a video panel discussion, and of course there’s continuous activity and discussion on the Google+ community. Early on the course, the course leaders stated explicitly that people should engage with what they can / what interests them and not feel they have to do everything. The variety of tasks and materials (some of the “readings” are short videos) make it possible to stay engaged even when you have little time to spare.

5. Events. There are live-broadcast panel discussion each week, directly relating to the week’s reading and activity. The video stream for these is embedded within a chat forum so that you can chat with your fellow students while you watch, and submit questions for the Q&A section at the end. These broadcasts feel very personal and inclusive, they are relaxed and conversational in tone. Course moderators join the chat rooms – providing helpful information, support with technical issues, and (maybe more than anything else) a real sense that the online participants do matter. In terms of a teaching device, I’m not sure how well they work – I find myself picking up fragments of the video and fragments of the chat and not properly engaging in either. But they can be useful place to reflect on and refine my ideas and they help give the course a nice pace.

6. Enthusiasm. Mitch Resnik, Natalie Rusk, and the rest of the course team exude enthusiasm for their subject, excitement about the course, and an openness that makes you feel like a real student. They seem friendly and genuinely interested in what online participants are saying. I think their attitude sets the tone for the community as a whole.

Reading group notes: MOOCs

Characteristics of MOOCs (from Wikipedia) – (Roger) – participants distributed, course materials available on the web, built on a connectivist approach, typically free but may charge for accreditation, typical components might be a weekly presentation, discussion questions, suggested further resources, personal reflection and sharing of resources .  I also tried registering for Stephen Downes Change. Mooc.ca– and was interested that the 4 types of activity suggested for the course reflect quite well important aspects of the way I work : these are 1. aggregate , 2. remix  3. re-purpose and 4. feed forward

Disrupting College, Clayton M. Christensen, Michael B. Horn, 2011 (Suzi) – Policy paper arguing that we are in for a massive change (a disruption) in the way HE works and that (amongst other things) the only way for existing institutions to take advantage of this is to create autonomous business units to work in this area.

What Can We Learn From Stanford University’s Free Online Computer Science Courses?, Seb Schmoller, 2011 (Suzi) – Seb’s experiences on the Stanford AI course and his thoughts about what this means for the sector. Stanford will be learning a lot and getting well ahead of the game by running these courses. Other institutions will not be able to get their numbers – collaboration may be the only way to compete.

Suggested reading