Category Archives: etmooc

Posts relating to the educational technology mooc

MOOCs and humanities, revisited

In the last post I discussed how I have come to learn about the different kinds of MOOCs through my participation in etmooc. I also said that through learning about a new kind of MOOC, the cMOOC or “network-based” MOOC, I was reconsidering my earlier concerns with MOOCs. Might the cMOOC do better for humanities than the xMOOC?

A humanities cMOOC

“Roman Ondák”, cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by Marc Wathieu

I haven’t yet decided whether or not one could do a full humanities course, such as a philosophy course, through a cMOOC structure. Brainstorming a little, though, I suppose that one could have a philosophy course in which:

  • Common readings are assigned
  • Presentations are given by course facilitators and/or guests, just as in etmooc
  • Participants are encouraged to blog about the readings and presentations and comment on each others’ blogs (through a course blog hub, like etmooc and ds106 have)
  • Dedicated Twitter hashtag, plus a group on a social network like Google+, and a group on a social bookmarking site like Diigo (see etmooc’s group site on Diigo)
  • Possibly a YouTube channel, for people to do vlogs instead of blogs if they want, or share other videos relevant to the course

Would this sort of structure be more likely to allow for teaching and practice of critical thinking, reading and writing skills, as I discussed in my earlier criticism of MOOCs (which was pretty much a criticism of xMOOCs)? I suppose it depends on what is discussed in the presentations, in part. The instructors/facilitators could model critical reading and thinking, through explaining how they are interpreting texts and pointing out potential criticisms with the arguments. They could talk about recognizing, criticizing, and creating arguments so that participants could be encouraged to present their own arguments in blogs as clearly and strongly as possible, as well as offering constructive criticisms of works being read–as well as each others’ arguments (though the latter has to be undertaken carefully, just as it is in a face to face course).

This would involve, effectively, peer feedback on participants’ written work. Rough guidelines for blog posts (at least some of them) could be given, so that in addition to reflective pieces (which are very important!) there could also be some blog posts that are focused on criticizing arguments in the texts, some on creating one’s own arguments about what’s being discussed, etc.

What you wouldn’t be able to do well with this structure are writing assignments in the form of argumentative essays. These take a long time to learn how to do well, and ideally should have more direct instructor/facilitator feedback rather than only peer feedback, in my view. Peer feedback is important too, but could lead to problems being perpetuated if the participants in a peer group share misconceptions.

Another thing you can’t do well with a cMOOC is require that everyone learn and be assessed on a particular set of facts, or content. A cMOOC is better for creating connections between people so that they can pursue their own interests, what they want to focus on. Each person’s path through a cMOOC can be very different. Thus, as noted in my previous post, there is not a common set of learning objectives; rather, participants decide what they want to get out of the course and focus on that.

One would need to have a certain critical mass of dedicated and engaged participants for this to work. If it’s a free and open course, then people will participate when they can, and can flit in and out of the topics as their time and interest allows. That’s fantastic, I think, though if there are few participants that might mean that for some sections of the course little is happening. So having a decent sized participant base is important. (How many? No idea.)

I envision this sort of possibility as a non-credit course for people who want to learn something about philosophy and discuss it with others. Why not give credit? There would have to be more focus on content and/or more formal assessments, I think (at least in the current climate of higher education).

A cMOOC as supplement to an on-campus course

Even if a full cMOOC course in philosophy or another humanities subject may not work, I can see a kind of cMOOC component to philosophy courses, or Arts One. In addition to the campus-based, in-person course, one could have an open course going alongside it. This is what ds106 is like. One could have readings and lectures posted online (or at least, links to buy the books if the readings aren’t readily available online), and then have a platform for students who are off campus to engage in a cMOOC kind of way.

Then, those off campus can participate in the course through their blog posts and discussions/resource sharing on the other platforms, like we do in etmooc. Discussion questions used in class could be posted for all online participants.  Students who are on campus could be blogging and tweeting and discussing with others outside the course as well as inside the course.

Frankenstein engraved

Frontispiece to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1831),by Theodor von Holst [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. One of the texts on Arts One Digital.

Discussions would expand to include many more people with many more backgrounds and things to contribute, which is likely to enrich the learning experience. There might get to be too much for each individual to follow, but then one just has to learn to pick and choose what to read and comment on (more on this, below). All participants could make connections and continue discussions beyond the course itself.

Arts One has already started to move in this direction, with a new initiative called Arts One Digital. So far, there are some lectures posted, links to some online versions of texts, twitter feed, and blog posts. This is a work in progress, and we’re still figuring out where it should go. I think extending the Arts One course in the way described above might be a good idea.

Again, the main problem with this idea (beyond the fact that yes, it will require more personnel to design and run the off-campus version of the course) is getting a high number of participants. It won’t work well if there aren’t very many people involved–a critical mass is needed to allow people to find others they want to connect with in smaller groups, to engage in deeper discussions, to help build their own personal learning network.

Looking back at previous concerns with (x)MOOCs

Besides general worried about their ability to help students develop critical skills, I was also concerned in my earlier post with the following:

  • In the Coursera Course on reasoning and argumentation (“Think Again”) that I sat in on briefly, I found myself getting utterly overwhelmed by the number of things posted in the discussion board. I complained that I could scroll and scroll just to get through the comments on one post, to get down to the next post, and repeat for each of the thousands of posts. Even for one topic there were just too many posts.
  • I felt that the asynchronous discussion opportunities weren’t as good as synchronous ones, which allow for groups to be in the same mind space at the same time, feeding off each others’ ideas and coming up with new ideas. With asynchronous discussions, one might not get a response to one’s idea or comment until long after one has been actively thinking about it, and then at that point one may not be as interested in discussing it anymore (or at the very least, the enthusiasm level may be different).
  • The synchronous option of Google Hangouts seems to be a promising way to address the previous point, but I noted in my earlier post that there had been some reports of disrespectful behaviour in one or two of those in the “Think Again” course. I said I thought a moderator would be needed for such discussions, just as we have in face to face courses to ensure students treat each other respectfully.

Can a cMOOC address these concerns?

  1. From my experience with etmooc, the discussion does not have to get overwhelming. The thing is, each person focuses on what they want to focus on from the presentations, or from what others have said in their blogs, or from resources shared by others. There is no single “curriculum” that we all have to follow, so it’s not the case that everything posted by each person is relevant to everyone else’s interests and purposes for the course. This could be true of a philosophy or Arts One cMOOC as well, so it could be easier to pick and choose what, amongst the huge stream of things to read and think about, one wants to focus on.
  2. Synchronous discussions are difficult in a large group. In etmooc we have some opportunities for them in the presentations, which allow for people to write on the whiteboard, engage in a backchannel “chat,” and also take the mic and ask questions/offer comments. One could have the presentations have more time for discussion, perhaps, which could take place in part on the chat and in part via audio. It’s not as good as face to face discussions, though–much more fragmented.
  3. Google Hangouts are an alternative, though I haven’t tried doing one in etmooc. Some have, though, and reported success. However, the people taking etmooc are mostly professionals, both teachers and businesspeople, and they are both highly motivated and responsible/respectful. Having Google Hangouts where anyone in the world can show up could be inviting trouble. I don’t see a cMOOC addressing this problem.

cMOOCs in humanities–what’s not to love?

What other problems might there be with trying to do a cMOOC in humanities, whether on its own or as a supplement to another course? Or, do you love the idea? Let us know in the comments.

UPDATE: I just found, in that wonderfully synergistic way that etmooc seems to work, this blog post by Joe Dillon, which explains how well a cMOOC like etmooc stacks up to a face to face course. It’s just one example, but it can provoke some further thought on whether a cMOOC for humanities might be a good thing.

A MOOC by another name

 cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by Cikgu Brian

Last October I posted some criticisms of moocs (massive, open, online courses) in humanities as too massive to really deal well with promoting critical skills in learners.  Recent experience has made me change my mind, but it’s going to take two blog posts to explain. This is the first. (The second is here.)

Part of the issue with MOOCs that I expressed in my earlier post was that they were too content-focused, and seemed most conducive to topics in which that content can be machine-assessed (with multiple-choice or other automate-able question/answer formats). I wondered whether critical thinking, reading, writing and discussing skills could really be done well in a MOOC.

The problem is, at the time I wrote that I fell into the common trap of thinking that MOOCs are a monolithic type of entity. I may, perhaps, be forgiven this as most of the press about MOOCs is about the Coursera/EdX/Udacity type (as Alan Levine notes in a blog post–see below). It was only through participating in etmooc, a mooc about educational technology and media, that I found that there are other options.

Not all MOOCs are equal

One way of distinguishing types of MOOCs (at least at the moment…things are always changing) is to break them down into two categories: xMOOC and cMOOC. What do these categories mean? The “c” in cMOOC stands for “connectivist,” but I am not sure what the “x” in xMOOC stands for. [Update May 27, 2013: This Google+ post by Stephen Downes says he started calling them xMOOCs because of the “x” used in things like EdX–which stands for the course being an extension of regular university course offerings].

See here, here and here for some explanations of the differences between cMOOCs and xMOOCs. [update March 17, 2013:] Here’s an even more detailed discussion of the differences, by George Siemens. Lisa M. Lane has come up with three categories for MOOCs, though I’m not familiar enough with the “task-based” MOOCs to really comment on them.

Alan Levine has a thought-provoking blog post on the numerous experiments in open learning (should we call them MOOCs?) that are going on at the moment, and how they are very different from the xMOOC model. The range of possibilities in courses that are open to anyone and everyone is astounding.

The etmooc course I’ve been participating in since Jan. 2013 is in the cMOOC category (or, in Lane’s three categories, it’s a “network-based” mooc). The “connectivist” aspect of it is obvious, as it seems clear that one of the main points of the course is to help people forge connections in order to learn from each other. There is a set of topics, one every two weeks, with presentations by various people working in those fields (all archived here). But the emphasis is not at all on learning content. Rather, participants are encouraged to watch the presentations they are interested in, and then (and mostly) to interact with the rest of the community in various ways: through twitter (#etmooc), a Google+ community, a community-curated list of links on Diigo, and posting and commenting on blogs (syndicated in an etmooc blog hub, though many of us read them on an RSS reader). We also have a weekly twitter chat (#etmchat) in which we discuss issues related to the topic for the week.

There really is no single “place” where the course is; it exists in the discussions we have with each other, the blog posts and digital stories we create and share, the connections we make with others and the conversations (about etmooc and teaching/learning generally, and other things) that we have. I haven’t watched all the presentations, and don’t plan to. Nor is it encouraged. Over and over we are reminded by the course “conspirators” and other participants that etmooc is driven by our own interests (and our own schedules…some have more time than others), and that there is no such thing as being “behind” in etmooc. You dive in when and where you want, and the most important part is to engage in discussion when you can. Blog, comment on others’ blogs, participate in Twitter and G+, or whichever of those you feel you can do.

Among other things, the “about” page for the course says:

Sharing and network participation are essential for the success of all learners in #etmooc. Thus, we’ll be needing you to share your knowledge, to support and encourage others, and to participate in meaningful conversations.

Without the various conversations going on in and around etmooc, there really wouldn’t be a course at all. It exists in our connections and discussion, in the things we share and the comments we make.

In addition to forging connections, etmooc, and other cMOOCs from what I understand, are focused on content creation rather than passive learning of content. In etmooc we contribute to content creation by writing in our own blogs and commenting on those of others. Recently we did a segment on digital storytelling and we created numerous digital stories (see my blog post here for links to a few examples). Right now we are talking about digital literacy and are invited to participate in Mozilla’s work to develop a framework for web literacy (open to anyone to contribute).

Etmooc also requires self-directed learning–participants must choose what to focus on, what to read, what to write about, whether to keep up on twitter and G+ or not, etc. There is no set of course objectives that are decided in advance, as explained in this conversation about learning objectives and cMOOCs on Storify. Rather, as Alec Couros puts it in that Storify conversation, participants are to develop their own learning objectives. Different people will engage with the course for different reasons, pursue different paths. And that’s the point.

The value of a cMOOC

Does it work? Do people learn? All I have at the moment is anecdotal evidence.

I have learned more in the last few weeks in etmooc than I ever did in any other professional development opportunity. It’s because of the connections and discussions: I read others’ blog posts (only a few a week, really; don’t have time for more), comment, and get conversations going. And the same thing happens now on my blog. My twitter lists have expanded widely, and I am getting so many links to articles, blog posts and other resources that are useful for topics I’m interested in.

I agree with Michelle Franz, though I’d say it’s not just twitter I’m learning from in etmooc:

See also Paul Signorelli’s mid-term reflections on etmooc, where he gives this list of what he has done and learned so far (among other things):

I have become an active part of a newly formed, dynamic, worldwide community of learners; continue to have direct contact with some of the prime movers in the development of MOOCs; had several transformative learning experiences that will serve me well as a trainer-teacher-learner involved in onsite and online learning; and have learned, experientially, how to use several online tools I hadn’t explored four weeks ago.

MOOCs and feedback, interaction

Ted Curran notes in a recent article (found via @jackiegerstein) that MOOCs–or rather, xMOOCs–are “the internet-scale version” of huge  introductory courses at large universities with hundreds of students: “massive, impersonal, and uninspiring exercises.” He notes that this model works well if you want to save money (more students, fewer faculty), but it doesn’t work very well pedagogically. What is needed for both the online and in-person teaching and learning platforms, according to Curran, is more emphasis on faculty interaction with students: “personalized timely feedback and frequent interaction with the teacher is more important to student success than the quality of lecturer, the quality of the textbooks, or the use of technology in courses” (emphasis in original). What MOOCs, and online learning in general, can do is to allow faculty

to automate the less effective activities (lecturing, exams, grading) so they can spend more time interacting with students (discussions, online office hours, targeted interventions when students fail assignments.) In short, online teaching tools let teachers spend more time on students and less time regurgitating content.

I agree that faculty/student interaction in courses can be important; it’s one of the most-cited things that students in Arts One said in a recent survey that they valued about the course. But realistically, is this possible in a MOOC that has thousands of participants? How many faculty can actually interact in a meaningful way with students in a course whose enrollment is upwards of 10,000 students or more?

Enter the cMOOC.

Must the interaction that is necessary to student success come from the instructor? Why not set up and foster a space in which interaction is encouraged amongst participants–indeed, where interaction and discussion are as much of (or more of) the focus as content delivery?

I don’t think the discussion boards on most or all xMOOC courses are enough. Discussion boards are limited as a technology: for example, I think blogs are better for posting lengthy reflections, including links and photos/videos, etc. Following blogs and Twitter feeds also promotes more lasting connections to foster learning after the course is finished. Encouraging participants to blog, comment on blogs, and interact in other ways such as Twitter and Google+ (or similar) has, in my experience with etmooc, worked very well.

The experience is still huge–there are far too many blog posts, tweets, G+ posts to follow. But the conspirators and participants are constantly reminding each other that keeping up with it all is not the point. Again, diving in where and when you want is. That, and creating smaller groups organically, through creating connections–deciding which blogs and twitter accounts to follow regularly, for example. Or creating your own smaller group within the larger group, with its own wiki, as another example.

In etmooc the “conspirators” tweet regularly, join in on some discussions in G+, comment on a few blogs here and there, but they don’t even try to interact with everyone. Instead, they have managed to create a space where participants engage mostly with each other.

Now, a purely connectivist mooc won’t work for all purposes; I’m not arguing for replacing xMOOCs with cMOOCs entirely. After all, in some disciplines there is a certain amount of content that simply must be grasped before one can really engage in meaningful discussions with others about the field. Further, for participants to thrive in a cMOOC, they have to be self-directed learners, as noted above, and not everyone is comfortable with this sort of learning.

But why couldn’t xMOOCs take some ideas from the successes of cMOOCs and incorporate more connectivist principles and practices alongside the traditional methods of learning they tend to use?

MOOCs and the media

Alan Levine points out, in the post linked above, that in mainstream media outlets you won’t hear about many of the “experiments in open courses” that some cMOOCs could be called (including etmooc). While drafting the first part of this post I was also engaging in a Twitter conversation with Rolin Moe (@RMoeJo) about how the hype about MOOCs in the media focuses on one type of MOOC only, even though there are at least two. As he noted, the “connectivist” MOOCs tend to be popular amongst educators, academics, and a few others, and they aren’t winning the PR battle.

The other problem, as we discussed in our twitter conversation, is that cMOOCs are often run by volunteers, because they believe in open learning, and there isn’t much in the way of trying to monetize the efforts. That doesn’t make for interesting news, apparently.

A different name?

Since mainstream media has hijacked “MOOC” to mean xMOOC, perhaps it’s time to call the cMOOC something else? Which is ironic, since apparently the whole idea of MOOCs started with cMOOCs (see “connectivist MOOCs” here).

Nevertheless, would a new name help to avoid the confusion? Or is it enough to try to push the xMOOC vs cMOOC distinction?

*** Update March 14, 2013 *****

I just found this blog post by David Kernohan that points to a third option: open boundary courses, in which an on-campus course is opened to outside participants (usually not for credit). It seems to me the “open boundary” courses could be either more like cMOOCs or more like xMOOCs in structure.

Resources on rhizomatic learning

For anyone interested in rhizomatic learning, as discussed in my earlier blog posts (here, and here), you might also be interested in the following.

I recently came across this glossary entry for “rhizome,” via a tweet by George (@reticulatrix). It is from a Theories of Media Keywords glossary, which appears to have been created by students in a course from 2004. I found this discussion of rhizomes extremely clear and grounded in theory. Especially helpful is the contrast between rhizomatic models and “tree” models.

In addition, through a comment on one of my blog posts, I found this blog, by Keith Hamon, called Communications and Society. It’s subtitled, “A blog to support Keith Hamon’s explorations of the rhizome,” and there are many, many posts there about rhizomatic learning. He discusses numerous theorists whose views are relevant to this topic. I plan to spend some serious time exploring Keith’s posts. He has continued the conversation started on my blog over at his, and he recently joined etmooc. I look forward to learning more with him!

Finally (though this does not exhaust the resources out there, I’m sure), I found this article by Tanya Sasser over at Hybrid Pedagogy. In this article, entitled “Bring Your Own Disruption: Rhizomatic Learning in the Composition Class,” Sasser argues for a rhizomatic learning approach to first year composition courses. It’s a good example of how to apply rhizomatic learning to a writing course. I have to think about it more carefully, but I plan to comment on this article soon. I am in agreement with the basic idea, but still am a little hesitant. Probably that’s because I’ve been fully immersed in, and convinced by, the idea of using rubrics and step-by-step learning for teaching writing. Still, I’m questioning at least the rubrics part–see this post.

Do you have any other rhizomatic learning resources you’d like to share? Please post them in the comments!

(etmooc) Digital Storytelling, you’re looking better every day

In a recent post I explained that I just haven’t been very into digital storytelling, the second topic in etmooc. While many of the other participants have been busy creating animated gifs, 5 card stories, photo stories and more, I just wasn’t engaged enough to try to do much myself.

But then something happened. Well, Cogdog (Alan Levine) happened.

He gave a presentation on digital storytelling for etmooc, which I was able to join live. I’m not sure what was so inspiring about it, really–he introduced some tools, talked about how to write stories, asked some of the participants to play pechaflickr during the session. But somehow, partway through, I started getting excited.

Probably it was Cogdog’s enthusiasm. He just is so into storytelling, and digital storytelling, that I thought, well, there must be something to this. His excitement was infectious. I caught it.

The part of the presentation that really got me, though, was when he talked about how professional writing could be more like storytelling, that we could provide information, but do it in a more engaging way. He cited a book by Randy Olson called Don’t be Such a Scientist, which discusses the need for scientists to reach a broader audience and the power of storytelling to help do so. Olson was a professor at a university and then moved into filmmaking, and argues that scientists could learn a lot from the world of storytellers, in order to make what they do more accessible.

So could philosophers

And it hit me that this could be a great way to try to make my class lectures, the presentations I do for classes more engaging. I already try to ensure I don’t do too much lecturing and also have a good deal of activities for students to engage in during class time, discussions, working together in groups, etc. But why not find a way to make the lectures themselves more like stories?

This is challenging, but it’s a challenge I’m suddenly wanting to take on. I just needed to find something that I felt passionate about, and getting students as excited as I am about philosophy is that something.

Why not start small, by trying to incorporate some of the aspects of good storytelling practice in some lectures (it will take awhile to change many or all of them!). Why not, for example, start with a hook, something that draws people in, present an obstacle, resolve it, and then set up for a new story? (As discussed here, where storytelling meets math.) This could be done fairly easily without requiring too much in the way of time or learning new technological tools.

But there’s more

Somehow I also got excited about the digital part of digital storytelling. I mean, I started to want to spend time with some of the tools. I started coming up with ideas for stories–like telling the story of a recent trip to New Zealand (some of the photos are posted on flickr, though the ones with people are private), or the story behind the name of this blog–and I was motivated to look around Cogdog’s 50+ ways to tell a digital story site to find tools that would work.

My previous reluctance was due to numerous reasons, but partly because I didn’t want to put a lot of time into learning a new tool and creating something with it, only to discover that in a couple years’ time the tool would disappear. It’s hard to know which of these applications will stick around and which will die off. It seemed a waste of time.

But then in his presentation Cogdog pointed out: sure, some of the tools will disappear, but you will still have all your source photos, video, text, transcripts, etc., and it’s not that hard to create the story again in something new. Good point. I’m still worried about making things for my son that will still be viewable 20 or 30 years down the road, so I’m making a photo book that will be printed; that way, technology obsolescence won’t destroy it (though dirt, water, and forgetting it in a box might).

A true story

So I got up this morning and re-recorded my “true story of open sharing” for Cogdog’s collection. I tried to start with something that was a little more engaging … “I got a comment on my blog.” Okay, that’s not very exciting in itself, but it could make you think about what sort of comment on my blog could lead me to want to tell a story. It might get people wondering.

The rest of the story is rather like it was before, but at least it’s a start. And I played around with iMovie (an application that comes with Mac computers) to add in a couple of titles, at the beginning and end, and put in some transitions from the titles to the video.

 I spent a good deal of time trying to lessen the background noise–an airplane, and my husband trying to get the pilot light on the gas fireplace lit. (I was originally going to film this in front of our fireplace, with the gas flames going, but it’s summer here in Australia and we turned off the pilot light. Turned out there was a trick to getting it back on and it took awhile to figure out! So I just filmed outside instead). I couldn’t really get the background noise gone completely without making my voice sound very, very strange. But it is better than it was.

Then, I put the video into Mozilla Popcorn maker, because I wanted to include some relevant links (e.g., to my home page, to my blog). Here’s the result.

Okay, so it took me a couple hours longer than I thought it would, but now I have the hang of Popcorn Maker. And special thanks to Glenn Hervieux (@SISQITMAN), who came to my aid on Twitter when I ran into a problem with it!

(etmooc) Digital Storytelling, I’m just not that into you …

… and I’m not sure why. So I decided to work on a post to try to write my way to understanding my reticence.

We’re now into topic two of etmooc, on digital storytelling. What is digital storytelling?

Storytelling, by Surian Soosay (Flickr; links below)

According to a University of Houston site,

Digital Storytelling is the practice of using computer-based tools to tell stories. … [A]s the name implies, digital stories usually contain some mixture of computer-based images, text, recorded audio narration, video clips and/or music.

Storytelling is an art

It’s not just about putting together a video through, e.g., Mozilla popcorn maker or putting some photos to music with Animoto. It’s not just about finding and learning how to use the many, many tools available for digital storytelling.

As Alan Levine (@cogdog) notes in his reply to a tweet during a recent etmooc twitter chat (#etmchat), the tools aren’t the most important thing:

The difficult part of digital storytelling is storytelling itself (as noted in this post). Determining what story you want to tell and how to tell it (regardless of the media used) are the hard parts. Finding the digital tools to use to tell it generally come after you’ve figured out what you want to tell (though Amy Burvall intriguingly suggests the opposite may work as well). But first, you have to know how to create art, not crap. And that’s hard to do. (One might start by looking at the Digital Storytelling Cookbook by Joe Lambert, a partial view of which is available for free on this site.)

I think that’s one of the main reasons I’m not really as engaged in this part of etmooc as I was in the “connected learning” section–I feel like I would need to know more about how to not create crap, yet all I think I’m really getting so far is a list of tools and examples of how they’ve been used. I suppose one can learn a lot from just watching examples of good stories being told, absorbing ideas on how to do it through those. But to be quite honest, I just am not into spending the time to do that. For it does take a lot of time–not just to learn the various tools to figure out which one you might want to use for a story, but also to figure out how to tell a story well. This could be a real time sink, and I have too many other things on my plate at the moment.

The other issue is that I don’t see myself using these methods and tools in my philosophy courses very much. I’m willing to spend the time needed for things I foresee using in courses, but I’m not seeing that for digital storytelling. I really value the written, argumentative essay format that we tend to focus on in philosophy courses. I don’t think it’s the only thing that anyone should ever use to make a point, but it can be a very effective way to make clear, concise arguments. And it takes a lot of practice to do well, which is why I emphasize a good deal of writing in my courses (and am working on how to teach it better, with more scaffolding, so that students work through the process step by step).

Value of digital storytelling

This isn’t to say that I can’t imagine using digital storytelling to make arguments in philosophy. On the contrary, I can imagine students telling stories like this one, or this one, or this one in courses where we discuss current events, ethical, social and political issues. I agree with Alan Levine when he notes in this video that “if you want to motivate, or inspire, persuade, stand out, be different, touch people, then tell a story.” I think that some philosophical arguments can be made even more strongly, perhaps, with a story (and a digital story wouldn’t hurt, because it can be shared so easily across the web). I see that.

I also see Alec Couros point here that

Storytelling may give voice to individuals and groups who have been oppressed by a culture of literary dominance.

This is important–some people’s voices may get lost if we emphasize only reading and writing, if all we ever produce are written documents to make our points.

My apology

And yet, I’m still reticent. I think it’s because:

  • Storytelling is hard
  • I don’t know how I’d teach students to do it, plus use tools, in a 13 week course that is too short already
  • Storytelling is hard and I’m not sure I know how to teach it

That last point is easy, right? Just read some things, watch a lot of digital stories, and practice, practice, practice yourself and you’ll figure it out. That’s probably true; but somehow, even after recognizing all of the above, I still just don’t feel excited enough to want to put the time in to do all that.

And I still really like and want to teach students how to do well at writing argumentative papers. Regardless of all of the above, that is still a valuable skill to have, and it’s something I know a good deal about already. I feel like I want to let others focus on digital storytelling in their courses if it grabs them as something they want to do, and I’ll still focus on writing. And that way, hopefully, students can get different options in different courses.

But why do I feel I must apologize for this, explain it, defend it? I suppose it feels like the written argument is already overdone, something that has been emphasized over and over in education, and now it’s time for something new, better and more inclusive. Writing argumentative essays does leave some people’s voices out, those who aren’t good, for whatever reason, at expressing themselves this way. And it is not always as good at capturing and inducing emotional reactions as something like digital storytelling. So it’s not good for every purpose.

But neither is digital storytelling, of course (as I expect those who promote it will also recognize). And for some people, it just doesn’t resonate as much as a good, clear, strong argument–e.g., for me.

I am a little into you

Of course, being not “that” into something can also mean one is still a little into it. I did play around with some six word stories (okay, one of them was three words) during the past week or so, and I really enjoyed that medium (note: no need to spend time learning new tools, since I already know how to use Twitter).


This one was about trying to put our rubbish bag in a place where animals couldn’t get to it. Impossible: either the possums climb the tree or the wallabies jump to the bag. You can imagine the results.

This one isn’t, strictly speaking, true–I did have conversations on my blog and Twitter before etmooc. But I have many, many more conversations now. So I used “soliloquy” for dramatic effect.

[This superhero pic and story were added Feb. 18, 2014] I haven’t done this myself, but I’ve also really enjoyed the six-word stories that others have been doing with images as well as text. Here’s one of my favourites, from Margaret A. Powers (see the blog post about the origin of this story herethese superheroes are window washing at a children’s hospital).

Six word story from Margaret Powers

Also, I plan to use Mozilla Popcorn Maker to add some things to a true story of openness video I created for Alan Levine’s collection. I’ll upload that here later, when it’s done. [Actually, I ended up putting it into another blog post.]

Finally, I have a kind of digital story of my own etmooc experience (ongoing, in process) over at Storify.

Warming a little more

In addition, by writing this post and watching some more digital stories in order to find good ones to link to this post, I have come to recognize that using digital stories would be a much better medium that written essays for making philosophical arguments that might actually have more of an impact on large numbers of people. Since I do have a great interest in philosophical discussions and philosophical thinking and reflection not being just something academics engage in, then creating more digital arguments myself, and encouraging students to do so, would be a good thing. Then our conversations about philosophical issues could more easily extend beyond the classroom. I can envision students creating digital stories, posting them online, and engaging in conversations with others who see them. I can imagine using digital stories created by others in my courses and then having students respond to them, comment, create their own stories as part of a conversation. It could be the start of an interesting conversation for the students and for others. I can certainly see the potential.

This won’t work for every course, though; sometimes you just have to write a clear argument to explain just why and how a certain part of someone else’s argument doesn’t work, referring exactly to the words said, page numbers, others’ arguments, etc. And I won’t give up on the emphasis on writing argumentative essays, either; it’s just that I can see the value in asking students to produce a digital story for one of their assignments in addition to writing papers.

Back to the beginning

Still, that adds on more work for them, too, in an already-crowded, 13-week term. They’d have to learn a new tool and learn how to tell a story well. And it would mean I’d have to figure out myself what makes for a story that is not crap, which I am still not yet excited enough to take the time to learn. So I’m back to my original problem.

Thus, for now, I am ambivalent. Perhaps I am in the minority, in that telling and watching digital stories just isn’t that engaging for me. And perhaps that is either my personality or years and years of training in text-based philosophy.

Does anyone else fell similarly? Or perhaps you can offer me more arguments why it would be worth it to try to push past my ambivalence?


Photo credit: Storytelling, CC-BY license (2.0), shared by ssoosay


etmooc: Rhizomatic learning–a worry and a question

Socrates Eyes, by pj_Vanf, Flickr (links below)

In my previous post I talked about the notion of “rhizomatic learning” and how it might be implemented in a philosophy course. Here I bring up a worry and a question, things that came up for me after I thought about this idea further.

A worry

I worry that rhizomatic learning, at least as I described it in the previous post, might promote learning within already-established interests, beliefs, values, etc. What I mean is, if one were to let students create their own PLN’s and focus only on things they are interested in, it may be less likely that they’ll stretch the boundaries of what they already believe and value, and the assumptions underlying their views will go unquestioned. One of the many roles that instructors can have is to goad students into investigating and questioning their own beliefs, values and assumptions–as we philosophers might put it, to act as Socratic gadflies.

In my own connected, networked learning experiences I have tended to focus on those people who agree with me, on sites that talk about things I’m already interested in, etc. If I am pursuing what is most meaningful to me in my current state of being, as rhizomatic learning suggests, then I am missing things that might be meaningful in the sense of jarring me, showing problems with my assumptions, and perhaps also pointing out that the way I am speaking and acting might be contributing to exclusion or oppression of others.

This kind of problem could occur with any practice that focuses wholly or mostly on getting students to pursue their own learning paths according to their own interests. If we only ask them to look into what seems most interesting, what they’re excited about, they might miss out on exposure to things that they aren’t interested in but that can really be valuable for them in terms of thinking critically about their own views.

Two things came to my attention this week that really brought this concern out for me.

First, I received this post from the Tomorrow’s Professor email list (the link to the post is to a blog that’s hard to read because there are no paragraph breaks; it’s easier to read once it’s at the Tomorrow’s Professor site, but it’s not there yet. Soon it should be: search for post 1225). It’s from a book by Mark Tennant called The Learning Self: Understanding the Potential for Transformation (Jossey-Bass, 2012). In this excerpt, Tennant talks about different ways of conceiving of autonomy and what it means to promote autonomy for students in teaching and learning. I won’t summarize the whole thing here, but just look at a couple of parts of it.

In the first part of the post, Tennant discusses the “humanistic” version of learner autonomy, which (he claims) underlies “learner-centred” educational practices inspired by Carl Rogers, among others. Tennant quotes Pratt and Nesbit (2000) on the topic of learner-centred education:

This was an important discursive shift….Now content, and the specification of what was to be learned, was subordinate to the learner’s experience and participation….Learners were to be involved in specifying what would be learned, how it would be learned, and what would be an appropriate indication of learning….The learner’s experience, as a form of foundational knowledge, replaced the teacher’s expertise as the primary compass that guided learning. As a consequence, the primary role of teacher shifted from teacher-as-authority to teacher-as-facilitator (p. 120).

In the learner-centred view, the instructor is a neutral, nonjudgmental facilitator.

 In the last part of the excerpt, on “critical” autonomy, Tennant notes that those who adhere to the “critical theory” view of teaching (e.g., Stephen Brookfield and Jack Mezirow),

… don’t accept at face value the beliefs and values of learners—quite the contrary, the whole point of education is, they believe, to challenge accepted beliefs and values. …. In the critical theory approach the teacher is anything but neutral, always challenging learners’ assumptions within a framework that recognizes the power of social forces to shape needs, wants, and desires.

Much of the point with critical theory is not just to question assumptions and how one has been socialized, but to do so in order to combat inequality and oppression–it can often be the case that the dominant discourses in which one is raised and feels comfortable, that shape one’s assumptions and beliefs, perpetuate oppression in subtle ways that are not obvious unless pointed out.

The second thing I came across this week was a blog post by @Edu_K, which raised the issue of rhizomes easily becoming “weeds” in the sense of taking over gardens:

Bamboo and other rhizomatic plants are great at spread, survival and colonisation of new territories. But as ecologists and gardeners know, if unchecked they become weeds and can dominate and suppress a plant community or a garden instead of enriching it. They are also clones – the rhizomes produce exact copies of the ‘mother’ plant.

So instead of free exploration and exchange of ideas leading to rich and unpredictable learning – the story of rhizomatic learning can equally be a story of domination and monoculture, with rarer and more delicate ‘flowers’ getting pushed out, suppressed – not able to grow.

To me, this sounded like what can happen in face-to-face courses, where ideas that are shared by many end up becoming dominant, either because those who disagree aren’t comfortable speaking up because they may feel they are alone, or because of the power of popular views to seem right and gain more and more adherents–creating clones. Similar things can, of course, happen in larger groups of connected persons.

I suppose this concern with rhizomatic learning could be mitigated through ensuring that one’s networks have people in them who act as gadflies, who make good arguments on the “other” sides of what one already thinks, who point one to new resources that make one reconsider one’s beliefs–even if only to decide one’s original beliefs are right and reaffirm them. And somehow encouraging ourselves and others to listen to those people, rather than rejecting them out of hand (as happened with many people in their encounters with Socrates, if Plato is to be believed). But if that is hard enough for us to do as instructors (at least it is for me), then it’s likely hard for our students to do as well. And we can’t do it for them.

A question

The more I think about it, it seems that rhizomatic learning is something many people do for much of their lives–at least insofar as we have connections with others, we are often continually learning from them, and forming new connections when we need to learn new things. The technologies of the 21st century have made our capacity for connections grow exponentially, so we are no longer able to connect only with those that we already know, or can be introduced to by those we do know. We can connect much more quickly and easily with potentially thousands of people around the world.

But if it’s the case that many people often learn through connections with others, whether within or outside of educational institutions, then why not think of the courses we teach as just part of the connections students are making in terms of their lives as a whole?  They have connections with their family, friends, people on social media, their fellow students, and also with us as professors. We, and our classes, are another connection in their lives.

Some of those connections, on blogs and Twitter and more, will speak as experts, as authorities, as providing top-down information transfer. Why can’t we do some of that in our courses too, since we do have useful information to share, and still think of their whole learning process as rhizomatic, even if in our particular course the learning is more top-down rather than lateral? This isn’t to say that there might still be areas in which the teaching and learning should, appropriately, be more rhizomatic (though the above concern still holds), but rather to say that maybe all learning is part of a bigger network each person experiences in their lives (or rather, one of a series of continually changing networks, to keep to the rhizome idea).

I don’t know if this is a criticism of rhizomatic learning or not, since Cormier specifically says it’s not appropriate for all teaching situations so information-transfer in courses sometimes is appropriate. But perhaps even that is part of a larger sense of rhizomatic learning?


I’d love to hear your thoughts on my concern and my question(s)! Are there dangers with learner-centred models such that they don’t emphasize enough the important role an instructor could play as gadfly, or the need to seek out gadflies? Is most or all learning already rhizomatic?

——– UPDATE ———-

In a Google+ conversation, Shuana Niessen said the following about this post: “This Ted talk ( adds to the problem of learning that caters to our own interests and choices rather than challenging us to move beyond.”

This is a TED talk by Eli Pariser, talking about how search engines and other applications (like Facebook) filter internet content for each one of us differently, based on our activity within them. Obviously, this is for marketing purposes, but the result is that we may think we have access to all kinds of information, views on different sides of issues, etc., and we are finding a path of our own through that. But often our access is very small, actually, filtered already before we even get to it. Thus, it’s hard to do rhizomatic learning well in the current internet environment, because we may not even be able to make the connections or find the information that would help us think more critically.

The filter bubble website and blog has much more information on this. Thanks to Shuana for pointing all this out to me…I had heard of the issue, but didn’t know about Pariser and his work.


Image: Socrates Eyes, by pj_Vanf; CC-BY 2.0


Works cited

Pratt, D.D. & Nesbit, T. (2000). Discourses and Cultures of Teaching. In E. Hayes and A. Wilson (Eds), Handbook of Adult and Continuing Education, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

etmooc: Rhizomatic learning in philosophy courses

I recently watched Dave CormiersIntro to rhizomatic learning” presentation as part of my participation in etmooc. Here, I’ll explain what rhizomatic learning is as briefly as I can, discuss what it might look like in a university level philosophy course, and ask a few questions.

In the next post I explore a possible critique that I’ve been mulling over. I’m not just assuming here that rhizomatic learning is a good thing (though obviously I find it interesting enough to write about), but rather just at this point examining the idea to help me better work to evaluate it.

What is “rhizomatic learning”? (according to Cormier)

I expect there are numerous views on what rhizomatic learning (or rhizomatic education) are, so I’ll just stick to Cormier’s view here for the sake of clarity. The following is just a brief summary of some parts of his view. If you would like more details, you can watch Cormier’s presentation for etmooc on YouTube, or read his paper on the topic, published in 2008 and posted on his blog, called “Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum.”

In his etmooc presentation, Cormier started off by suggesting that the “best learning” has to do with helping people deal with uncertainty, to figure out how to make decisions and choose the paths they should take when faced with situations in which the outcomes are uncertain. Education is tricky because we don’t know exactly what sorts of knowledge will be needed in the future, the changes different fields will undergo, the changes new technologies will bring, etc. So encouraging good decision-making and creative problem-solving skills, as well as the ability to continually guide one’s own learning to gain new knowledge as needed, are critical.

Cormier then introduced the idea of the rhizome, and rhizomatic learning, as “a model for learning for uncertainty.” I didn’t remember what “rhizomes” were, as it’s been quite some time since I took a botany course, and I’m not much of a gardener. Here’s what I found: some plants (such as ginger, hops, asparagus, and bamboo) have rhizomes, which are stems that are usually underground, and that have nodes from which the plant can move upwards to create above-ground stems, leaves, etc. So, if you have some asparagus in your garden, for example, you won’t just get one clump of it; the rhizomes underground will move horizontally and you will get above-ground asparagus stems popping up in numerous places.

by Rhian vK

“Iris Rhizomes,” by Rhian vK, from Flickr (links below)


A rhizomatic plant has no center and no defined boundary; rather, it is made up of a number of semi-independent nodes, each of which is capable of growing and spreading on its own, bounded only by the limits of its habitat. (Cormier (2008), “Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum”)

Rhizomes are very resilient as well; such plants are very difficult to get rid of, in part because new shoots can arise even if you break up the rhizome. As Cormier put it in his etmooc presentation: you can take any part of a rhizome and drop it somewhere else, and the plant will start to grow again. This idea of propagating laterally, rather than horizontally, is important in Cormier’s view of rhizomatic learning–this sort of learning takes place through connections made amongst groups of people, forming a network, rather than through knowledge or information-transmittal through experts (top-down) such as instructors or researchers publishing in peer-reviewed journals. Since in many fields “[i]nformation is coming too fast for our traditional methods of expert verification to adapt,” it makes sense to develop environments where “collaborative learning construction” can take place (Cormier (2008), “Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum”). Such environments include wikis, collaborative documents, as well as environments such as the “personal learning networks” made possible by sharing tools such as Twitter, blogs, social bookmarking and social curation sites, and more. In these collaborative spaces individuals come together in various groups to learn and to create knowledge. Each individual may be a member of multiple groups, and these groups form, change, disband, reform continually.

Cormier also gets some of his ideas for rhizomatic learning from Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. I haven’t read the book, but found these brief notes on Deleuze & Guattari’s notion of rhizomes useful (I got think link from a google doc linked to a post on Dave Cormier’s blog).

My sense of rhizomatic learning at this point, then, is that it is the sort of thing that is happening in etmooc, as well as informally by many, many people around the globe working with the kinds of social tools noted above, but also working in face to face situations with others. It’s probably the kind of learning most of us do in lives outside of educational institutions.

But Cormier seems to be arguing for it also to be part of more “formal” education. Instead of instructors creating a curriculum in advance that is the same for every student in the course, the community of learners constructs the curriculum.

In the rhizomatic model of learning, curriculum is not driven by predefined inputs from experts; it is constructed and negotiated in real time by the contributions of those engaged in the learning process. This community acts as the curriculum, spontaneously shaping, constructing, and reconstructing itself and the subject of its learning in the same way that the rhizome responds to changing environmental conditions. (Cormier (2008), “Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum”)

Note that in this quote Cormier says the community not only creates the curriculum, it is the curriculum, an idea he reiterated in his etmooc presentation. I am not entirely sure what he means by this, but perhaps the thought here is that as the community changes (and it is always changing–if not in terms of people coming and going, then in terms of what people say and do in it, what they share and discuss, never remaining static), so does the curriculum. “A curriculum for a course is something that can be created in time, while a course is happening,” Cormier says in a blog post called Rhizomatic Learning: Why we Teach”.

What is the role of the instructor in rhizomatic learning environments? Here’s what Cormier says:

The role of the instructor in all of this is to provide an introduction to an existing professional community in which students may participate—to offer not just a window, but an entry point into an existing learning community. (Cormier (2008), “Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum”)

In rhizomatic learning environments, then, what is learned and how is shaped by a community of learners, and this changes constantly. I imagine that for a formal educational environment, one could have students set out what they’d like to investigate, help them with the tools they can use to investigate it and to form a community of people to help (a “personal learning network,” e.g.). I also imagine using a grading contract; that’s exactly what Cormier did with one of his courses last year.

When is rhizomatic learning appropriate?

Is Cormier suggesting that all learning should take place through the rhizomatic model? Definitely not. He said in his etmooc presentation that for learning situations in which specific kinds of knowledge must be gained, rhizomatic learning is the wrong way to go. In addition, if a body of knowledge that needs to be learned is stable, then rhizomatic learning may not be appropriate and information transfer more so. Also, as Phil Macoun noted in a blog post, if there are certain basic principles and foundational information needed in a field before learners can really benefit from discussions within a wider network of other learners, researchers and practitioners, then more “traditional” learning approaches would seem to be best for those earlier steps.


 Cormier explained this point in his etmooc presentation by using the Cynefin decision-making framework from Dave Snowden. Explaining this framework would take an entire blog post in itself, but thankfully Cormier has a post that does so. Rhizomatic learning is appropriate for situations that fall into the “complex” part of the framework, where, as Cormier puts it, there are no clear “right answers.” There is no obvious “best practice,” and we can’t just turn to experts to find out what to think, what is right to do, or what counts as true knowledge. Snowden says in the video linked above that in the complex domain, outcomes are uncertain and unpredictable; cause and effect relationships can’t be known in advance, only in hindsight. One can only engage in experiments and see what happens to determine the best course. This is the domain where novel practices and knowledges are tested and may be adopted, instead of seeking to find already-established solutions from experts. The Cynefin framework is much more complicated than this, but I won’t go into its other parts here.

This is enough to suggest that rhizomatic learning is not so great, perhaps, for basic mathematical skills or some aspects of science education, but it might, on the other hand, be useful for philosophy. We deal in questions that are still open in many ways (though there are some recognized procedures and accepted truths, there is much that is still negotiated and a good deal of room for novel approaches and arguments).

Rhizomatic learning in philosophy

What would rhizomatic learning look like in a postsecondary philosophy course?

For an introduction to philosophy course, e.g., one might allow students to identify what philosophical questions they are interested in, and then provide them with the tools to find out what others have said about those questions and to formulate their own response. The common instruction in the class could be on things like: what common philosophical questions are and a chance to develop your own if you don’t want to pursue one of those; what arguments are, how to evaluate them, and how to construct your own; how to write philosophy essays, etc. Then students could spend part of the class time and part of their own time doing research to work on their questions.

I can imagine this happening in groups within the class, so students interested in the same areas could work together, and thereby build a small network. Then the groups could create wikis, videos, slideshows, or use other means to share what they have found with the rest of the class; individuals could share what they have developed as their own views on the questions separately, perhaps.

The professor could also suggest web resources for certain kinds of questions, and any social networks related to people interested in philosophical issues, as well as social bookmarking sites that might have good links.

This could work for an intro to philosophy course in which the students involved don’t need to gain knowledge of the history of philosophy so much as get a taste of what philosophers do. For courses that are required for majors, and in order for students to take more upper-level courses that rely in part on knowledge of certain aspects of the history of philosophy, then a more focused approach is required to ensure that students are exposed to the necessary authors and texts.

Questions and concerns:

— I can think of a few websites with philosophy information that would be good for introductory-level students, but not many. Of course, they could work to find others that I don’t know about. It would help if there were more open educational resources available in philosophy.

— I’m not sure how I would introduce students into a wider social network of people that could help them with their questions. I guess I could try to include more philosophy teachers in my own PLN (so far it’s mostly people talking about education generally), and connect students that way. Ideally, I would help them connect with other students investigating similar issues (outside the course), so they could learn and generate knowledge together…but I honestly don’t have a clue how I might go about doing that.

— Why only point them to other websites and other people to connect with? Am I not a good connection to have, and shouldn’t I share my own knowledge as part of this community creation of knowledge? Perhaps the idea is to work more one-on-one with individuals or groups on their own projects, and be part of their network that way? That would be fantastic, if only it were possible in intro-level philosophy courses in a large university (ours are about 150 students or so). They can work together as teams on specific questions, but I don’t have time to offer directed help to each team.

— How is this different from students getting together in groups to do research projects and then presenting them to the rest of the class? Is it that one should be helping them develop a larger network to discuss their projects in, rather than just doing research and discussing within the small group?

— If the previous point is the case, then I see this being difficult to do in a short (13-15 week) course. Building that kind of network takes a long time, and then discussing things within it takes awhile too…I doubt there would be time to do it in a single semester/term.

Your comments

 I’m wondering if I’ve misconstrued anything about rhizomatic learning here, or if there are other ways it might be used in a course like philosophy. Or any thoughts about my questions, above?


“Iris Rhizomes,” by Rhian vK, CC-BY 2.0, via Flickr

Cynefin Framework, CC-BY-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

etmooc: Are moocs learner centred?

There have been too many great #etmooc tweets to mention, and I’m trying to keep track of my favourite tweets and posts in a growing Storify board. But this particular post is focused on a conversation begun by the following tweet from Christoph Hewett:

Keith Brennan wrote a nice post on this issue, replying to Christoph’s tweet, called The sense of self, how a MOOC can make or undermine you. Christoph’s tweet, and Keith’s reply, have got me thinking. Here are some results of that thinking.


Keith gives a nice definition of learner-centred learning:

Learner centred learning takes account of, and speaks to the differeing [sic] needs, requirements, and contexts of the students we engage with.

He then focuses on how taking into account students’ prior knowledge (and variations therein) must be a major part of making courses student-centred. In addition, he explains the idea of self-efficacy, from psychologist Albert Bandura, and how factoring in prior learning can enhance learner’s sense of self-efficacy. As Keith puts it,

Self efficacy is, simply put, your confidence in your own ability, and capacity to succeed at a task, as well as belief that the task is achieveable due to the contexts, tools, constraints and the overall situation.

[As an aside, I am thankful to Keith for pointing me to this idea, as I hadn’t heard it before and it’s very useful for thinking about why some students seem to lose faith and heart and just drop out of courses, whether officially or unofficially. I need to look into the self-efficacy notion further to see if there is something about the way my courses are structured, or about how I’m teaching them, that could lower some students’ self-efficacy.]

Keith then went into some suggestions for how to make etmooc more responsive to prior learning and thus more supportive to self-efficacy, such as: setting up a series of clear paths for learning and tasks to measure one’s progress, being sure to have resources ready for common problems faced by novices to the technology being introduced, structuring the teaching into clear chunks (since novices often prefer specificity to freedom), and more.

These are all useful ideas for helping some people feel that the course is more learner-centric, and that they can succeed. And, as Keith notes, those of us who want less specificity or don’t want to follow directed paths to learning can just ignore those things and learn what and how we wish.

Further thoughts

I want to think a little differently about Christoph’s original tweet, the idea that cMOOCs are crowd-centric rather than learner-centric. When Christoph said that, I thought immediately of a MOOC I sat in on a little while ago, which was more the “traditional” type of MOOC, with very structured learning paths, videos to watch, quizzes to take, etc. It was most definitely a content-delivery course.Crowd Photo by James Cridland, from

I can see that that sort of MOOC could be said to be more crowd-centric in the sense that the learning is the same for the crowd–the content is provided centrally, and it’s the same for everyone. There is no individuation for specific learners, nor changing of the content according to how the class is going (though that is at least possible–one could monitor the questions and comments fora and decide to add new videos or tasks to the course as it goes along, so at least some of that is possible).

However, it really got me thinking because my experience so far in etmooc has been very, very different from the other MOOC I took, and I actually think of it as more learner-centred. This is because there is much less in the way of centralized guiding of learning in this MOC than in the other one. There are only a couple of presentations per week, and even in those (from what I’ve seen so far), the point is less to provide content than to provide tools for connecting with each other, our students, and with more people around the world through global and social media.

This seems to reflect the difference between an “xMOOC” (content-focused) and a “cMOOC” (connection-focused)as explained by Martin Lugton in a blog post. I like his description of a cMOOC, as it fits well my experience with etmooc so far:

It’s a chaotic experience (as @RosemarySewart put it) and is inherently personal and subjective, as participants create their meaning and build and navigate their own web of connections. cMOOCs are not proscriptive, and participants set their own learning goals and type of engagement.

This is why I think of etmooc as actually learner-centred in its own way: learners focus on what is most meaningful to them, and they build their own connections through following the advice provided by the facilitators to blog, comment on blogs, read the discussions on Google+ sometimes, and read some of the Twitter feed. You can’t do it all, all of the time, but doing just some begins, even if slowly, to help you build connections and start contributing to conversations.

But that’s not what Christoph said

He said “cMOOCs” are crowd-centric, rather than learner-centric. I can see it for xMOOCs, but it didn’t seem to be so for cMOOCs, to me, until I started thinking about it more for this blog post. How can cMOOCs be said to be crowd-centric?

Perhaps insofar as they offer many, many resources and tools for people to choose from, and can’t possibly tailor those to each person’s needs so individuals themselves have to find what they need out of the wealth of information. I don’t know if that’s what Christoph meant, but it’s one way to think about it.

Still, of course, there is individual tailoring: partly by individuals themselves, but also from the community–others read one’s questions and prompts for advice on Twitter, Google+, blogs, or elsewhere, and (hopefully) comment and provide help with one’s specific issues. The individual has to centre the course for him/herself, with the help of others in the course. The course itself is, and must be if it’s a MOOC at all, crowd-centric in the sense of offering information that could apply to the crowd, to anyone in the audience equally. No facilitator can hope to tailor it to each person in such a large course, so we all have to help each other do so.

Keith still has a point

But this means there’s going to be much more information, tools, resources than is going to be digestible or really serve the needs of any individual participant. As many of us have noticed in blog posts, tweets, and more, numerous participants are feeling a bit at sea, overwhelmed, wondering how they can possibly do everything in etmooc, how they can keep up with all the conversations, etc. That theme has stood out to me over the past week or so, and it’s something I’ve felt too. I’ve had to repeat to myself a line that I learned from a post by Gayle in her blog, Learning by Doing:

Don’t feel guilty if you don’t do everything — only feel guilty if you don’t do anything.

I’ve tried to pass that sort of idea on to anyone I hear expressing a sense of drowning.


Providing a set of tools and lots of information, and allowing people to pick and choose what interests them most, may not work for all learners. Those with little prior knowledge, or who feel they don’t have the same tech skills as many others in the course may get too lost in the swarm of new things they could be learning about, and, realizing they don’t have time to do it all, could drown and drop out.

Also relevant is this post by Nick DiNardo at his blog, Live Curious. Nick notes that the style of learning in etmooc is such that, “What you put into it, you get out of it.” This can be one way of thinking of etmooc as learner-centred, because learners can pick and choose what to do amongst the many things on offer. As Nick puts it, “Learners can come and go as they please throughout the course, participating socially as they see fit.”

However, Nick also notes a downside to such a structure: it may be best for autodidacts, “learners who take an entrepreneurial approach to learning what they are curious about.” What of those who do not learn this way?


Could Keith’s suggestions above for etmooc or other cMOOCs work to help those types of learners? Or would they turn cMOOCs more towards xMOOCs in a problematic way? Is there a way to keep the focus on connection and the ability to leave people free to choose what to focus on, while structuring a cMOOC a bit more?

My fear is that if etmooc were more structured I personally would feel like I should follow the learning paths specifically, and then it would feel more crowd-centric, designed for a crowd, and less open for my own tailoring. Yet there are problems with the latter as well, as noted above.

I must admit I’m kind of stuck here. Maybe one should offer more structured learning in cMOOCs like etmooc and yet emphasize that that is not the only way to do the courses, that people can come in and out as they please, but those who wish it can do the more structured paths? Would those who choose not to feel like they are missing something important, and so ultimately the cMOOC experience turns into more like an xMOOC one?

Ideas? I am new to the whole xMOOC vs. cMOOC distinction, so perhaps there’s something important I’m missing here!


Photo Credit: James Cridland via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: dameetch via Compfight cc

etmooc: Social bookmarking of sites behind a paywall

"Colourful Journals," by Selena N.B.H.

“Colourful Journals,” by Selena N.B.H.



Note: In this and future posts having specifically to do with my participation in etmooc (a massively open online course in educational technology), I will preface the posts with “etmooc,” so those readers not interested in educational technology stuff can ignore if they want!

I recently watched the archived presentation for etmooc by Jeffrey Heil and Michelle Franz on Introduction to Social Curation. One of the things that really stuck with me from that presentation was the idea that we should share our research, not simply be “re-tweeters.” I have feared being little more than a re-tweeter on Twitter, as much of my access to information comes from Twitter itself, so I just re-tweet interesting things out. That’s important, of course, but not all that one should do.

I really appreciated that we should be engaging in and following people on social bookmarking and social curation sites, for numerous reasons, including connecting with others and finding new sources of information. This could be a way to find things beyond what I locate on my own, and tweet out to others in my network.

Obviously, though, one needs to be a contributor as well to social bookmarking and curation sites, to add to one’s PLN (personal learning network) rather than just being a “lurker.” But my problem is that a good deal of my time is spent on sites that are behind a paywall–specifically, journal articles. My research is focused on journal articles and books, largely in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. It’s not that I never visit more “open” sites for other things; I do, it’s just that most of my own time and research are about things that one has to pay for to receive access (unless one’s school or university subscribes). So if I were to share my own research, then I’d be sharing things that many people in the world can’t access. As a result, so far I haven’t done much in the way of sharing my own research.

But I got to thinking about this and wondered: well, there are people out there who can access these sites…many other scholars at colleges and universities and other schools who have similar interests to me. Why not at least share these articles, collating them into lists according to topic, for those who can access them and are interested? It would be a much smaller audience, of course, but personally, I’d love it if others were doing this for my field of interest!

To add to the articles behind a paywall, I’d also link to my blog where relevant, because one of the things I’ve been doing while on sabbatical this year is to take notes on articles and comment on them in my blog. Partly that’s for my own research, but also partly for people who are interested in the same topics. And I do a pretty thorough job of summarizing, so those w/o access to the articles could at least get the main arguments, if they’re interested. So in the comments to the links to paid articles on Diigo, for example, I could post a link to my blog summary of those articles. (Diigo is a social bookmarking site that is really great for highlighting and taking notes on webpages.)

Of course, I’d keep my other Diigo lists for free and open sites, and make sure much of any other content curation sites I have (such as my Learnist boards) is open to anyone.

Does this seem like a good idea? Let me know in the comments!

(I’m also unhappy with the way I did the attribution for the photo–Flickr doesn’t have that cool attribution HTML text that Compfight does, and I can’t do links in the caption for the photo on WordPress, I think! Ideas?)

Introduction: etmooc

I am taking part in a MOOC (massive, open, online course) focused on educational technology called etmooc. As part of that, I will have certain posts in the “etmooc” category that are designed for that mooc, specifically. I hope they will be interesting to my other readers as well!

This is just to introduce myself to the rest of the mooc: I’m Christina Hendricks, and I’m a Sr. Instructor in Philosophy at the University of British Columbia. A “Sr. Instructor” is a tenured, teaching-focused position (my merit and promotions are based on teaching and service, rather than research; though research on teaching counts!). I also teach in a first-year, interdisciplinary, team-taught course called Arts One. This is one of the three options for students in the Faculty of Arts to fulfill their first-year requirements. It is a year-long course, and students get 18 credits: 6 each in introductory English, History and Philosophy. I was Chair of that program from 2010-2012.

I am currently on sabbatical in Melbourne, Australia (July 2012-July 2013), and am doing research in the area of SoTL (the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning). Specifically, I’m interested in trying to analyze the value of the Arts One program for students. For more on my research this year, just look over my posts on this blog from the last 4-5 months! I’m particularly interested in peer assessment and feedback at the moment, but also in providing good feedback to students on writing, and how to effectively teach writing generally.

Looking forward to moving forward with the mooc, though I’m late in starting!