Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Bigger on the Inside...

“It’s bigger on the inside than on the outside.” This is a now iconic line spoken by numerous characters on many episodes of Dr. Who when they first encounter the inside of the Tardis- a police phone box that serves as the Dr.’s time machine/ship. Recently, I could relate to that sentiment as I participated in my first Coursera MOOC through the University of Edinburgh, what looked small on the outside suddenly opened up into something beyond my imagination.

Less than a year ago I had never heard of a Massive Open Online Course or MOOC. I knew about innovative delivery systems, I did my DMin through a hybrid/online format and I found it perfect for me at that time. I enjoyed working from home, at whatever time I wanted; but with the structure of weekly assignments and readings to keep me on track. Our major professor was somewhat engaged with us as students, we interacted with him weekly for an hour; however the majority of my learning came from interacting with the course materials and with the twenty other students in my doctoral cohort. It was these peers who taught me as much or more than the instructor. I learned later that the course was designed in a constructivist educational philosophy. As our major professor used to say, his role was to “organize learning.”

Last September I was reading Fast Company magazine and came across this article about Coursera, one of the top three platforms for MOOC’s (Udacity and EdX being the other two).  I had just accepted a new job at Tabor College’s Wichita campus to design an innovative online MA program and I thought it might be useful research to take a MOOC to gain firsthand experience. I signed up with Coursera and looked around at the course offerings to find a class that might be useful.

I found the course E-learning and Digital Culture (EDC) from the University of Edinburgh and signed up. I was intrigued by the title and the content. I thought this could be a course that would assist me as I sought to learn more about E-learning in my own new context. The description explained the learning goals for the course, “Those goals might include: gaining new perspectives on e-learning; experiencing a MOOC; networking with some of the fascinating people from all over the world who are signed up; experimenting with digital and visual ways of representing academic knowledge; and exploring the connections between education, learning and digital cultures.” 

About two months before the course began I received an email from the EDCMOOC team welcoming and inviting me to join a variety of social media tools since much of the course would be conducted on these platforms. I already had a blog, Facebook and Google+ accounts (although I never touched G+), so I signed up for Twitter and began exploring that new platform.

In mid December I discovered a student-run Facebook group who had been active for over a month. I joined and began to make connections with some of the thousands of students who were to make up EDCMOOC. The Facebook group created connections as well as formed groups to encourage and read each other’s blogs. Many students began posting on their blogs about their pre-course learning and linking that to FB. In January, weeks before the course even started students were generating so much original content it as difficult to keep up with all the posts.

By the time the course began there were over 43,000 students enrolled. It was a five-week course set up around two major themes: weeks 1-2) Utopian/Distopian views of the future; weeks 3-4) What does it mean to be Human? The fifth week was focused on preparing and posting a digital artifact (more on that later).

The main form of content provision was through a “film festival” and readings. The films were chosen to address the theme for the week and were linked from the course website from YouTube or Vimeo. The readings were academic articles that were freely available on the web. The instructors worked hard to provide content that all could access, not only those with access to academic libraries. The level of the articles according to one of the professors, was first-year undergrad.

In many ways, the content provided by the instructors created a jumping off point for the students to discuss and explore a wide variety of issues connected to the themes. Students were encouraged, but not assessed, to interact on the weekly themes through a variety of methods, twitter, blogging, discussion threads on FB and G+, as well as interaction on the Coursera course site. One area for improvement are the forums on the Coursera site. They were difficult to navigate and find relevant posts, it soon became apparent to many of the students that posting there was a waste of time and many navigated to other social media formats for meaningful interaction. During these first couple of weeks I experienced what many of my fellow students did as well- extreme overwhelming feelings as it became impossible to keep up with the content generated by 43,000 individuals. Because the course was global, students were creating and curating information around the clock, there was always something new to read or watch. It appeared that many students dropped in the first couple weeks due to the overwhelming feelings created by the flood of student-generated content.

It was during this time, around week three that I discovered Felicia Sullivan’s VoiceThread.  VoiceThread is an online discussion forum that records asynchronous discussion in a verbal, rather than written form. I had observed VoiceThread in Moodle training but had only seen a sample “thread,” I hadn’t been able to participate. Since one of my learning goals for the MOOC was to find new tools and technologies, I jumped into the VoiceThread and discovered a small group community that provided a personal and human touch to the ‘noise’ of the course. I was able to make connections with a small group that was helpful and encouraging through the rest of the course.  

The personal benefits of the EDCMOOC were:

I was able to continue developing my Personal Learning Network (PLN). I also realized that I had people in a PLN who weren’t being tapped. I have since reached out to some in my DMin cohort for ideas and advice.

I was able to learn about a wide variety of e-learning tools through my peers. In addition, the creation of a digital artifact, which was our final assessment, gave me permission and space to try out a number of tools, which I will use and promote in future classroom settings. I was also reinvigorated to discover the academic potential of social media like G+ and Twitter and plan on continuing to use these tools in the future.

I appreciated the global nature of the course and the interactions with other educators from around the world. I was energized by the cross-pollenization that occurred. I was also impressed by the high level of collaboration and cooperation I observed and experienced during EDCMOOC. People were willing to help and offer feedback in many ways.

I learned the difference between cMOOC’s and xMOOC’s- the first “constructivist” in philosophy and presentation and the second more traditional format with lectures and quizzes.

I can see MOOC’s serving in a wide variety of ways in the future. Some scholars and politicians are saying it’s the end of higher education, others say it’s a new tool that can be used to flatten education and make it more accessible to a global world. I lean to the latter. I think MOOC’s can supplement existing courses, provide professional development and provide content for students working independently, or along with a local faculty member.

Some are afraid that big business will take over Higher Education. Others are concerned that MOOC’s will cheapen degrees. This debate will continue, for now I think they can provide an excellent supplement to existing programs and personal networking.

Because MOOC’s are global, they are bigger on the inside…