When does an Online Course Stop Being an Online Course?

What is an online course? When does an online course cease to be an online course? Since my days in graduate school, I’ve been drawn to a simple but helpful exercise to get at the “essence” of something. It consists of asking three questions. What is essential? What is important? What is merely present? Asking these three questions helps find out the attributes so significant that removing them causes that item to become something else. Amid the growth of online learning and talk about “online courses”, perhaps it is time to use this exercise to consider the essence of an online course. What are the attributes that are so central to an online course that removing them causes it to no longer be appropriately labeled an online course?

To illustrate how this works, consider asking these three questions about a ball. What are the essential attributes of a ball? Some people start by talking about its shape, that a ball must be round. Yet, we need to adjust that definition to consider something like a football. As such, we might revise our first statement to say that it must be round on one plane. From there we go to the second question. What is important? These are the attributes that impact its use and purpose but it remains a ball. Shape, size and weight fit into this category. Finally, we ask about those attributes which are merely present. These are the traits that do not significantly impact the use or purpose. In many cases, the color might be such an attribute. By going through such an exercise, we don’t just come to better understand the essential attributes. We also develop an overall, deeper, nuanced, and more multi-faceted perspective on whatever we are studying. Let’s apply this to the idea of an online course, a concept that continues to evolve.

If you go the route of studying the history and etymology of the word “course”, you will likely end up with something like a “planned series of study.” In the United States, we tend to use “course” to describe a part of a larger program, but “course” is used to describe the entire program in other parts of the world. What people call a degree program in the United States, people in parts of Europe might call that a course or course of study.

If you are speaking with people in a K-12 or traditional University setting in the United States, it is easy for people to describe what they think of as a course. It is something led and organized by a teacher for a group of students. It has a start and end date. There is a teacher. There are students, planned lessons, assessments, and assignments. There might be lectures, larger and small group activities, projects, quizzes and tests, discussions, homework, papers, readings, and dozens of other elements. Which are essential? Which are important? Which are merely present? What are the attributes of a course that make it a course and not something else?

One of the difficulties with educational innovation and the adoption of new practices is that we get used to and comfortable with certain constructs. Whether they are better or worse than an innovation, their familiarity gives them superiority in our minds. We are quick to defend them even when we are something unhappy with them. I suspect that this is part of the reason why we run into problems with the changing idea of a course, especially an online course.

There have been innovations to challenge or stretch our idea of a course for many years. Self-paced or correspondence courses, for example, conflict with traditional ideas of a course. There may be a teacher, but not one that fulfills the same role that we think of in traditional courses. There may be no scheduled time when people gather together, and the start and end dates for the course vary by learner. There is also likely like to no student-student interaction. Yet, we still call it a course. At the same time, because it is new and suspect, it is common for these new ideas of courses to be given lower status or credibility, at least among the most mainstream people in a given domain.

In the digital world, this becomes even more complex. Scan the web for what people call courses and you will find countless models. A course might be a series of three or four webinars led by one or more different people followed by a short quiz. It might be 3-credit class in a learning management system, part of a larger degree program. It could be non-credit or credit-based, offered by a school, a company, a government agency, even an individual. Students might have scheduled activities, readings, assignments, and graded participation in weekly discussion groups. We use “online course”  to describe a MOOC led by one or a few people, largely consisting of short videos and readings with a few quizzes or peer-reviewed exercises shared among hundreds or thousands of learners. An online course might also be something like what you often see on a site like Udemy, largely made up of a bunch of small video recordings, possibly with some quizzes or checks for understanding and a Q & A area. Sometimes there is an “instructor.” Sometimes there is not. Sometimes there are assessment of learners, but not always.

With such a broad use of the term, is there anything essential to an online course? Yes, but it is still important to recognize that it is a rapidly expanding term. With that caveat in mind, consider the following traits. Despite their differences, each of these examples includes a planned course of study. Whether explicit or implicit, something was established to be learned, explored and/or studied. Resources and/or activities were included in that plan. The other part, of course, is that these resources or activities relied upon online resources and/or environments.

That is all that I can come up with for essential attributes of an online course in today’s world. The rest is important or merely present. This includes whether or not it is for-credit, part of a larger program, includes student-instructor interaction, includes student-student interact, the nature of the learning activities, whether it is teacher-directed, learner-directed, or peer-directed and organized. The same is true for the length, complexity, and host/provider for the course. These all play an important role in how the course is valued, how it is experienced, and the impact of the course. Yet, people can implement diverse experiments with these attributes while still calling it an online course.

I’m sure there are many implications for such a broad and popular use of the phrase “online course”, but one comes to mind for me. Because people use the phrase so widely, it is not adequate to make broad assumptions about the idea of an online course. Blogs and other media sources report and reflect about online courses and online learning, but they sometimes jump from example to example without recognizing the distinctions. Studies come out about online learning, but people do not always take the time to consider the type of online courses represented in the study. This has led to widespread confusion, sometimes unnecessary debates, misrepresentations, and often overly general statements about online learning.

Consider the example of MOOCs. As soon as people started writing about MOOCs, most failed to compare them to more traditional online courses. In fact, some wrote about MOOCs as if they were the beginning of online learning, ignoring decades of practice and research that preceded MOOCs. Instead, people compared MOOCs to traditional college courses leading toward traditional degrees. It created a debate that led to a more guarded and often dismissive tone to the conversation instead of allowing us to just be curious about the affordances and limitations of this new construct. This was likely intensified by using the word “course” and people’s pre-existing notions of what constitutes a course.

MOOCs were not, however, the first alternative use of the word “course.” Long before MOOCs we used, people used the word “course” to describe a vast array of online learning experiences. Many of these mentions didn’t have the widespread media attention of MOOCs, so people skipped over them, missing the chance to compare MOOCs to multiple concepts of courses. If this happened early on, it could have transformed and expanded our thinking about MOOCs, their benefits, limitations, and positive potential use moving forward.

What is an online course? It is a course that relies heavily upon online resources, activities and experiences. What is a course? Now that is the important question. Its’ essential attributes involve planning and learning, but in the evolving use of the term, a course can be almost anything. Until we recognize these developments, we will continue to miss promising possibilities, talk past one another, and fall prey to overly simplistic understandings of learning in a connected world.

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6 Design Experiments in a Mildly Massive Open Online Course

A little over a year ago, I led my first MOOC, Understanding Cheating in Online Courses. It got a fair amount of media attention, likely because it made for provocative article titles…things like, “MOOC Teaches How to Cheat in Online Courses With an Eye Toward Prevention.” There were also articles in the BBC News, Venture Beat and the New York Times. Those articles tell a bit about the what and why of the MOOC, but they don’t really get into the design side of things, giving you a glimpse into the design decisions that shaped this experiment. I shared a few of these thoughts at conference earlier this year, but I thought I others might be interested, so here you go.

First I should explain the goals of the MOOC. There were six of them.

  1. 1.Increase attention to academic honesty issues and have a great conversation with people about a topic that is important to me. Yes, I created a MOOC to build a community around this topic, so that I could learn more about the subject.
  2. 2.Equip people to mitigate against academic cheating, but in a way that was not all about policing and punishing.
  3. 3.Add depth to the current discussion by looking at it from an interdisciplinary perspective (the philosophy of cheating, psychology of cheating, from the perspective of the cheater, etc.).
  4. 4.Challenge existing beliefs and myths. Many talk about cheating as a simple moral issue. I tried to broaden the conversation to think of it also as a design issue.
  5. 5.Promote a design approach to academic honesty.
  6. 6.Experiment and play with the affordances of open learning.

Screen Shot 2014-07-17 at 10.37.46 PMAfter meeting a number of times with my design team (a few instructional designers, a digital media specialist, and our director of online technology), we decided upon six features: collective knowledge generation, a mix of public and private spaces, live events, a design that welcomed and encouraged self-blending, pre-established but emerging schedule, and whimsical but meaningful digital badges. Each of these were selected to build community, foster a highly personalized experience and self-directed, and to honor the unique affordances of a MOOC…doing things that can’t be done with other courses as easily (like collective knowledge generation).

Collective Knowledge Generation – This is one of the affordances of a MOOC. If you have hundreds or thousands of people gathered together around a topic of shared interest, you can actually leverage that group to generate meaningful content that benefits the entire community and beyond. That is what we did. For example, we started the course with an online discussion, where participants shared cheating stories that they’ve experienced. In a matter of a week, we had probably one of the largest collections of informal cheating case studies in existence. And we learned about how students are cheating through those stories. There is no way that I or any other single instructor could have created a better and more varied collection of examples.

Then we followed that activity by making it even more personal. We had a “cheating confessional.” People had a chance to anonymously share a time when they cheated, why they, and how they cheated. It personalized the topic, reminding us that the proclivity for cheating is closer than we like to think. It didn’t condone cheating, but it did make it a bit more personal. This activity added even more cheating case studies from which to learn.

Throughout the class, we also created a cheating lexicon in Google Docs. At any point in the class, participants could add a new term that they learned in the course, also adding a definition and source. The group edited one another’s work and we developed an ever-growing lexicon of terms.

Then at the end of the class, students had the option of doing a “final project” where they came up with a proposed project or plan for mitigating against cheating in their learning organization. Those got posted to the class so we could learn from the wonderful ideas and how plans varied from one context to another.

A Blended of Private and Public

This was an open course in that anyone was welcome to join. However, it was not entirely open. First, we capped enrollment at 1000, so not everyone who wanted to attend was able. This was mostly just a limit put in place by the provider that I used. Beyond that we also elected to host some course discussions in the password-protected learning management system, where only other registered participants could read them. Given the sensitive nature of the topic, this was done to give people the freedom to share and be a bit more candid than they might want to be on the public web.

Alongside that, we had plenty of openness. There was a Twitter stream (#cheatmooc), public weekly content and live events that anyone could access…whether they were registered or not. We also made some of the collective knowledge resources public to the world (like the Cheating Lexicon).

Live Events – As a way to build rapport and to collect great lectures on the topic, we offered weekly lectures on the topic for the week, open to the world. We recorded all these and made them public to the world.  Most of these were done using Google OnAir along with a Q & A through a simple chat tool. We encouraged the presenters to be personal…even a bit informal in the live events. They were rich with amazing content, but we tried to run them a bit more live a great living room conversation.

Now here is an amazing part of the live events. I initially planned on presenting all these myself. Then, with the great media attention, a number of amazing scholars reached out and offered to help. So, we had leading thinkers and companies in the field giving these talks (James Lang presenting on what was at the time his forthcoming book called Cheating Lesson; Tricia Bertram Galant, Teddy Fishman, Proctor U, Software Secure, TurnitIn, etc. It was a wonderful and impressive collection of people who gave us a rich and diverse look at the topic.

Plan for Self-Blending

A core affordance of a MOOC is that students don’t need to do what the instructor tells them. They are in charge of their learning. They choose what is valuable and what is now, whether to persist, when to pay attention and when to take a break, which resources to read or watch, which activities seem valuable, and when to go find or create a new resource. We designed the MOOC to honor all this, treating it as a distinct affordance of a MOOC.

As such, we took a lesson from Howard Rheingold and used co-learner language. I described myself as a co-learner and tour guide, not an instructor who calls all the shots. Resources were offered, not required. It was a buffet instead of a prepared meal. They choose what goes on their plate and what does not.

To help provide structure, each week had a provocative driving question, content that explored that question, and suggested activities/experiments that helped participants grapple with and explore that question. Amid this, we added enough resources and activity options that there were many paths to answering and exploring the driving question. The learner got to choose how to explore the question, how deep to go, etc. We also included learner contributions to these resources. So, if a learner went out and found a great resource, we edited the course to include those treasures.

A Pre-Established but Emerging Schedule

This course was a learning community, not an instructor-led dictatorship. So, we wanted the shape of the course to be informed by the interests and needs of the participants. We had pre-developed weekly learning objectives and driving questions. We had pre-developed weekly readings and resources. We had pre-developed weekly suggested learning missions and events. Yet, we revised, added, and removed based upon what students wanted. For example, two of the live events were not even planned beforehand. Students requested a topic, so I went out and found the best people I could to speak to it. Fortunately, they were willing to help us out. I also adjusted many resources and added new suggested activities by watching and listening to the learners. In a sense, this was an adaptive design.

Digital Badges

This course was my first time implementing a digital badge system. With the wonderful help of Credly.com, it was pretty easy to do. We did a ton of reading and research on the concept of digital badges and then we just gave it a try. Our badges were not competency-based. They were meant to recognize contribution to the community and conversation around a given weekly driving question. We assigned points to each suggested activity. If a learner earned 100 or more activity points in a week, they got the badge for the week. Each badge represented a “role” for the week, as students were invited to approach each week by trying on roles like philosopher, psychologist, instructional designer or cheater. We had badges like the research assistant, the cheating psychologist, the cheating philosopher, the cheating investigator, the teacher, the instructional designer, and the cheater (which had a sub-title…”this badge was not earned honestly). We tried to be whimsical but substantive in this design, and a number of people were able to use them as evidence of professional development for their employers.

As another experiment, we had an “exemplary contribution” badge that was distributed to 1-3 people each week, as surprise recognition for their wonderful addition to the community for that week.

Note that the entire badge design was about recognizing and encouraging contribution to he community. They were less about recognizing learning and more about celebrating an individual’s commitment to building knowledge from which others could benefit.

This was a wonderfully rewarding experiment in creative instructional design, digital age communities of practice, and how to leverage the affordances of open learning to give voice to important issues in society. It was far from perfect, but I consider the items above to be largely a success. It was a joy to see the great media attention to this important topic, countless blog posts written about it by participants, and dozens of academic integrity projects implemented in k-12 schools and Universities based on participant work in the MOOC.

Beyond Pigeonholing MOOCs

I recently read this article and infographic called, Are MOOCs Still Going Strong? It is worth a few minutes of your time. I put together the following comments in response to it. My comments sound critical, and they are to a degree. However, I am thankful for the author’s contribution to the conversation about the role of MOOCs. I just want to offer some additional or different perspectives.

I appreciate a thought-provoking infographic, but I am concerned because these data risk perpetuating the same conversation about MOOCs that most media outlets (including bloggers) have focused upon for the last year. I don’t disagree with most statements in the infographic and yet I can challenge almost every item in it. It just comes down to a definition of terms and coming to a shared understanding of the many purposes of MOOCs. Note that I said purposes, because there are many MOOC makers and MOOC providers with different goals in mind. My comments are related to one or more direct quotes are claims from the article, so it might help to review the article before reading on. At the same time, if you are already familiar with the MOOC conversation, you can probably follow my thinking without the original article, just using the brief quotes below.

1. “MOOC create a 2-tiered system”

This seems to assume that the purpose of MOOCs is to replace traditional online or face-to-face higher education. While some claim that, many (even most) of us in the open online learning world are not invested in MOOCs to replace traditional online and face-to-face higher education. It is simply to increase access and opportunity to learning (not schooling, just learning).
2. There are 3 MOOC Delivery Systems

There are hundreds, if not thousands of MOOCs running outside of Coursera, EdX and Uadacity. I know these are the three most popular and often have some of the largest courses, but I’m not sure if it is helpful to talk about MOOCs as if these three are the only important players. That is like saying that Harvard, MIT and Yale or the only real players in higher education or that Google, Bing and Yahoo are the only important search engages on the web. Clearly there are many others out there as well, and in the MOOC world I contend that the others are doing much of the most promising, innovative and interesting work in the world of open learning.

3. “Motivation is corporate profit”

I’m not comfortable telling all the MOOC providers that profit is their motivation. I know from direct experience that it is not. This is not the case with traditional online courses either. Yes, there are certainly some online Universities that likely have profit as their primary goal (not just with MOOCs, but for all of their offerings), but many of us do not. The same would go from brick-and-mortar higher education programs.

4. “MOOCs have a 93% failure rate.”

This is comparing MOOCs to traditional tuition-based, credit-offering programs. We are using a vocabulary to talk about engagement and persistence in MOOCs as if they are just another version of a college course, and yet that is not the intent or vision behind many MOOCs. I, for example, have made the case that we could just as easily argue that MOOCs have close to a 100% success rate. My problem with a statement like the 93% one is that I don’t think we are carefully defining our terms. It seem a bit like critiquing the value of a conference based upon how many people register but do not attend every session and planned event. I think we would be better off if we evaluated MOOCs with a new set of criteria that is more specific to the purpose and nature of a given open course.

5. “Traditional grading systems are impossible.”

This is accurate, but it also seems to be comparing MOOCs to traditional courses. Why would we want or need traditional grading systems in most MOOCs? Given the goal and purpose of most MOOCs, what is the need for a traditional grading system? Feedback is important (as it is with all learning), but there and hundreds of ways to give feedback that do not even require a traditional instructor. Again, MOOCs do not have the same purpose of credit-based college courses. There are many learning experiences that do not lend themselves to traditional grading, but they can be wonderfully useful and rewarding learning experiences. The same is true for open courses. In fact, I’m not sure that traditional grading practices are the wave of the future in traditional courses.

6. The History of Distance Learning

If you look at the infographic linked to at the beginning of this article, you will see a simple timeline called, “History of Distance Learning.” It includes 1890s and 1920s correspondence courses, 1993 with Jones International as the first online University, then it jumps to MOOCs in 2006. I know this is not intended to be an exhaustive history, but not including at least a few of the thousands of things that happened in online learning between 1993 and 2006 risks leaving the reader thinking that MOOCs are the dominant part of online learning today. In reality, there is a massive higher education world of online courses that are not MOOCs. A rapidly growing number of college students are taking non-MOOC credit-based online courses. Also, since MOOCs are part of the open learning movement as much or more than they are a part of the credit-based online world, it might be helpful to include reference to open learning as a point in the timeline, changing the title of from “History of Distance Learning” to something more related to open learning. I realize that this might sound critical, but without a bit more detail in our conversation about these matters, we are going to collectively miss the mark.

7. MOOCs are a “Bargain education for those who can’t”, and traditional credit-based college is “‘Real’ education for those who can afford it.”

While some have this sort of a vision for MOOCs, this is not how most MOOCs are being used. Especially if we venture beyond Coursera, EdX and Udacilty; we find a wonderfully diverse collection of MOOCs that exist to serve different audiences. I led two MOOCs in the last year, both of which targeted those who work in K-12 or higher education. They were professional development and professional learning community MOOCs. There are hundreds of such MOOCs out there. It seems wise to include them in the broader conversation as well, especially if we are asking if MOOCs are still going strong.

8. MOOCs “Force professors to improve lectures.”

This is one of the proposed benefits of MOOCs now. Perhaps that is a current affordance, but I must again suggest that we look beyond Coursera, EdX and Udacity to the other types of MOOCs out there. Consider, for example, the many connectivist MOOCs that have little reliance upon lectures. Instead, they are leveraging crowd-sourced knowledge generation and other promising peer-to-peer learning.

9. MOOCs “are usually free.”

This is just a small clarification. If it is not free, it is not a MOOC. By definition, MOOCs are open courses. Perhaps the author was thinking of the fact that some MOOCs offer certification tracks that require a fee. The only reason that I’m compelled to clarify the point is because I worry that we are putting too much emphasis upon the “massive” and “online”, but not talking enough about the “open”, which is fundamental to the conversation about MOOCs. They are, after all, part of the open learning movement.

10. There are “over 2 billion potential learners in the world” and “over 70% cannot afford college.”

Out of all the data in the infographic, this strikes me as the most compelling and valuable contribution to the MOOC conversation. Is it possible that the open learning movement can contribute to self-education…not just for those who can’t afford college but for the rest of the world as well? How are MOOCs changing the way people think about learning? I ave studied at over 20 Universities in my life, with four degrees. 2013 was the first year that I was not enrolled in at least one credit-based course since I started kindergarten. What changed in 2013? Over the past five years, I discovered both the power of self-directed learning and open online courses. Together, they allowed me to build amazing connections with co-learners around the world, to develop new skills and build new knowledge, and to more fully embrace learning beyond formal schooling. MOOCs are doing this for people, often people who have one or more degrees already. They are shifting some people’s understanding of learning, helping them to build robust online personal learning networks.

I appreciate the time put into the infographic. It is a good discussion starter. I am just looking for a broader and more nuanced conversation about MOOCs, one that includes the many important voices and experiments beyond Coursera, EdX and Udacity. I yearn for a rich and robust conversation about MOOCs, one that includes the elements that I reference in this article. This is increasingly difficult to find in articles and blogs over the past year. I invite you to join me in the effort to expand this conversation.  Let’s move our conversation beyond the growing pigeonholing of MOOCs and into the much more diverse and rich contemporary world of open online learning.

100% Completion Rate in MOOCs

According to this source, the average completion rate for MOOCs is under 10%.  What is the solution?  Some say that we need to create certificates of completion or signature tracks.  Others argue that adding a small fee leads to greater retention and completion. Still others seek to solve this problem through design considerations, making the courses more engaging. I have a different approach. What if we just redefine what we mean by completion rate.  Let me start by proclaiming, with delight, that MOOCs have closer to a 100% completion rate.

How could I suggest such a thing?  It is because MOOCs are not courses in the same sense as a closed, fee-based online class that is part of a larger program at a University.  That second letter in MOOC stands for “open” and I suggest that means something more than free, accessible or without walls. I realize that the word “open” is used in any number of ways today, but I am compelled to draw, at least in part, from the concept of open learning.  With that in mind, open is also about self-directed learning and interest-driven learning.

Whether we are talking about xMOOCs, cMOOCs or some other model that we have yet to label, open learning is open to be used or unused as determined by the individual. So, how about a different definition of completion rate or retention?  How about a self-directed version of these terms? Or what if we choose to measure something else? We are not talking about cloistered, credit-based, feel-based, instructor-controlled learning with MOOCs. We are referring to about an entirely different type of learning. I’ve signed up for dozens of MOOCs that I never started, dozens more that I participated in off and on, and still others that I participated in throughout the entire course.  In some cases, I submitted “assignments”, but in most I did what I wanted and left the rest. As a result, I have a perfect record in MOOCs, a 100% completion rate.  I completed 100% of what I decided to complete.  That is the nature of the MOOC.

And yet, we are analyzing participants as if we were talking about traditional courses.  We don’t say that people who went on fifty dates before dating and marrying one had a 2% completion rate. We also don’t measure the effectiveness of a conference by the number of people who attended 100% of the sessions and stayed until the last event.  How about hosting an open house and then measuring the success of the event by the number of people that we retained until the closing minutes of the open house?

There are certainly examples of people who sign up for a MOOC with the goal of completing all the assignment or tasks in the course, and then not doing so.  Even in such a circumstance, I see no reason to measure the success by looking at completion or retention rate.  For the sake of the course host and designer, it is useful to understand levels of engagement, participant goals and perceptions, or perhaps levels of satisfaction, by why not create a different model for looking at the “success” of a MOOC?

Part of the challenge is that we are using the word “course” when we talk about a MOOC. In many ways, I would prefer a different word, maybe “learning community”, but I guess that MOOLC doesn’t roll of the tongue.  This post is more than a play on words.  It is a challenge to the trend toward forcing MOOCs back into the box of the traditional concept of schooling.

We can look at this from another perspective as well. Consider the fact that students sign up for MOOCs for different reasons. Some intend to just look around. Others want to gather content but not complete assignments. Then there are the students who want to complete the assignments but are not interested in watching lectures or completing all the readings. There are many styles of MOOC student, each with different goals. MOOC participants have this choice. They are not like traditional teacher-directed courses where students are expected to submit to each course requirement. Everything in a MOOC is more like an item on an menu, and students will choose what they want, when they want it, and how long they will stick around. It seems to me that such a perspective is more helpful than just describing students as persisting or dropping out, passing or failing.

Regardless of what I have to say about it, I’m sure that many will continue to wrap MOOCs in their school boxes and give them away as wonderful gifts to the world. The conversations about MOOCs for credit are well underway.  This doesn’t change my approach to the subject.  Feel free to use MOOCs for any number of purposes, including using them for credit or as part of an overall program.  Any yet, there are plenty of us who will continue to find ways to keep MOOCs open, self-directed and continuing to function with an impressive 100% completion rate.

7 Ways for Online Learners to Cultivate a Learning Community

In many online courses, it is possible to learn a great deal and earn a good grade without getting to know others in the class. You may be interacting with others to accomplish this, but the interaction can feel limited, even contrived. However, I contend that participating in an online course can be about much more than earning the grade and learning something.  I’m an advocate for online learning communities, with community being a central part of the experience.  Some people who still see the Internet in terms of technologies may not quickly understand what I mean by this.  They may think that community and relationship are terms that are specific to the face-to-face world or online environments that mimic part of a face-to-face interaction.  I can usually identify such people because they may speak about being advocates for online learning, but they almost always gravitate toward synchronous communication (tools like Skype, Hangouts, and phone). Others, like myself, think of the Internet largely in terms of connections.  From that perspective, the Internet simply provides new ways to engage in community, cultivate relationships, and build meaningful connections with others. For this to happen, it requires an intentional effort from people, especially the learners.  Toward that end, here are seven behaviors, perspectives, or strategies that can help one become a vibrant part of an online learning community, both giving and receiving in significant ways.

1. Communicate Early and Often – Threaded discussions continue to offer many powerful communication affordances that are not available in real-time communication: empowering students who are largely on the sidelines of discussion in the face-to-face class, creating a record of communication that can be revisited and extended for weeks or months, demanding more careful consideration of one’s thoughts before sharing them. With this in mind, have you ever been in an online course where some classmates wait until the end of the week to start participating?  That is the equivalent of going to a face-to-face class and remaining silent until the last ten minutes of the class session. Then, all of a sudden, you start spouting out all of your thoughts from throughout the entire class.  That entirely misses the idea of a conversation.  The same thing happens in an online threaded discussion unless you take part in the online discussion in an ongoing way, logging in several times throughout the week to comment, read, reflect, and comment further.  That makes for a much more vibrant and authentic experience, and it is a way of being an active part of the community, showing deeper interest and respect for your co-learners, learning from others, and allowing others to learn from you.

2. Be Really Curious – There is a time to speak and a time to listen.  Listening is where we show genuine concern for and interest in co-learners.  I often suggest that you imagine that you are on a first date, trying to use good first date conduct.  This means listening as much or more than talking, asking good and genuine questions, making it a priority to show the other person that you care about them and what they have to say.  Taking on this attitude in an online class is a way to quickly build positive and often long-lasting relationships with others.

3. Look for and Reach out to Specific Individuals – As you go through a course, you may discover that you resonate with the goals and interests of another student.  Or, perhaps there is another student who has a very different perspective or background and you would like to learn from that person  Why not reach out? Send the classmate a private message, sharing what you appreciate about their contributions and inviting them to connect beyond the course (via Twitter, email, etc.), explaining that you would be interested in staying in contact as a way to share ideas and learn from one another.

4. Self-Organize Student Activities – You are not limited to the formal activities of a course.  Why not try to arrange an informal study group, a Google Hangout to touch base and further discuss ideas from the class, set up a Twitter hash tag to exchange ideas, create a forum outside of the formal class, or some other means of exploring a topic that some are interested in but that doesn’t necessarily fit in the course discussions?  This goes a long way in helping to build a stronger sense of community and it parallels the sort of informal group meetings that happen at many face-to-face institutions.

5. Encourage and Affirm – Online course discussions can often get rather content-focused. In fact, some early studies about online communication in the workplace indicated that online collaboration was more task-oriented with fewer “relational” comments.  This can be seen as a benefit and a drawback.  However, one way to be relational and content-focused at the same time is to share words of encouragement and affirmation with co-learners.  Share what you appreciated about their perspective, comments, examples, and illustrations.  Let them know when and how their comments help you, and thank them for it.

6. Challenge and Question – On the flip side, we want to cultivate a rigorous learning community and that means disagreeing, challenging and questioning when appropriate, but doing it in a way that is gentle and respectful. Much learning takes place as we contrast our understanding with that of others, joining in a mutual pursuit of truth or a more accurate understanding of the subject at hand.

7. Build Upon the Ideas of Others – In some online classes, individual student comments  seem like a disconnected collection of individual posts, often driven by the desire to craft a post that ensure them the highest grade.  While this is an unfortunate reality in many online courses, don’t let it prevent you from taking things a step further, trying to turn posts into a dynamic conversation.  A great way to do this is to build upon the ideas of others.  Take an idea that another shares and add a new example, illustration, or further exposition of the idea.  As multiple people do this, we get a sense of progress and discovery through online discussion.

There are plenty of others ways to be an active participant in an online course / learning community, but these seven provide simple starting points.  Give them a try and let me know how it goes.  By the way, if you are an online course instructor / facilitator, perhaps your challenge is the figure out how to encourage these sorts of activities.

University as Digital Citizen

Serving at a private liberal arts University in Wisconsin, we are less than a three-hour drive from the University of Wisconsin where the Wisconsin Idea was born. Simply stated, the Wisconsin Idea communicates a vision that the state University will serve the people and communities in which the University resides.  It will give, “advice about public policy, providing information and exercising technical skill, and to the citizens in the forms of doing research directed at solving problems that are important to the state and conducting outreach activities.”  Similarly, former Harvard President James Bryant Conant (note that I am certainly not condoning some of his other ideas by referring to him) is quoted on the September 23, 1946 issue of Time Magazine as saying, “A scholar’s activities should have relevance.”

Both of these quotes explore the relationship between the University and the broader community (local, regional, national, and/or global).  You might say that they explore the notion of University as citizen.  In today’s landscape, I propose that Universities also have the challenge and opportunity to consider their role as digital citizens, not only thinking about digital spaces and communities as resources for getting, but carefully reflecting upon how they might make positive contributions to the digital world.

This is an aspect of the online University presence that gets less attention in the media.  From this perspective, MOOCs serve as sort of extension sites that reach a wide array of people with valuable content, leaning opportunities, and networking experiences. Beyond MOOCs, we also see contributions in the form of faculty bloggers, scholars hosting Tweetups, the free sharing of scholarly sources, the opportunity to network and connect with University faculty, free and inexpensive webinars, online conferences, not to mention extended access to full programs through online learning.

All of these have strong connections to many University mission statements.  In fact, it is rare to see a University mission statement that makes references to courses, degrees, letter grades, and programs.  They tend to be much broader than that, about equipping students for making a difference in the world, or perhaps about creating a higher education community that has a positive impact upon society.  Mission statements vary from private to public institutions, from institutions informed by different faith or philosophical traditions, and also from teaching to research Universities.  Consider two mission statements from my state of Wisconsin.

The University of Wisconsin Madison Mission (excerpt)

“The primary purpose of the University of Wisconsin–Madison is to provide a learning environment in which faculty, staff and students can discover, examine critically, preserve and transmit the knowledge, wisdom and values that will help ensure the survival of this and future generations and improve the quality of life for all. The university seeks to help students to develop an understanding and appreciation for the complex cultural and physical worlds in which they live and to realize their highest potential of intellectual, physical and human development.”

Concordia University Wisconsin Mission Statement

“Concordia University Wisconsin is a Lutheran higher education community committed to helping students develop in mind, body, and spirit for service to Christ in the Church and the World.”

These two missions are qualitatively different. The first has a heavy focus upon research & scholarship while the second focuses upon equipping students.  The first directs the mission toward the highest human potential while the second focuses upon the Christian notion of vocation, people being equipped for service to their “neighbors” through their gifts, talents, and abilities. At the same time, they both focus upon a University purpose that has the intended goal of benefiting those beyond the campus itself.  This is an important purpose of Universities, even as we think about the current and future nature of the digital world.  Toward that end, Universities that embrace their role as digital citizens might consider a few simple guiding question to shape their online presence as digital citizens.

  • What is distinct or unique about what we have to offer at our University?  Can any of that be shared online through resources, communities, events, or networks?
  • To whom are we called to serve and how might we leverage online community to serve them?
  • How can we leverage the digital world to continue to provide support, education, and encouragement to alumni from our institution as they seek to live out their various life vocations?
  • How might we empower and equip individual University members (faculty and/or staff) to engage in scholarship or disseminate findings in the digital world?

Design Principles that Promote Learning & Honesty

As part of #cheatmooc (the MOOC that I am currently hosting on Understanding Cheating in Online Learning Environments), we had an excellent guest speaker, Dr. James Lang.  I invited him to speak to the participants (and anyone else who might be interested) as part of our week on the role of instructional design in addressing matters of academic honesty.  Dr. Lang has a refreshing and important perspective on the topic of cheating in academic environments (You may also be interested in reading his articles on the subject in the Chronicle of Higher Education or ordering his new book entitled, Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty.).  Rather than focusing upon the moral and ethical aspect of cheating, he asks other important questions. Under what conditions are people more or less likely to cheat? Is it possible for us to design learning experiences in such a way that people are less inclined to cheat?  This line of questioning leads us to not simply review the literature on how to decrease cheating.  It also encourages us to think about how to create highly engaging and effective learning environments of all kinds.  With that in mind, here is a summary of what I consider to be important statements from Dr. Lang about the role of design in promoting a culture of academic honesty and integrity.  Just as important, these are also statements about how to design humane and high-impact learning environments.  The statements in bold are quotes or notes from Dr. Lang.  Following each statement is short commentary or reflection from me.

“The degree of student cheating depends upon the structure of the learning environment.”

In many cases, educators blame cheating (as well as failing to learn) on the students.  There is certainly truth to this matter.  After all, educators do not force students to cheat.  At the same time, we all know that one’s environment does have a role to play on a person’s behavior.  If you make the stakes high enough, add intensive competition, mix in a culture that values high marks above high levels of learning and mastery, then you create a space where more people are likely to cheat.  It raises stress levels, and it also happens to make for a less pleasant learning environment.

Design courses that pose a big problem, question, or challenge and you can leverage intrinsic motivation.

This statement from Dr. Lang resonates with my overall philosophy of education. Frequent readers of this blog know that I write often about project-based, inquiry-based, and authentic learning. Dr. Lang posed a simple challenge that fits very well with my philosophy of education.  It is not necessarily teacher-centered or student-centered.  Instead, it is questioned-centered, problem-centered, and/or challenge-centered about to instructional design.  If you are an educator, imagine designing a course from scratch where every unit, even the entire course, was designed around a provocative and important question for society.  Or, imagine units driven by a compelling and important challenge or problem that clearly needs attention in our world and in the lives of the students.  Then what if the rest of the learning experiences (and the types of learning experiences) were designed around those questions, challenges, and problems.  This has a better chance of tapping into some sort of intrinsic motivation in the learners.  It helps them to see the course content as being about more than earning a good grade.  It is about learning something, growing academically to be able to answer the question, seeking solutions to the problem(s), or to face the important challenges set forth in the class.  This helps to create an authentic and potentially high-impact learning community where cheating is less of consideration for many learners.

Imagine if your work was driven by a personal goal of finding a cure for cancer.  Would you be tempted to fake your knowledge about the subject.  Or, what if you had a garden that was getting eaten by wildlife, and you desperately wanted to find a way to keep the animals out.  You would not pretend to research the subject.  You would review the many options available to you, weigh the options, and then make a decision.  You would likely not pretend to research the topic because that would not help you find a solution to the problem.

What if we thought about learning environments more like this?  How might we design them in a way that helps tap into authentic motivations of the learners?  It doesn’t solve all problems, but it certainly makes for a more interesting and meaningful learning experience for all.

Formative assessments can reduce cheating.
Do you want to increase cheating? Design a course with infrequent high stakes tests. 

What is a formative assessment?  I don’t remember where I first heard this, but someone along the way pointed out to me that formative assessments are like the checkup at the doctor.  Summative assessments are like the autopsy.  With the former, you get feedback and can adjust your lifestyle, take the proper medication, or seek the needed procedure to address any heath concerns.  A checkup is preventative and proactive.  It gives the patient and doctor a sense of how the patient is doing with regard to the goal of health and physical wellness.

Why not fill our courses and learning experiences with such checkups?  This provides important data for learner and teacher about how each learner is progressing (or not) toward a given learning goal.  As learner’s progress, such checkups give feedback and confidence that the learner can use to adjust their strategies, the amount of time devoted to the course, etc. As learner’s recognize that they are learning and progressing, they will see less need to cheat or pursue other ways to get the desired grade.  Why cheat if you really know that you can do well on your own?  Some may still cheat.  However, if we set them up for success like this, many will not even think about cheating.

Build early success opportunities and you increase self-efficacy and decrease cheating. Increased self-efficacy can decrease the perceived need to cheat.

When learner’s are confident that they can do something on their own, then they are naturally less likely to pursue a cheating strategy.  If this is the case, then why not find ways to help students gain confidence?  The best way to do that is to give them incrementally more challenging tasks, but starting with simple ones that they can master, providing them with a confidence boost and a motivation to pursue the more challenging tasks.  This works wonderfully for videos, so why not try it in the classroom?  What does this mean for a class?  Well, if the first assignment in the class is worth 10% of the overall grade, then failing it drastically decreases a student’s ability to earn an “A.”  Why not offer practice opportunities that help students learn and gain confidence before giving them such a high stakes assessment?

Frequent testing and assessment reduces cheating
Testing does not just measure learning. It increases learning.

While these statements overlap with some of the others, they point out the idea that tests do not need to be the problem.  Tests are powerful teaching and learning tools, but there is no need to always associate tests with grades.  Why not give learners lots of practice quizzes and tests as a learning device?  As noted by Dr. Lang, there is ample research to show that the simple process of taking and retaking quizzes or tests on a given subject can improve student learning.  These sorts of learning assessments can even be more effective than students studying or reviewing course material in a more traditional way.  Of course, some students catch on to this fact on their own.  Those are the students who turn studying into games and quizzes that they can use on their own or with classmates.  This rehearsal and review with feedback is powerful when it comes to learning something new. As noted by Dr. Lang, “The best way to reduce cheating is to build learning environments where the students learn the material really well.”  So, if this is such a valuable tool for learning, then why not design such quizzes and games right into the course?

Strive to create a culture that values mastery over performance. 

A performance-based culture highlights those who earned the highest grades.  A mastery culture highlights work that demonstrates deep learning.  A performance culture promotes doing whatever it takes to get the highest grade, and a mastery culture puts the focus upon the importance of mastering the content, often by pointing to why it is important outside of the classroom.  Creating a mastery culture can start by looking at the words we use and the way instructions are written.  As I see it, this is where a rubric (that focuses upon measures of mastery) can be much more helpful than an assignment that simply notes how many points equals a particular grade.  As a parent, I’ve seen the importance of this principle as well.  I don’t reward my kids for earning an “A” or a particular grade.  To me, that means very little from the perspective of authentic learning.  Instead, I seek to use encouragements and affirmations that focus upon specific things that they learned.  What if we designed our classes in a way that focused upon and recognized progress toward mastery rather than just scores, points, grades, and ranks?

All of these statements point to the important role that instructional design plays in not only promoting academic honesty, but is creating a rich, meaningful, and honorable learning community.  There is no need to create high-anxiety cut-throat classes that students dread, endure or simply seek to survive.  More students will learn more things if we simply reconsider and redesign the course with a few of these tips from Dr. Lang.  This leads me to a concluding thought, one that Dr. Lang did not address directly, but that I suspect is an important part of the matter.  All of this requires that teachers see themselves as servants of the student.  The educator’s job is not to make things as difficult as possible, but to facilitate a class in such a way that people learn or grow as much as possible (whether this be cognitive, affective, focused upon content acquisition or about developing new skills).  As I see it, teaching with these design considerations requires a teacher who is committed to servant leadership.

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Toward Digital Collaboration Fluency

As I reflect upon some of my recent experiences in MOOCs (most recently #ETMOOC and #EDCMOOC) and online communities (especially my recent participation in #COOPLIT), I find myself thinking about the notion of digital collaboration and the pursuit of digital collaboration fluency.

Learning about positive and effective communication is a lifelong task, an area where I know that I want and need to grow.  I am especially fascinated by how this looks and evolves in digital spaces. Regardless of the context, there is ample research to support the idea that high impact groups/teams develop clear and positive methods of communication.

From the positive psychology research, we know that the positivity ratio in group interaction is a key to success, even to the overall success of businesses.  When there are more negative comments than positive ones, that is a danger sign for the organization.  On the flip side, if there is 100% positivity, that lead to ineffective teams as well.  The important part, it seems, is to have more positive comments than negative, building a culture of trust and openness where people are generally positive but they can also disagree.  They can even battle some things out while keeping the co-worker / co-learner relationships healthy and intact (many of the ideas in this paragraph were informed by Seligman’s book Flourish).

Howard Rheingold just drew my attention to this blog post where the author reviews and highlights parts of Sarah Miller Caldicott new book Midnight Lunch: the 4 phases of team collaboration success from Thomas Edison’s LabTwo ideas captured my attention from this blog post and book:

  1. “Collaboration begins with collegiality. Unless people feel they can roll up their sleeves and work together, innovation is much tougher.”
  2. “Collaboration is reinforced through casual dialogue rather than stiff agendas. Every member of a collaboration team engages in dialogue with other team members, and is not able to shrink to the background.”

These two points remind me of the importance of cultivating a culture of collaboration and not simply trying to apply collaboration principles to standard meetings, classes, and environments.  It also reminds me of Jay Cross’s important work about the power and importance of Informal Learning in the workplace over traditional training programs, workshops, and seminars.

All of this brings me back to the title of this article, “Toward Digital Collaboration Fluency.”  Literacy, as I am thinking about it now is not as much about memorizing rules, grammar, and punctuation as it is about socially negotiated meaning.  As I write about digital collaboration literacy and fluency, it is more than simply applying principles from a manual on how to collaborate effectively in digital spaces.  Instead, it is about negotiating over and over.

The more that I think about it, the more that I believe that the most powerful digital collaboration comes when those involved take time to build community and trust, and then they persevere through imperfect attempts at digital communication and collaboration. Given this trust relationship, they are willing to explore and experiment with new modes of digital age communication and collaboration.  They experiment with the affordances and limitations of text versus audio versus video, synchronous versus asynchronous versus nearly now communication like what we see in texting and Twitter. They explore new ways of thinking about roles and responsibilities.  They try out various tools in search of new affordances and not simply leaning on a couple of preferred tools that are personally comfortable.  In the end, they negotiate mash-ups of collaborative tools for a given context, project, or team; and then the do it all over again with the next project or team.  This is certainly a messier way of thinking about digital collaboration fluency, but it may be one of the only ways to make significant progress toward true fluency rather than plateauing at moderate levels of competence.

The pursuit of fluency also requires lots and lots of time. I’ve yet to see any shortcuts.  It demands a willingness to immerse oneself in the environment and lean on others so much that, if they were move, you would fall over.  With that will come frustration, more messiness, and uncertainty.  It will drive us to want to revert back to our comfort zones, but doing so may inhibit us from the joy of that next digital collaboration aha moment.  This is why that informal and collegial community of trust is such an important foundation.  It is much easier to take risks when you are among trusted friends, collaborators and/or colleagues; people who pay more attention to your strengths and contributions than your weaknesses or shortcomings.

“What if…” Questions to Re-imagine Learning Environments Through the Lens of Participant Pedagogy

This post is part of a series of reflections informed by my participation in the 2013 Mooc Mooc at Canvas.net. Today we are exploring participant pedagogy, what Howard Rheingold calls peeragogy (also called paragogy) and related themes.  Below are first reflections followed by a a list of “what if…” questions intended to help us imagine what a learning environment informed by participant pedagogy might look like.  After reading the list, please add more “what if…” questions in the comment section.  For more resources on the subject, consider reviewing the rich content provided in the peer-developed Peer-to-Peer Learning Handbook.

Many of the readings and resources on the subject invite us to reconsider the power structures and dynamics in various learning environments. Rather than the teacher being responsible for all aspects of the planning, prescribing, and assessing; participant pedagogies re-imagine and redistribute these functions. In some cases, it may be helpful to completely remove the word “teacher” from the discourse. The teacher in unnecessary in one sense. That does not mean that that the roles and responsibilities carried out by the teacher in a traditional pedagogical framework are unnecessary. Instead, it means that that those roles and responsibilities can be fulfilled by all or various participants in a learning community.  As a result, peer-to-peer learning environments challenge us to reconsider traditional notions of teacher and student.  Participant pedagogy and peeragogical notions invite us to reconsider learning environments by asking questions like the following:

  • Instead of the instructor pre-developing the syllabus, what if learners (including the instructor as a “co-learner”) developed the syllabus together?
  • Instead of the instructor taking the full responsibility to assess the learners, what if the learner’s established methods and criteria for assessments?  What if learners self-assessed and peer-assessed?  What if assessment was something that learners did as part of the learning process and not something that an instructor does to them?
  • What if learners developed ways to crowd-source the feedback loops that allow them to check their progress?
  • What if learners differentiated the learning environments themselves by contributing individual and group learning objects and resources that turned into a continually growing repository for other participants?
  • What if the rules of the “class” or learning environment “read and write” and not “read online”?
  • In a game-based learning experience, what if the participants themselves established the rules of the game or had the ability to change the rules of the game mid-play?

I offer these questions as a starter point, but in the spirit of peer-to-peer learning, what do you have to contribute to the list?