MOOCs explained (by Stephen Downes)

Stephen Downes, the Canadian MOOC-pioneer (Massive Open Online Courses), delivered a talk in Armenia and as usual he generously shares the recording and the slides.

My own MOOC-experiences started in 2008 with CCK08, facilitated by Stephen Downes and George Siemens. Back then we lived in full euphoria about the power of virtual communities and I participated with a group of Second Life residents. It was a bewildering experience and when it was all over, I had far more questions than answers. These days I must admit it was one of the most enriching experiences of my life as a learner.

In the slides you’ll see how Downes makes the distinction between community-based – “connectivist” or “cMOOCs”  such as CCK08ds106 and ConnectedCourses on the one hand and more institutionally based MOOCs (xMOOCs) on the other such as the Stanford branch, with companies offering open learning such as Udacity, Coursera en edX. This for the scene in Canada and the US, nowadays there are a number of emerging platforms in other countries as well.

Downes says that communities are about sharing while institutions are about consuming. “Open” does not just mean “put it for free on the internet”. cMOOCs are about harmony through diversity, about unstated and multiple learning objectives versus concrete and stated objectives.

Audio on the Stephen Downes’ site. I also recommend his OLDaily-newsletter.

For my own experiences and opinion about online learning: I’ll come to that in a next post.

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How one gets tired of virtual worlds

Reacting on my previous post about Second Life veterans uniting, draxfiles asked on this site and on Facebook:

Interesting how some folks get “tired” of a world unlimited in its creative possibilities, a world that is continuously mind-boggling in the sense that folks make awesome things and yes: a LOT of them are a lot better than what was done in the hype days. The creative forces that are marveling at the tools that Linden churns out [xp tools, ALM model, etc] and use them = I am in awe of them and the monthly video show is not nearly enough to cover this bustling life. I simply do not understand how you get tired of it: it is like saying “I am tired of this pencil and this piece of paper!” :) Come on the show Roland and help those of us [in the audience of the show] who are pushing the envelope every day understand what this means!

Well here we go. Of course I agree that new tools are making new things possible (such as using Second Life on a mobile device or on old machines), and more is to come when Oculus Rift will release its VR-headset on the broader market.
However, people get tired because well, that’s life: people evolve, move on to new jobs, expand their families and end up with less time and energy. But there is more: Second Life and virtual worlds in 2007/2008 were technologically speaking less sophisticated, but there was this feeling that ‘this is the new thing': the online world was evolving from 2D to 3D, and websites or social media feeds would become just a part of this encompassing 3D-metaverse.

Embassies, corporations, news wires and other media, religious institutions entered Second Life because it was the future. Then we all know what happened: the end of the hype, mass traction not materializing, corporations and institutions did not find out how to use this new space. The new headlines now claimed that Second Life was dying or that is was just “a niche of a niche”.

While it’s not correct to say Second Life is dying (I hope), I think it’s true to say that it’s a niche-activity. Will it finally gain traction during the Oculus (or similar devices) era? I’m not sure. People are tired and stressed out: this is an era of fast dipping into media feeds (Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp, SnapChat… ) not of long immersive media-experiences (at least when you’re not a young student). This argument has nothing to do with technological breakthroughs but with how we structure time in this first part of the 21st century.

So, when we speak about people getting tired of immersive worlds, this is what I mean: we have such limited time and right now and quite possibly for a long time these worlds will remain a niche industry. While you can probably find a job quite easily as a Facebook-marketing expert, I’m afraid it will be difficult to market your skills as a Second Life guru.

This being said, yes I’m impressed by the new energy and developments which are to be found in virtual reality and virtual worlds (both concepts being rather different). So, can one be impressed and tired at the same time? I think so.

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Second Life veterans unite

I remember, in the good old days of the Metanomics show in Second Life, that we discussed a study about what happens when people have to leave a virtual world. You get a virtual diaspora, groups of people settling in new virtual worlds, and eventually you get tensions between those groups and people who already ‘live’ there.

Second Life is not closing down or forcing huge groups out, but there is this other phenomenon that people get tired after a few years. They look for something else and lose interest, or at least they reduce the time spent in Second Life. However, for many of those ‘old’ residents, Second Life changed their lives in some way, and they feel a need to meet up with their old friends and former fellow-residents.

That’s what happens on Facebook, where veterans launched the group Second Lifers for Life. People compile lists of names, remember those who passed away, discuss what they’re doing these days. Maybe it’s not really like a diaspora but more like former classmates meeting again. There is even a little bit of drama, with people complaining about the initiative and telling others they should look at the future, not the past. But then again, maybe it’s by meeting again that new projects will be born.

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Supporting Radiotopia

I just supported (very modestly) the Kickstarter project of Radiotopia – and if you care about storytelling, radio shows and podcasting, you should consider it too. The Kickstarter campaign for this new kind of public radio still runs for 4 days as I write this. The goal of $250,000 was attained and right now Radiotopia got pledges for $529,673 which means they’ll be able to ‘level up’ as they explain on the Kickstarter page.

If you think it’s important to enable podcasts about subjects which would have a hard time finding money on the commercial market, you should support this project.

These are the shows enabled by the project:

I particularly like 99% Invisible, a show about “design, architecture & the 99% invisible activity that shapes our world.” Roman Mars (@romanmars) is the creator of 99% Invisible.

I discovered the project via my friend Charles Maynes, a Moscow-based podcaster. You can listen to one of his fascinating stories on 99percentinvisible about the composer Arseny Avraamov who heard music in the cacophony of the modern world…

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Waiting for the new Bee and PussyCat episode

Just learned about Frederator‘s Bee and PussyCat show in The Wall Street Journal. It’s a great story about an indie production for YouTube, getting no corporate response yet mobilizing a lot of devoted fans on Kickstarter and now launching on YouTube. This is the first video they published in August 2013 and which got about 10 million views. While cartoons traditionally are produced for 13-year old boys, as Mike Shields writes in the WSJ-article, this production is more girl-oriented, puzzling the male executives of this industry.

Today the series will launch and the fan community is extatic. I guess digital culture experts are observing all this very attentively.

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Destructive Personal Learning Environments

‘The web is a terrorist’s command-and-control network of choice.’ That’s the title of an opinion article in the Financial Times, written by Robert Hannigan, the chief of Britain’s electronic spying agency GCHQ.

The digital natives who joined the terrorist organization Isis are very adept in using social media and in the use of encryption techniques. Their practices, such as beheadings and stoning, often seems to date from the Middle Ages or pre-medieval times, but they also produce high quality video footage and they use WhatsApp to coordinate their operations.

Hannigan points out the internet skills of these terrorist digital natives and laments the fact that big internet companies are less ready to collaborate with government agencies.

While I do have many questions about the surveillance practices of the various spy agencies, I’m also worried about what Hannigan describes. The augmentation of the human intellect made possible by the internet has a very dark side. The individual or small groups of individuals can engage into peer-to-peer learning in order to build a better and more tolerant and compassionate world, but they can also learn to master techniques aimed at the destruction of such world.

The ‘personal learning environments’ of young terrorists can help them not only to master social media techniques and ways to hide on the internet, but also how to build and use weapons of mass destruction. It seems that the empowerment of the individual is culminating in a race with the empowerment of state agencies trying to prevent the worst scenarios. These are interesting but sad times.

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Understanding Media by Understanding Facebook

Professor Owen R. Youngman teaches a great course about Understanding Media by Understanding Google, but maybe he should consider a follow-up: Understanding Media by Understanding Facebook. Ravi Somaiya explains in The New York Times how Facebook is changing the way its users consume journalism. For quite some time media experts have been talking about the ‘unbundling’ of news – the fact that people no longer want to buy complete newspapers or magazines, but focus on individual stories which they find through search and social networks. What they ‘consume’ is determined at least partially by the algorithms used by Google and Facebook. It seems that the unbundling is happening right now.

Aaron Sankin posted on The Kernel a story about how Facebook is ‘wrecking political news’. In his opinion, the ‘trending topics’ feature on Facebook causes media to surf along whatever is ‘trending’ in order to attract the crowds they need for their traffic and advertizing revenues. Not only the choice of the topics is debatable, also the fact that stories are published in a hurry in order to benefit from the momentum leads to particularly bad journalism.

These are issues which should be discussed in both courses I’m following right now: the above mentioned Understanding Media by Understanding Google but also the Connected Courses which studies education and web culture. Facebook is changing online culture in very important but not always very visible ways. The world of blogs, RSS-feeds, social bookmarks and probably even web-based search is increasingly being replaced by a very different environment dominated by mobile social networks.

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Understanding Google, embeddable content and MOOCs

googlecourseWhat makes mobile so transformative? Why is Google a revolutionary company? These are questions asked and answered in the Coursera course
Understanding Media by Understanding Google. Professor Owen R. Youngman (Northwestern University) focuses during six weeks on Google and what makes it so important, not just for media people but for all of us. If you use a smartphone or a social network, you should know why these technologies are so much more than gadgets. The course offers the typical talking head videos but professor Youngman also adds his talent as a curator by selecting half a dozen books and many press articles dealing with fundamental aspects of Google – and of course both highly critical and more jubilant commentators are being discussed.

MOOCs and embeddable content

This is a second run for this course. Of course, it would be interesting to ask the question What Would Google Do (title of a book by Jeff Jarvis) about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) such as they are organized by Coursera. In an interview by Youngman, professor Jeff Jarvis promotes the idea of the ‘embeddable article’. Just like Google makes YouTube-videos embeddable, media companies could do the same for their news articles (incorporating their brand and ads in the embeddable content and adding a link back to their site). Wouldn’t this be a great idea for parts of the Coursera-content – or not really? Maybe this is less a problem for more connectivist-styled MOOCs such as Connected Courses – ultimately it boils down to choices about the business model (or lack of such a model).

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‘One does not own social capital’

The ConnectedCourses were discussing social capital and networks last week. Kira Baker-Doyle – Assistant Professor of Education, Arcadia University. Author of The Networked Teacher – started by explaining that one can own financial capital but not social capital. That is because your social capital is situated outside of yourself, in loose or dense networks.

Dense networks tend to be great for building trust and for sharing the same background and values while loose networks are more efficient for innovation and creativity as those networks link up people from different contexts.

These notions should be taken into consideration when thinking about Personal Learning Networks (PLNs). On a practical level, such networks use tools such as Twitter but also blog networks and RSS feeds. Shelly Sanchez Terrell (Teacher Trainer, Instructional Designer, Author of The 30 Goals Challenge for Teachers & Learning to Go) recommends to look for the right hashtag corresponding to your interests and the community you want to find. She pointed out that hashtags are not just used on Twitter but also on Facebook and Google+.

Howard Rheingold mentioned other methods such as the social bookmarking services Diigo and Delicious.

As Howard Rheingold explains in the video these networks are also about emotions and camaraderie. By signalling people indicate they are willing to collaborate. It’s a huge asset and of course it not only applies to educators.

Kira Baker-Doyle brought in another crucial element in building communities and networks: actually making something together.

Watch the video, other topics being discussed are the relationship between online and offline contacts, the importance of local connections and collaboration and the risk of burn-out. Also have a look at the course page about trust and network fluency.

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Progressive and emergent games / online courses

I’ve been looking into an interesting course going on right now, Understanding Video Games, at Coursera by Leah Hackman and Sean Gouglas (Alberta University). It’s a rather institutional Massive Open Online Course, not the connectivist style we experience at connectedcourses, but I’m very interested in the subjects they teach.

The three main parts of the course are developing the terminology that enables us to talk about video games,
exploring how these terms are used in theoretical frameworks to interpret games, and turning these theories toward cultural aspects of games in order to understand how the medium has impacted society.

I’m not much of a gamer myself, but I do think game culture can teach as a lot about web culture in general and about some of the basic inspirations of connectivist MOOCs. More specifically I think that open-ended, sandbox-like games and Massive Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (MMORPGs) are somehow among the ancestors of online, learner-centric open-ended courses.

One of the interesting concepts we study at the Video Games course are “emergent” and “progressive” games.
“Progressive” is not a political term here, it simply describes games that have little freedom of choice within the game, and “emergent” describes games with much freedom of choice within the game. This reminds me of the distinction between this Video Games course (progressive) and the connectedcourses (emergent).

Anyway, games and virtual environments seem like an interesting topic today, as Microsoft just bought Minecraft for $2.5bn (and not long ago Facebook acquired Oculus Rift for $2bn). Let’s hope Microsoft will not turn out to be a giant Creeper for the Mincecraft community…

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