What I learned after all those online courses

Listening to Stephen Downes discussing Massive Open Online Courses (see previous post) I felt the need to make an overview of the online courses I participated in during these last few years. Downes inspires me a lot and I fundamentally agree with the discintions he makes between connectivist MOOCs which are more community-driven and so-called xMOOCs which are more institutional.

However, this won’t stop me from participating in all kinds of online learning, whether the teaching is in a top-down institutional style or rather in a more freewheeling learner-centered style.

Here is am incomplete list of what I tried out since 2008:
– CCK08 as mentioned in the previous post. This first experience in 2008 was the most impressive one and determined my attitude toward online learning.  The course was very learner-centered but also overwhelming and completely different from traditional education.
These days I’m attending on an irregular basis ConnectedCourses which is another connectivist course.
– Awakening the Digital Imagination (2011): A Networked Faculty-Staff Development Seminar coordinated by Professor Gardner Campbell, Virginia Tech. This was a great experience, I participated as a member of a small cohort in Second Life. We used the MIT textbook The New Media Reader and read texts such as the famous “As We May Think“ by Vannevar Bush. This course was not massive but very open with a small group of highly motivated and kind people. Just learning to know these folks in itself was very enriching.

– Coursera-courses: Professor Cathy N. Davidson of Duke University recently taught History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education, while being very critical about xMOOC-like features such as multiple choice questions. She also incited the students to reflect in a free way and to share their insights also outside the boundaries of the Coursera universe. I paid for a certificate. It was a way to motivate myself to complete the course – and yes I finished the course. You can read my final assignment here on MixedRealities.

Other more ‘typical’, institutional courses at Coursera I completed were Gamification by Professor Kevin Werbach of Wharton, University of Pennsylvania and a Computer Science 101 course by Professor Nick Parlante of Stanford. Stuff I looked into seriously were Buddhism and Modern Psychology by Professor Robert Wright of Princeton University and Understanding Media by Understanding Google by Professor Owen R. Youngman of Northwestern University.

On the Canvas Network I tried another approach. Various experts taught in a more classical xMOOC style about Doing Journalism with Data, but I gathered a small group of fellow journalists to have weekly discussions about the course (at my newspaper, during lunch hour). I blended online learning with meetings in the physical space (I don’t see much difference).  I guess I invested more time and effort in the course than I would have done without the meetings, but I can’t say I really completed it.

–  Introduction to computer science and programming: this is an MIT open courseware which I started in 2011 but I never got very far. Why did I fail? Maybe because I was trying to do it alone, or because I was trying out too many courses at once. The abundance of free courses of high quality makes me feel like a child in a candy store, and I underestimate systematically the real cost of these courses, which is time.

– Howard Rheingold courses: Howard is the guy who invented the notion “virtual community”, a writer about digital culture and digital literacies, an artist, a community builder and a teacher. I learned about him in Second Life – I guess it must have been in 2008 – and I participated in various courses of his Rheingold U community. The courses included Toward a Literacy of Cooperation: Introduction to Cooperation Theory, Think-Know Tools and Introduction to Mind Amplifiers. In these courses we used asynchronous forums, blogs, wikis, mindmaps, social bookmarks, synchronous audio, video, chat, and Twitter.

The courses were neither free nor massive: about thirty people worked together and had intense interactions, culminating in a last session which was self-organized by the co-learners. I finished almost all those courses (I even took several courses more than once). The Rheingold-courses are very interesting: they are community-driven and try to emancipate the learners while at the same time Howard is being much more than ‘just a facilitator’.

– Project based learning: contributing to an actual digital artefact is a great way to learn. In yet another group facilitated and inspired by Howard Rheingold, I contributed to an online Peeragogy Handbook (Peeragogy as in how to learn peer-to-peer).

– Miscellaneous online courses: I’ve quite a history of learning how to code online. I tried Codecademy dabbling in HTML, CSS, JavaScript, jQuery and PHP. I like Codecademy, but it’s very different from the other courses I mentioned here – what seems to lack is a real sense of connection to other participants (even though there are learner forums which are very active). Treehouse is another great, video-based and interactive place to learn coding, but again not much of a community.

The more expensive and intense option was the O’Reilly School of Technology where you get feedback by a tutor (again not really community driven). Even though I’ve a good insight now in the very basics of web design, I cannot consider myself as being a web designer or developer. In order to achieve that, I would have to actively build something of my own – and I lack time and motivation to do so.

So, what did I learn?

I’m 55 now and I’ve a more than fulltime job. I also was deeply influenced by the connectivist MOOC in 2008. So what I learned was to put myself in the center as a learner and to have my own objectives, while reaching out to others who I assume have different objectives and perspectives.

Mostly my objective was to learn new concepts and ways of thinking in order to look at the world in a different way. For instance, I learned that computers and networks can amplify our brains. I discovered that people can learn a lot outside of the traditional institutions: fan communities learning Japanese in order to immerse themselves in the world of manga culture, people who learn scripting and 3D-building as ‘residents’ of virtual worlds, or youngsters learning everything about video as part of some YouTube subculture.

Often these informal ‘educations’ are far more efficient than the programs prepared and implemented by professional educators. It reminds me of Ivan Illich and his book Deschooling Society, but then again I must admit I went to college myself were I graduated in applied economics and philosophy. I still feel very grateful for that ‘institutional’ education.


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.

Bringing together distributed learning

One of the important topics at the connectedcourses is… how to connect all the posts on the many platforms learners use.

Facilitator Alan Levine mentions on his blog cogdogblog a few ways to aggregate content, two seem particularly interesting:

  • gRSShopper by Stephen Downes, the guy who introduced me and so many others to connectivist MOOCs in 2008. It’s a personal web environment that combines resource aggregation, a personal dataspace, and personal publishing.
  • The WordPress/FeedWordPress Syndication hub approach used for connectedcourses and the digital storytelling course ds106.

At connectedcourses the aggregation looks like this:


Levine says in the above mentioned post:

It’s not the platform that matters, it’s the connected design.

I do hope to learn more about the technicalities of this design and the related tools during this course!

Half an Hour: International MOOCs Past and Present

Stephen Downes on Half an Hour now has a list with international Massive Open Online Courses. 
Let’s not forget: there is more out there than the xMOOCs such as offered by Coursera, edX and Udacity – the connectivist courses offer a very different learning experience, based on distributed platforms, the learner as center and peer2peer philosophy. 

So I’m very glad to find this list with international courses! 
via Diigo http://halfanhour.blogspot.ca/2012/11/international-moocs-past-and-present.html

MOOCs and their differences

I started the Computer Sciences 101 course taught by professor Nick Parlante (Stanford University) as a massive open online course (MOOC) on the Coursera platform. Nick says there are not enough people on this planet with computer skills, so he hopes that this introductory course will incite some of us to deepen their knowledge and skills.

During 6 weeks we’ll do small coding experiments in the browser (using JavaScript) to play with the nature of computers, “understanding their strengths and limitations.”

My impression is that the course is cleverly designed. The lecture videos are broken into small chunks, sometimes containing quiz questions. There are also standalone quizzes and programming assignments.

The participants meet each other in discussion forums. There are discussions about the format (which seems to be much appreciated – even though some complained this first week was too basic), the assignments, introductions… Students also organize themselves in an impressive variety of study groups along national or language lines.

Coursera provides the platform for the course – it’s a “social entrepreneurship company” that partners with top universities to offer courses online for free. In fact, Coursera has been created by Stanford professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng.

We envision a future where the top universities are educating not only thousands of students, but millions. Our technology enables the best professors to teach tens or hundres of thousands of students.

Coursera offers courses in a wide range of topics – not only programming and science but also the humanities. Right now they work with Princeton, Stanford, Michigan and Penn.

It’s interesting to experience the differences with other MOOCs such as the connectivism courses facilitated by Stephen Downes and George Siemens. In my experience those courses are more distributed – they take place on various platforms even though the blogposts, discussions, social bookmarks and synchronous sessions are being aggregated on a site and a newsletter. They also seem to be more open-ended, every participant picks the stuff she is particularly interested in and connects with people in function of her own objectives and interests. Stephen Downes was interviewed about MOOCs by the independent journalist Kevin Charles Redmon and gives an interesting overview of the MOOC-history and the success massive open courses seem to have today.

The MOOCs organized by Downes and Siemens leave it to the student to define what counts as success. This does not mean that Stephen is not interested in assessment. He explains what the two basic approaches are:

The first is the Big Data approach – instead of using a few dozen data points, which is what the testing regimen does, you track a student’s activities and construct a profile from the full spectrum of his interactions with the material and other learners. This is the work of a field called ‘Learning Analytics’ (which should be ‘discovered’ by the Stanford-MIT nexus any time now). The second, which is my own approach, is a network clustering approach – the idea is that in a network of interactions in a community, expertise constitutes a ‘cluster’ of activity, and a person’s learning can be assessed as a form of proximity to that cluster. The Learning Analytics and Network Analysis approaches are not mutually exclusive.

Ultimately it’s about empowerment:

It’s about actually empowering people to develop and create their own learning, their own education. So not only do they not depend on us for learning, but also, their learning is not subject to our value-judgements and prejudices. We (those of working in MOOCs) have also been clear about the influences of people like Ivan Illich and Paulo Freire. And it’s not just about ‘flipping’ courses. It’s about reducing and eventually eliminating the learned dependence on the expert and the elite – not as a celebration of anti-intellectualism, but as a result of widespread and equitable access to expertise.

None of this happens by magic. There isn’t some ‘invisible hand’ creating a fair and equitable education marketplace. The system needs to be built with an understanding that personal empowerment and community networks are the goal and objective.

It could very well be that participants at the Udacity and Coursera-courses discover this along the road. That some of them will return – even after having completed the program – to help out others. This will be more like a process of self-discovery – I’m sure that right now people participating at the CS101 course just want to learn about computers. But maybe they’ll end up realizing it’s actually about teaching yourself and the others.