By Jan Schwartz
In fall 2008, I participated in a semester long MOOC — Massive Open Online Course — through the University of Manitoba. The name of the course was Connectivism and Connected Knowledge; Stephen Downes and George Seimens facilitated it. Of the over 2000 enrollees from all over the world, I think fewer than 30 took it for credit. It was one of the most fascinating educational experiences I’ve ever had, and by the way it was free. For those interested, there is a short explanatory slide deck.
I admit to being primarily a lurker in the early part of this course because I had no idea what connectivism and connected knowledge meant, but by the end of the course I had a pretty good idea. A lurker in this instance is similar to an auditor in a face-to-face class; she is there to soak it all up, but not really to participate. There were published readings each week, but most of the learning came from other participants. We posted on Twitter, blogs, wikis, social bookmarks, and Moodle, which was the “home” platform for the course. There were even some discussions happening in Second Life. (Yes, eventually I started to participate.) In addition there was a once a week synchronous discussion on Elluminate.
This reflection is not about MOOC or the course itself, but what I learned about the combined roles of the student, the teacher, and the technology in education, particularly adult education (the education field in which I work). To be clear about the definition of technology that I’m using, I’ll go with Harry Keller’s definition of technology in his ECTJ article, Technology Literacy: The Key to Education Reform (8.22.10): “Let’s take technology, for this discussion, to mean technology in the classroom and require that it have an important computer component. Interactive white boards and iPads will fall into this range as will all sorts of computer software.” I would extend that definition to include technology in an online “classroom” as well.
In my opinion, the teacher’s primary role in the online environment is to facilitate discussion among the students. He or she truly becomes the “guide on the side,” and in my experience, I’ve learned that many teachers don’t know how to do this well. They are accustomed to the “sage on the stage” mode of teaching through lectures, in class discussions, and tests, over which they have total control. In the MOOC, the facilitators aggregated the conversations on a daily basis via a mass email, took a few really good posts (in their opinion), and advanced the conversation by asking more questions and pointing the discussions in relevant directions. Their choice of good posts included both the pro and the con of topics of connectivism and connected learning. Periodically the participants would see a post by the teachers responding to a student’s post — always on Moodle since that was the basic platform for the course.
In essence the participants chose the online tool through which we each wanted to communicate and learn. We were given a hashtag if we wanted to blog, tweet, or create a new wiki so that everyone could do a search and we could find each other on the internet. I learned to use some new tools by watching, reading, and participating in some of the discussions. For example, the use of wikis is much more clear to me now because I was allowed to experiment. Sometimes it bugged me that someone edited my work, but in the end I did learn from it, and I can see how it would be an interesting learning experience for an online group.
Is there an ideal way to ensure that technology is an aid to learning rather than a blockade? I believe there is. The MOOC course created a facilitated microcosm of an educational technology world. If I had questions about the technology or the course, there were avenues to ask them, including the synchronous Elluminate sessions and email. There were opportunities to post an original idea and to post responses to others’ ideas. We could use words, graphics — Wordle or a mind map for example — or videos to get our thoughts and points across. The teachers were well versed in the use of all of these tools.
What is an example of a less than ideal way to use technology in education? The use of PowerPoint is a good illustration of how technology can detract from learning.
When you throw technology into the classroom situation, I think it is safe to say we are generally talking about PowerPoint. I remember back in the early ’90s when people thought PowerPoint was the hot new technology to spice up lectures and other presentations. Today I am a member of a LinkedIn Group whose aim is to end “death by PowerPoint” — twenty years later people still do not know how to use that tool. There is the issue of cognitive load, which is not clearly understood by those who use PowerPoint because they seem to use it as a way of keeping track of where they are in their lecture — very teacher centric. It is also used as an easy way to provide handouts — very teacher centric. The only PowerPoint presentations I recall seeing in the MOOC were introductory in nature, very short, and included minimal use of text.
To be clear, it is not the fault of PowerPoint that people tend to fall asleep or do other things such as text their neighbors during a lecture, but it is the fault of the teacher who did not learn how to use PowerPoint, or any other technological tool, to enhance learning — rather than to make teaching easier. This is true about online teaching in general. Just because teachers have been teaching for 10 or 20 or 30 years does not mean they can do it well online. Facilitating a discussion when it is not possible to see slumping bodies, glazed or rolling eyes, or even alert and affirming nods of heads is challenging. I know there are colleges and universities that are doing faculty training on the use of online technology (for example Penn State World College). In my field there is zilch training, yet people are teaching online anyway and then complain about retention or outcomes.
In summary, the role of the student is to review the information they already have, learn new information from as many sources as feasible, evaluate that information, and then connect the dots. And technology is provided as a tool that helps teachers help learners enhance the learning experience.
Filed under: Uncategorized Tagged: | Connectivism and Connected Knowledge, Elluminate, George Seimens, Harry Keller, hashtag, LinkedIn, Massive Open Online Course, MOOC, moodle, PowerPoint, Second Life, Stephen Downes, Technology Literacy: The Key to Education Reform, Twitter, University of Manitoba, Wordle