The MOOC, ‘an Incubator for Great Ideas': A Personal Experience

Niall Watts

Niall Watts

By Niall Watts

Introduction

I have recently completed Stanford University’s Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), ‘Designing a New Learning Environment’. As an educational technologist, I try to keep abreast of developments in the ever‑changing world of technology. I had been reading a lot about the transformative potential of MOOCs and was keen to try one out for myself. I am always sceptical about claims of ‘reinventing education’, ‘the end of universities as we know them’ or ‘the biggest innovation to happen in education for 200 years’. I chose ‘Designing a New Learning Environment’, as it seemed like an interesting topic – one of which I already had considerable experience but where there is always something new to learn. Stanford’s reputation was also a factor.

Stanford Online: Designing a New Learning Environment

Stanford Online: Designing a New Learning Environment

A ten-week course where I should spend 1-3 hours per week on course activities seemed a manageable commitment. For the first five weeks, I completed individual assignments. The second half of the course was devoted to an ambitious team assignment where teams took up the challenge of designing a new learning environment.

Teams – the Good, the Bad & the Ugly

I took my time before joining a team, as I did not have a project of my own. I wanted a team with a broad mix of participants where I could contribute. I was also expecting my progress in the course to lead me towards a team or topic. This did not happen. Finally, while browsing through the list of teams, I chose the Engagineers, a team of eight interested, as their name suggests, in engagement. They had started a thoughtful discussion in their team journal. Fortunately, this proved to be a very good choice, as once the team got going, we worked well together. None of the team knew each other beforehand, but we still managed to form an effective working relationship. We used familiar tools such as Skype and email as effective and reliable means of communication.

According to the ‘Designing a New Learning Environment’ syllabus, “This course seeks to be an incubator for great ideas”. Its focus on a final project had the potential to do just that. In a very short time period, the Engagineers designed an innovative project on crisis management through gaming, teamwork and social media. Our project was ‘Black Taurus a Social Media Crisis Simulation’ based on a product launch of an energy drink, which went wrong. The team worked because of the commitment of its members. My own contribution was modest mainly due to time pressures. From my point of view our project and my participation in the MOOC was a success. There were many other interesting projects in ‘Designing a New Learning Environment’, but many teams failed to gel and produce anything.

It is difficult for a group to agree on a project and then to agree on the roles and responsibilities needed to carry it out, especially in a very short time period. It is even more difficult when the members do not know each other. Guidelines on team development and project management could help struggling teams. Perhaps the course team could develop these for future iterations of the MOOC.

Role of Course Team

This course team had to manage large numbers of participants. As far as I could tell, they had three main roles: producing weekly video lectures, providing a grading rubric and monitoring issues in the forums. The lecture videos covered topics such as needs analysis, sustainability and access and featured some of Dr Paul Kim’s, the course leader, projects in developing countries. Some of the issues in the forum related to difficulties with the course infrastructure, which could have been more intuitive. The team seemed supportive of suggestions for improvement made by the participants and were quick to deal with an incident of harassment.

The Participants

According to the participant profile, about 18,000 registered. Of these, about 10% were from the USA, 3% from India, 1% each from Canada, UK, Australia, Pakistan and Brazil with the rest from many other countries. My own country, Ireland, had 46 participants, which is a high per capita participation rate. Only about 10% of the registered participants seemed to be active. This low level of participation is not surprising, as registration is easy and free, but the work is real and time-consuming. As it was an open course, there were no entry requirements. To me this is a potential weakness as you may have ‘peers’ with vastly different levels of knowledge and experience. This affects their ability to contribute and more importantly to evaluate.

Looking at the occupations given by the participants, about 14% were in education, 4% in IT or Technology and the rest in a variety of occupations. Most seem to be adult learners who may be more self-directed than younger students.

Peer Learning in a cMOOC

Peer learning and peer evaluation were central to the MOOC. I would describe ‘Designing a New Learning Environment’ as a cMOOC where the participants learnt from each other by commenting on and evaluating each other’s contributions. This only works where everyone is willing and able to give useful feedback. I only got one such comment. Personally, I did not mind, but this could have been disappointing for participants who hoped to learn from the earlier parts of the course

Evaluating Assignments

The course team gave us a rubric for scoring and evaluating the assignments. All course participants could see our evaluations. This can work well when the evaluator has teaching experience but can be a daunting experience for participants who are not accustomed to this responsibility and may not see it as part of their role as students. More support for trainee evaluators would probably be beneficial.

As there was no certification, plagiarism or cheating of any kind was pointless. The task itself had to motivate the participants. Voting or badges may provide a measure of extrinsic motivation. In ‘Designing a New Learning Environment’, participants were encouraged to vote on each other’s contributions and on the final project. While I think this is positive when a participant helps others in a forum, I am dubious about its value for assignments. What does it mean when someone votes for an assignment? Different participants can have completely different criteria. Some teams actively sought votes. If voting is to continue, the course team should develop guidelines.

Not the End of Universities – but Something New

I cannot see a MOOC like ‘Designing a New Learning Environment‘ replacing a university course. In some cases MOOCs are used to attract students, for example, the Mongolian student prodigy who did so well in the MOOC was encouraged to apply for a place in MIT in Carole Cadwalladr’s article in The Guardian “Do online courses spell the end for the traditional university? “ previously featured in ETCJ.

Nor do I see such a MOOC as a ‘taster’ for Stanford. The MOOC is a completely different experience, a bit like a virtual learning environment open to the world. Such a MOOC is a valuable tool for those whose primary motive is to learn, to experiment with new ideas and to network with like-minded individuals around the world. It may be particularly useful for people in developing countries and those with little access to formal education.

The Philosophy – an Incubator for Great Ideas

This MOOC was heavily dependent on both the ability and motivation of peers. Of course, as it is voluntary only motivated people will participate. The most beneficial aspect for me was the group project, which leads to the concept of MOOCs acting as an incubator for original ideas. In some cases, these ideas may have commercial potential. cMOOCs like this could be useful as a form of continuing professional development (CPD). It is good to see that ‘Designing a New Learning Environment’ will remain open after the end of the course.

The role(s) and direction(s) of MOOCs is still very much a matter of experiment even in Stanford University. Participants are providing the data for research, which Stanford can use to build a better MOOC. This may explain why ‘Designing a New Learning Environment’ is free. Perhaps improvements will lead to its commercialisation.

It will be interesting to see how MOOCs develop – and to participate in that development. I have just joined another MOOC run by the Open University (UK) on a similar theme entitled Learning Design for a 21st Century Curriculum. It will be interesting to compare the two.

__________
Niall Watts, Educational Technology Officer, Media Services, UCD IT Services, University College Dublin. Blogsite. Disclaimer: The views expressed here are my own personal views and not those of my employer.

18 Responses

  1. […] By Niall Watts Introduction I have recently completed Stanford University’s Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), ‘Designing a New Learning Environment’. As an educational technologist, I try to keep …  […]

  2. […] By Niall Watts Introduction I have recently completed Stanford University’s Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), ‘Designing a New Learning Environment’. As an educational technologist, I try to keep abreast of developments in the ever‑changing world of technology.  […]

  3. […] I have just written a review of my participation in the Designing a New Learning Enviroment MOOC by Stanford University in the Educational Technology and Change Journal […]

  4. […] By Niall Watts Introduction I have recently completed Stanford University’s Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), ‘Designing a New Learning Environment’. As an educational technologist, I try to keep ……I cannot see a MOOC like ‘Designing a New Learning Environment‘ replacing a university course. In some cases MOOCs are used to attract students, for example, the Mongolian student prodigy who did so well in the MOOC was encouraged to apply for a place in MIT in Carole Cadwalladr’s article in The Guardian “Do online courses spell the end for the traditional university? “ previously featured in ETCJ.  […]

  5. […] By Niall Watts Introduction I have recently completed Stanford University’s Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), ‘Designing a New Learning Environment’. As an educational technologist, I try to keep …  […]

  6. […] By Niall Watts Introduction I have recently completed Stanford University’s Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), ‘Designing a New Learning Environment’. As an educational technologist, I try to keep …  […]

  7. […] By Niall Watts Introduction I have recently completed Stanford University’s Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), ‘Designing a New Learning Environment’. As an educational technologist, I try to keep …  […]

  8. […] By Niall Watts Introduction I have recently completed Stanford University’s Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), ‘Designing a New Learning Environment’. As an educational technologist, I try to keep …  […]

  9. All that you say is true Niall, and I think a more critical reaction is called for. It was a wonderful opportunity that where it worked was mostly down to the people working around the limitations.

    Early on I was annoyed by the steer towards doing something for the Third World. It was not why I was on the course. I guess the Bill and Melissa Gates foundation funding is an influence there.

    I was annoyed by seeing cartoons and jokes shoot up in the ratings on the forums. From that I see how as a student to game the system to gain popularity and votes. So I guess I learned even from that too.

    I was annoyed by videos light on content, with words of wisdom. I wanted something meatier than what we got. Reflecting on it though – Paul Kim was probably right to do that. More participants new to the subject would have given up sooner had the videos been more challenging.

    By the time we got a selection of Paul KIm’s papers, and only his, to review, I’d already decided that the value I was getting from the MOOC lay in it as a people aggregator. The interactions with people found on the MOOC, and then interacting in Google+ and e-mail was by far the best part. It attracted a diverse range of specialist skills and experience united by a shared interest. Things I learned from these interactions have been of real value, and more than make up for the time I invested in the course. For me, this is where the real power of MOOC is.

    I liked the structure of the exercises. Write an educational challenge scenario. We were told how. Answer someone else’s educational challenge scenario. Rate some essays, formative assessment, using ‘things I liked’,’things that could be improved’, ‘things I didn’t understand’, ‘new ideas to consider’.

    I joined, left, rejoined a project group led by a German educational technologist that worked pretty well – considering how little guidance around group formation and group running we got. My impression was that most groups struggled and many people didn’t get as far as joining a group The process was too haphazard. Ours just about held together.

    I think Niall you have it right that a focus on improving the group work aspect is the most crucial area where the DNLE MOOC needs more work. My own thinking:

    * Explicitly set it up so that earlier exercises are material ‘to be mined’ and repurposed for the project groups. That could help groups that share an interest come together and decide faster on their project.
    * Give a strong steer on how to run the groups. Base it on feedback so that DNLE learns what works.

    I’d welcome hearing other ideas for how to strengthen the group work.

  10. […] By Niall Watts Introduction I have recently completed Stanford University’s Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), ‘Designing a New Learning Environment’. As an educational technologist, I try to keep …  […]

  11. […] By Niall Watts Introduction I have recently completed Stanford University’s Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), ‘Designing a New Learning Environment’. As an educational technologist, I try to keep …  […]

  12. […] By Niall Watts Introduction I have recently completed Stanford University’s Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), ‘Designing a New Learning Environment’. As an educational technologist, I try to keep …  […]

  13. […] By Niall Watts Introduction I have recently completed Stanford University’s Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), ‘Designing a New Learning Environment’. As an educational technologist, I try to keep …  […]

  14. […] By Niall Watts Introduction I have recently completed Stanford University’s Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), ‘Designing a New Learning Environment’. As an educational technologist, I try to keep …  […]

  15. […] those xMOOCs blog comments, but I have not seen one such research paper released. See this post http://etcjournal.com/2013/01/14/the-mooc-an-incubator-for-great-ideas-a-personal-experience/ It is typical to have 10% or less MOOC participants active in the course. It is relatively […]

  16. […] By Niall Watts Introduction I have recently completed Stanford University’s Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), ‘Designing a New Learning Environment’. As an educational technologist, I try to keep …  […]

  17. Thanks for writing up this review, Niall – and I enjoyed reading James’ comments also. I especially liked James’ idea of gathering feedback from successful team in Fall 2012 to share with future teams, lists of tips and strategies that worked for people in the Fall iteration of the course. I believe that Dr. Kim will be offering the course again, and it seems very clear that he values ideas and feedback like this and will make good use of it to improve the course. He wrangled some webspace at Stanford along with some technical support enabling us to create a “DNLE Alumni” website at Stanford – http://dnle.stanford.edu – which will be another good way to gather that feedback and input from participants in the Fall course. I went ahead and posted my thoughts about the course in the forum there:

    http://dnle.stanford.edu/content/thoughts-about-dnle-assignments-teams-etc

    So, let the conversation continue! For me, DNLE was a really excellent experience, completely different (in good ways) from the Blackboard and Coursera MOOCs I had tried earlier. I’m looking forward to learning more as the course morphs into its next phase via this new website.

  18. […] By Niall Watts Introduction I have recently completed Stanford University’s Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), ‘Designing a New Learning Environment’. As an educational technologist, I try to keep …  […]

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