Connectivist MOOCs:  Learning and collaboration, possibilities and limitations

Members of the Learning Creative Learning (LCL) community and others are invited to participate in a prototype "Collaborative Exploration" (CE) about the implications of open digital education. Participants will be especially encouraged to consider the unintended or non-desired consequences.

The core faculty members in Critical and Creative Thinking (CCT) at the University of Massachusetts Boston (UMB, an urban public university) want help as they decide how to contribute to efforts at UMB to promote open digital education. (CCT is, in brief, a graduate program that seeks to "provide its students with knowledge, tools, experience, and support so they can become constructive, reflective agents of change in education, work, social movements, science, and creative arts.")

CCT began to make the transition into online education almost a decade ago and is now housed the continuing and professional studies unit at UMB responsible for online courses. As befits a program that is about reflective practice as well as critical and creative thinking, the core CCT faculty members have favored online approaches based on best practices for teaching-learning without computers and emphasized use of the computers to teach or learn things that are difficult to teach or learn with pedagogical approaches that are not based on computers (e.g., making rapid connections with informants in PBL courses). UMB is now hosting its first MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) and is planning more. CCT wants its involvement to take into account active discussions about MOOCs and to foster ongoing research and evaluation in this rapidly evolving (and much-hyped) area.

It is already clear that CCT's emphasis will not be on x-MOOCs, i.e., those designed for transmission of established knowledge, but on c-MOOCs. "c" here stands for "connectivist" in recognition of the learning that takes place through horizontal connections and sharing made within communities that emerge around, but extend well beyond, the materials provided by the MOOC hosts. What CCT is not so clear about yet is the kinds (plural) of learning that are happening in cMOOCs. What are their possibilities and limitations? Ditto for kinds of creativity, community, collaboration, and openness. By "limitations" CCT is especially interested in anticipating undesired consequences.

If you want to appreciate why unanticipated directions could be a concern in open digital education, consider the quotes and sources box below. But, if the broad topic of possibilities and limitations of c-MOOCs is enough for you to be interested, skip ahead to the section on expectations and mechanics of the CE.

Quotes and sources
The internet skeptic, Evgeny Morozov, identifies in The Net Delusion (2011), "the dangerous fascination with solving previously intractable social problems with the help of technology [that] allows vested interests to disguise what essentially amounts to advertising for their commercial products in the language of freedom and liberation."

As an example or a counter-point to that skepticism, David Weinberger in Small Pieces Loosely Joined (2002) argued that the “The Web… is challenging the bedrock concepts of our culture: space, time, matter, knowledge, morality, etc.” because it resists the idea that knowledge should be “context-free and universal.” The Web represents not only “databases,” but also
  • jokes, the other form of knowledge on the Web, [which] reveal what you weren’t expecting. If they’re predictable, they’re about as funny as a database… Jokes reveal a link we hadn’t seen, an unfolding we hadn’t anticipated. Laughter is the sound of sudden knowledge.
In this spirit, he claimed that:
  • When we make a tough decision, often it's tough because we have too much information and it isn’t all consistent… Making a decision means deciding which of these “inputs” to value and how to fit them together to make a coherent story. In fact, the story helps determine which of the inputs to trust by providing a context in which the inputs make sense. That means the causality runs backwards: the inputs don’t determine the decision; the decision determines which of the inputs will count as influences.

Weinberger was promoting the internet in terms of a Big Transition in Society, but the use of the internet to determine which inputs count is also producing, in the words of Brooke Hildebrand Clubbs, a "market for conclusions that have no connection to reality." Faced with students claiming that the Sandy Hook massacre may be a hoax, Clubbs wrote in her 2013 Chronicle of Higher Education commentary:
  • Previously, although we may have disagreed, we had what I told my classes was “civil discourse.” But we had to agree on the facts. We could all have different opinions, but we couldn’t be basing our opinions on different facts. Now I realized that in the age of Facebook memes and YouTube conspiracy videos, my students had somehow got the idea that facts were subjective and supporting material unnecessary. They seem to be following “opinion leaders” who model how to respond when they are challenged: Vilify and name-call.
  • Demoralized, I went home and wrote to my longtime mentor. He sympathized, saying, “It almost makes you doubt the utility of the public marketplace of ideas, an idea which we defenders of the First Amendment have always cherished. Facts and information seem to be increasingly shut out of the market. Indeed, there seems to be a market for conclusions that have no connection to reality.”

To the extent that the social currents that have produced the internet are fueling fundamentalist denunciations of all readings of the text except that of one's "church," Clubbs's commentary resonates with James Simpson's (2009) Burning to Read, which presents the Protestant reformation and access to printed text in the vernacular in the 1500s as the origins of fundamentalism (as described in the second paragraph of this review).

CE: expectations and mechanics
Whatever thread of inquiry participants in the CE pursue, the posts and contribution to live sessions should aim to stimulate and guide the learning of other participants, and build towards the final product, namely, text or other digital exhibits that provides guidance to CCT about involvement in MOOCs and in fostering ongoing research and evaluation in this rapidly evolving (and much-hyped) area. The complementary, "experiential" goal is to be impressed at how much can be learned with a small commitment of time using the CE structure to motivate and connect participants.

The CE will take place over 22 days and consists of four sessions spaced one week apart, in which a small group interacts in real time live via google hangout for 60-90 minutes at 4pm Tuesday US East coast time (to be confirmed). Participants spend time between sessions on self-directed inquiry on the case, sharing of inquiries-in-progress, and reflecting on the process (which typically involves shifts in participants' definition of what they want to find out and how). Prospective participants are asked not to sign up if they cannot guarantee live participation in most of the sessions and an equivalent amount of time between sessions spent on the case. (Sessions will be available as a private unlisted youtube for participants who have to miss once.) A google+ community open beyond the small group will allow participants to share materials with a wider group and to learn from anything the larger groups contributes.

Details to provided to applicants

The structure of each live session is predefined as follows, but the CE builds in room for participants to take stock so as to inform future proposals for improvements in these structures.

Before the first live session: Review the scenario, these expectations and mechanics, sign up for the google+ community for the specific CE and for the wider group . Make sure we have functioning headsets and are familiar with muting our mics and opening up the chat panel.

Session 1. Freewriting to clarify our thoughts and hopes, followed by a check-in (which gives us a chance to acknowledge what is going on for each of us in and beyond the CE), participants take an equal amount of time (5-7 minutes) to tell the story of how they came to be a person who would be interested to participate in a CE on the scenario.
Session finishes with us gathering and sharing our thoughts (using a format like but posted to the google+ community for the CE).

Between-session work: Spend at least 90 minutes a) on inquiries related to the case and posting about this to google+ community for the CE; and b) just before session 2, review the google+ community posts of others.

Session 2. Five-phase format: Freewriting on our thoughts about the case, followed by a check-in. Then turn-taking “dialogue process” to clarify what we are thinking about the case. Session finishes with us gathering and sharing our thoughts as we look ahead to making work-in-progress (W-I-P) presentations in session 3.

Between-session work: Spend at least 90 minutes a) on inquiries related to the case and preparing W-I-P presentation; and b) just before session 2, upload W-I-P presentation to google docs and make a post that links to it.

Session 3. Work-in-progress presentations. (7-10 minutes total for each participant [depending on the number of participants]) Plus-delta feedback is made by everyone on each presentation (posted as a chat on google+ for the community). Time permitting, participants also speak some questions or make suggestions.

Between-session work: Post additional feedback on presentations (optional). Digest the feedback on your presentation and produce final report by revising W-I-P presentation, uploading it to google docs and posting a link to the google+ community for the CE. Begin making reflective posts (optional).

Session 4. Reflection, using Five-phase format: Freewriting to bring our thoughts to the surface, followed by a check-in. Turn-taking “dialogue process” to explore our thinking about a) how the CE contributed to the topic and b) to the experiential goal. Session finishes with us gathering and sharing our thoughts as before, but this time we will be reviewing the whole CE (using a format like but posted to the google+ community).

After session 4 (optional): Participants share on the wider community not only the reports they have prepared but also reflections on the CE process.