MOOC Wrap Up


My 5-week experiment in on-line learning is drawing to a close. Though I’m sure there is as much variation in the MOOC experience as there are platforms ( and learners),  I nonetheless fell that having actually completed a MOOC allows me to weigh on the debate, discussion and media frenzy over these courses in a more informed and meaningful way.

In terms of what MOOCs mean for the future of post-secondary education and university teaching, I’ll leave that discussion for another day. But in terms of personal comment on the MOOC experience, here goes:

1) YOU make your MOOC experience: Know how to filter

The Coursera E-Learning and Digital Cultures MOOC was set up to provide numerous ways for students to connect with each other: a forum, course blog, Twitter hashtag, Google+ groups and hangouts, Facebook group; the list goes on and on. It would be impossible to follow all the channels of communication, nor is it expected.  Choose the channels you’re comfortable with and have time for ( in my case I limited my interaction strictly to Twitter) and ignore the rest, even if you have occasional FOMO pangs. Similarly, this particular course divided readings into “Core” and “Optional”, so you could decide each week how deep you wanted to get into the theory.

Along the same lines…

2) Know your learning style

Whether or not you subscribe to a formal theory of learning styles, every adult learner should try to develop a sense of the ways they best learn and retain information. Do you like to read and article and mull it over? Discuss in groups? Move straight from theory to practice or philosophize about abstract concepts until dawn?  Also important for every learner to think about is how to learn different types of information. Getting your head around heavy theoretical concepts, learning history, improving your conversational skills in a new language all require very different types of of learning and practice.

3) The strength of MOOCs could be their downfall for some learners

The strength of MOOCs, that they “put you in the driver’s seat”, works well for focused, driven, organized learners who work well independently. But as I wrote about in this blog post, information doesn’t necessarily equal learning, and the role of the teacher, while always important, is crucial for those that need more guidance in their learning.



#EDCMOOC Digital Artefect: Language acquisition “across the screen”

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The theme of week 3’s readings and activities was “Being Human”, through which we explored ideas of what separates the technological from the human, culminating in the question of whether we could actually be living in a “post-human” world.

Two of the week’s readings relate the theme of being human to education: Kolowich, S (2010) The Human Element.( Inside Higher Ed)
and Monke, L (2004) The Human Touch, (EducationNext ). According to the course materials, Kolowich (2010) “make[s] a case for the inclusion of more video and audio in online teaching, in order to increase the sense of presence and ‘human-touch’ for distance learners”, and we are also met with the following questions: “If we accept that ‘humanity’ is an ambiguous category at best, where does that leave claims like the ones made here for ‘the human element’ as a touchstone for good course design? And why are video and audio constructed here as being ‘more human’ than, for example, text?”

I think that these more abstract, philosophical questionings on the elements of on-line course design obscure the most pressing question:  can learning actually happen without these human elements? Especially in the learning of foreign languages, it seems the inclusion human elements–video, audio, and other interactive technologies–are not just being included because as anachronistic vestiges of a pre-internet, more “human” style of education, but because foreign languages cannot be acquired without them.

Television as the “fourth wall”

As television came to occupy the ubiquitous place it does in North American society, sociolinguists asked why, given that people in all corners of North America ( for example) are watching the same programming, does dialectological variation still exist? In other words, both children and adults spend hours upon hours listening to the same news presenters, kids’ TV characters, and dramatic actors speaking (and most of the time in the same standard West Coast dialect), and yet we all continue to speak in our own regional dialects.

The long prevailing view of sociolinguists is that while TV can shape your attitude toward different dialects, it won’t actually change the phonological or phonetic features of your speech because of the lack of interaction with the speaker. (Routledge Companion to Sociolinguistics, 2006) You may her someone speaking in a certain way, but you don’t respond or interact with that person, so you will not take on their speech features.

Interaction in SLA

In terms of SLA (second language acquisition) research in particular, the necessity of not only input of, but output of and interaction with the target language exists in the (otherwise wildly divergent )behaviourist, cognitive, and sociocultural theories of SLA.  You can’t learn a language by just reading it or hearing it: you have to produce it, write it, and interact with others using that language.

So arguments of the “humanness” of texts versus video, audio, Skype, chats, forums, etc. is beside the point. Without some sort of output and interaction on behalf of the second-language learner, no language learning is going to occur at all. This being said, research on the details of that interaction, its form and quantity, and the quantifiable learning outcomes it may lead to are far from conclusive: here is a review of the research from 2003, (and more recent reviews are sure to exist.) But the bottom line for language teachers working solely or in part with technology and e-learning is that interaction is unquestionable.

Open Education and MOOCs


Most of this week’s videos and readings focused around the future of education, focusing on different reactions to the emergence of MOOCs.

The element of teaching and teacher is quite present in many of these commentaries on MOOCs, mostly in terms of a sort of cost-benefit analysis: Are we getting the best bang for our buck in duplicating the same course on hundreds of university campuses worldwide? how can we bring the best teachers to the largest audiences? etc.

But the interplay between the teacher and the actual process of learning is something I find most interesting. In the description of the course materials for one of this week’s videos, Campbell, Gardner (2012). Ecologies of Yearning,  it states: “This lecture is important this week because it addresses learning as a difficult problem – perhaps the difficult problem – and not as a natural consequence of free access to information.”

And it’s true: free access to information does not guarantee learning. At its best, the art of teaching is what bridges the gap between all of the information available out there and the learner, and in many cases facilitates learning. A teacher acts as curator of this knowledge, picking choosing what’s relevant, what’s necessary and at what moment. The teacher scaffolds this information, adjusting the quantity and complexity of the flow of information in response to the learner. Many learners need their learning to be structured and monitored by someone, who will also give them feedback, encouragement, motivation, and perhaps a kick in the arse when needed.

Many people are able to  take the information out there that they need and structure their own learning experience out of it. But many people benefit from what a teacher can bring to the equation. The current faculty lecturer model is not necessarily the ideal teacher-student relationship, and its unlikely that a 40,000-to-1 MOOC student to teacher ratio is either. In any case, how to keep the art of good teaching and how to aids real learning in the picture as we imagine the future of education is a necessity.

MOOCs in Canada

On this week’s episode of CBC Radio’s “Spark”, an excellent weekly program about technology and society, there are two pieces on MOOCs. The first is a general introduction to MOOCs. It’s followed by an interview with George Siemens of Athabaska University, who wrote an open letter to Canadian universities about MOOCs in Canada.

This could be of particular interest to Canadians, folks on the #EDCMOOC, or those interested in the future of higher education in general.

Digital Immigrants and Professional Development


I’ve made it through the readings, videos and (a small percentage of) the on-line discussion surrounding week 1 on the E-Learning and Digital Cultures MOOC. The central question to the week’s course materials was of technology as either utopia or dystopia, or, as it is put in the course materials: “…how digital culture and digital education are often described as either utopian (creating highly desirable social, educational, or cultural effects) or dystopian (creating extremely negative effects for society, education or culture). ”

One of the readings was Prensky’s 2001 essay, “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants”, which is summarized in the course materials as  “offering a narrative of ‘native’ young people’s seamless integration with technology, and the revolutionary changes that information technology has brought, Prensky warns ‘immigrant’ teachers that they face irrelevance unless they figure out how to adapt their methods and approaches to new generations of learners.”

From theory to practice

I am a practicing teacher and therefore throughout any and all academic pursuits in the area of education, I can’t help but draw a line back to my professional practice, (whether or not the course has a practical focus or is strictly theoretical.) Talking technology with teachers figures quite frequently in what I do, whether it’s informally anwering a co-worker’s questions about an app, presenting about educational technology at conferences, or formally organizing PD session for staff on our university’s learning management system.  For the record, most (but not all) of the teachers I encounter are digital immigrants by Prensky’s definition, while most of my students are aged 18-30, and therefore digital natives.

Attitude, not age

My first observation is that the digital native/immigrant distinction for my seems to be more about an attitude that strictly a matter of one’s birthdate.  There are many educators out there whose birthdates would qualify them as digital immigrants, but who embrace educational technology and a critical examination of their teaching methodology in just the way Prensky urges. Similarly, there are many digital natives out there who, although they are comfortable with technology, are not proficient in it. They may know how to surf the web and use Facebook while simultaneously sending text messages. But many don’t know how to use the basic (let alone advanced) functions of everyday software like Microsoft Word, their web researching skills are lacking, and their media and internet literacy is non-existent. I teach English for Academic Purposes to in-coming university students, and as such the digital natives I teach are definitely not familiar with the specific tools they need to help them do the range of academic skills that they are being introduced to , such as Refworks or Zotero for research.

Above and beyond attitude and birthdate, I think another distinction between digital immigrants an natives is that digital immigrants are very conscious of a large between them and digital natives; they see themselves digital immigrants who are very different from digital natives, and they see this difference in negative terms. So they think of themselves as immigrants whose, to put it in terms of language learning, “language” has fossilized, and who will never catch up to the digital natives who have an innate advantage when it comes to all things technology-related.

They also slip into the habit of reification of technology. It’s not uncommon to hear certain teachers describe themselves as techno-phobes, luddites, etc. or describe their aversion to technology.  As described by Chandler (2002),

“The problem is that it is easy to slip into generalizations about ‘Technology’. …”Referring loosely to such abstract categories is hazardous. Some technologies may also be less determining than others; the flexibility or ‘openness’ of tools varies. And of course a technology cannot be cut off as a separate thing from specific contexts of use: technology has many manifestations in different social contexts. A single technology can serve many quite different purposes.”


So from the point of view of wanting to lead more effective training sessions and workshops in educational technology, what can this week’s readings offer? Trying to view the subject matter and the learning objectives from the learner’s point of view is essential. So how can we help digital immigrants come to embrace the technology needed for their jobs?

First, perhaps I’ll hand out Prensky’s article at the next PD session I run! We can both embrace and criticize Prensky’s ideas. Hear Prensky’s general call to action that educators must blend “legacy” and “future” content in order to best reach students of today, while questioning the idea that being a digital native/immigrant is  a strict binary determined solely by when you were born. That digital immigrant attitudes can be acquired, and that technology use is determined by nurture, not nature.

(And if we’re compiling a reading list, in order to encourage a more open attitude toward e-learning, I would pass along  inspiring the Daniels (2002) article, “Technology is the Answer: What was the Question?”)

First Experiences with a MOOC

Day 1 of the #EDCMOOC

Though every time I’d read about a new MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) being launched I’d check out their course offerings, I had never really been motivated to participate in one. Ironically, though MOOCs were arguably one of the most revolutionary developments in e-learning and even education in the last decade,  I hadn’t seen any in the realm of either of those fields on offer. Until this morning, when a tweet caught my eye, and after a few minutes browsing Coursera, I signed up for E-Learning and Digital Cultures, offered by the University of Edinburgh, via Coursera–alog with 40,000 other students!

I consider it practically my duty as an educator in 2013 to have firsthand knowledge of as many modes of learning and course delivery as possible–it’s a question of credibility. So here I am, on a MOOC.

Actual comments and musings on the course content itself will come. But first a few reflections on what I’ve experienced of Coursera and the E-Learning course so far.

Where’s the map?

There’s no real course outline or one single place where a “road map” of the course is given. Every course I’ve taken EVER involved some kind of document, be it an outline, handbook or webpage, that outlined all the essentials of the course: instructor, dates, modes of contact, major assignments, and a basic structure of the course in terms of what material will be covered and in what order. So far I’ve found this essential information spread between a few confirmation e-mails in my inbox, the Coursera course offerings page, and several pages on the course website. I’ve spend a significant amount of the time I’ve invested into the course so far just trying to wrap my head around what the course is and what the hell we’re supposed to do, and how to do it.

I think this is an issue that would be solved with just a little more organization and planning when the course website was being built. There are 4 or 5 instructors on this course, so maybe it’s an issue of too many cooks?

What about the solitary learners?

Learners on this course can choose from an overwhelming number of avenues to interact with others in the course: Google+ groups and hangouts, a Youtube channel, a Twitter hashtag, a Facebook group, a discussion forum, Synchtube, which lets you watch videos and comment on them in real time with others, a blog with that automatically updates with any new blog posts on the subject from any bloggers who add their blog address to the site.

But I don’t feel like doing any of it! As I dove into the course material tonight, I just didn’t have the urge to go and participate in discussions with all these hundreds of interesting people around the world. Not at all. Part of me felt like I was “doing it wrong”–wasn’t I supposed to want to reach out and interact with these people in a way both similar to yet different from how I would in a face-to-face classroom? Isn’t creating these learning networks and communicating via them synchronously and asynchronously and tailoring what I get from them the beauty of e-learning?

Perhaps. But ever since elementary school I’ve hated group work–I was a solitary worker. I have always preferred to learn and work at my own pace and on my own. And while I will keep an open mind  (and blog and Twitter stream), I may end up interacting more with the material than with the other course participants.

Food for thought

Logistics aside, the course content and issues it brings up are interesting, topical, and relevant to any teacher working in the present day. There were a few issues with some of the course readings, all of which were posted online, becoming inaccessible, presumably due to not having the bandwidtch necessary for a deluge of 40,000 Courserians in a single day. Some of the articles were also posted on line in formats that made them difficult/annoying to read (for example, each paragraph on a different page, which made it difficult to grab to Pocket or Instapaper). Also, despite all the avenues given for course participants to interact with each other, I’m surprised they didn’t include any options for us to interact directly with the text, either to allow us to grab and annotate the texts, share marginal notes, or highlight and post comments and stickies that can be shared with others.