Lessons from an early MOOC

In September 2008, Michele Martin, Tony Karrer and I hosted a 6-week open professional development program on social media. We did this for the eLearning Guild as a run-up to the annual DevLearn conference. It was an asynchronous (no time-scheduled activities) program. We developed all activities for three levels of participation: Spectator; Joiner; and Creator, with different requirements for each. The majority fell into the first category, but the Creators were able to take on the role of facilitating, which became important as we grew.

Here was the program we created:

  1. Introduction to Social Networks
  2. Social Bookmarks
  3. Blogs
  4. Aggregators
  5. Wikis
  6. Implications / Summary

We had to be flexible because we originally expected about 50 participants. We actually had over 900 people in what today could be viewed as a professional development MOOC, where the C did not stand for course, but rather content. Developing the content was a major effort shared between Michele and myself. I learned a lot, including the insight not to do another one of these for free. It took a lot of work to develop the program and even more to facilitate and keep as many people as possible engaged for six weeks. There was a lot of reading, reflection, and writing.

One experience of the program still stands out for me. Paul Lowe, course leader of the MA in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at the London College of Communication, spontaneously gave a live web presentation on his use of blogs with his master’s students and shared what he had learned so far.

  • blogs act as the glue between synchronous events
  • blogs are ways of mapping the learning journey
  • every blog is unique and gives a whole-person view, which you don’t get with assignments
  • blogs encourage dialogue and show how to relate to an audience, which is good for photographers in training
  • there is peer group feedback
  • blogs allow for rich media – images, video, sound, links to other resources; all of which can be mashed up, tagged, recomposed, mixed – by all participants
  • blogs can also be emotional and playful

I also noted that Paul’s student blogs were not used as assessment vehicles. To ensure that blogs and comments were read, the course assigned small groups of  “blog buddies” to read and comment on each others’ blogs. Graduates could also keep their blogs, as they were not hosted by the university and this helped to give a sense of ownership to the students. This course was an excellent example of some pragmatic uses of social media and is still pertinent today.

Here are some other things I learned during those six weeks.

  • A loose-knit online learning community can scale to many participants and remain effective.
  • Only a small percentage ~10% of members will be active.
  • If facilitators can seed good questions and provide feedback, then conversations can flourish.
  • Use a very gentle hand in controlling the learners and some will become highly participative (insight shared by Paul Lowe)
  • Create the role of “synthesizer”. I found it quite helpful when Tony and Michele summarized (curated) the previous week’s activities.
  • Keep the structure loose enough so that it can grow or change according to the needs of the community.

Michele Martin also shared her thoughts in Deconstructing the Work Literacy Learning Event.

What I do think we managed to do was create and foster a community of practice that, for a period of time, brought together a large group of people who wanted to work together on learning about using Web 2.0 tools for learning. Through this network of connections and discussion, we also created an excellent resource that will be available to other people who may want to explore these tools on their own, at their leisure. [note that the platform we used, Ning, began charging for service in 2010, so the resource is no longer available]

As Ning was shutting down its free service, I tried to capture some of the resources we had created, like the Introduction to Social Networking. In 2013 the technology available has changed and MOOC’s are now all the rage (or is that already over?). The Internet has made social and cooperative learning much easier. It still takes focus, guidance and flexibility to make it work though. I am glad we did this five years ago and learned these lessons for ourselves.

Let me close with a reflective note by one of the participants. Catherine Lombardozzi said that we need to really think about learning.

One of my favorite quotes is from Kent Seibert: ‘Reject the myth that we learn from experience and accept the reality that we learn by reflecting on experience.’ My experiences in this experiment underscored for me how important it is to reflect “out loud” – if not by engaging online, by taking some of what you’re thinking about and talking about it with others. These kinds of tools make it possible to compose and share your thoughts on what you are learning, to ask questions, to get feedback from others (many of whom you have never met). Tools also make it possible to learn from others… following their bookmarks, for example, or using the tools to make contacts, simplify your own research, and more. They expand our learning support system in fabulous ways.

we are the internet

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