MOOCing around: reflections on Curt Bonk’s MOOC


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There’s a lot being written about MOOCs (massively open online courses) at the moment and what they might mean for Higher education or education in general going into the future. I’ve particularly enjoyed reading Martin Weller’s recent blog post, which acts as a ‘state of the nation’ overview about MOOCs as well as Kate Bowles’ blog post, which takes a thoughtful view to whether MOOC-like approaches might work for post-graduate level .  

At this point in time, I don’t have any firm view about what’s going to happen in the long term across something as broad and fragmented as higher education, but it’s hard to be negative about a diversity of open education initiatives which may give an opportunity of some sort of formal education to many people who currently have no access to higher education in developing nations, a fact made stark with the death of a student on enrollment day at a university in South Africa .

In this blog post, I’m going to reflect on my experiences of being a participant in Curt Bonk’s MOOC ‘Instructional Ideas and Technology Tools for Online Success’, now in its fifth and final week.

Background, beliefs and history

To give some context, I’m going to compare this MOOC with my experiences of modules I have studied in the Open University’s Masters in Online and Distance Education (MAODE) and also my (rather limited) experiences of being a lurker on some previous MOOCs mainly Change11. These experiences are purely personal, but I’m drawing on my previous experiences as an online learner, as I think that what learners bring to a MOOC or any learning experience is a lot to do with their own beliefs and conceptions of how to learn, what constitutes successful learning and how happy or not their prior online experiences are. In an age of open learning, with a first come first served approach, I wonder how learning designers are  taking into account the very differing assumptions and starting potential online learners bring and how this colours their attitude even before the course starts.

What I think I am saying here is that my prior learning experience as an online learner gave me certain expectations of how I wanted to learn and not learn, and what works for me. This is why I think I struggled with the more open and disaggregated MOOCS of the connectivist type as I didn’t really know what to do, there was no obvious learning pathway and I am going to admit it, I was lazy. On the OU courses, there is a learning management system (Moodle), curated resources, guided discussion, small tutor groups, a dedicated tutor – a more standard walled garden approach. It’s a formal programme with assessments and accreditation and is not trying to be a MOOC. But the generally positive experience of this online learning experience has led to me want or expect certain things (even when I am not paying for it).

My understanding of MOOCs, on the other hand, is influenced by my readings of the original and older MOOCs (MOOC 1.0 if you will) and my admittedly lurker status despite signing-up. On Change 11, I read some readings, listed to one live lecture by Martin Weller, but did not have the motivation or an easy way of continuing to fully participate. I was at the time committed to formal study, and the MOOC took a backseat. I did allow myself to be generally permeated by being in the MOOCs by occasionally reading the newsletters and wishing I had the time to really get going, join some community somewhere (Second Life sounds good), or blog. But it didn’t happen.

The BONK MOOC on the other hand appeared more familiar with the CourseSites infrastructure. I joined up, partly out of curiosity about CourseSites, knowing that it was only 5 weeks long and had a finish date, and fell at a particularly convenient time as I am between modules on my formal Master’s programme. The topic looked interesting and practical and one which I felt I might immediately meaningfully in my own work.

Getting off to a good start

The set-up of the MOOC was familiar, and I was pleased to find the resources and LMS layout facilitated some kind of pathway. I was, however, somewhat put off by the discussion forums; there were just too many posts to go through in the first week with a veritable babel of ‘Hello, I’m x and I am here to….’ type posts. I also found some negative blog posts and comments about the set-up and closed nature of the blogs, wiki in CourseSites which seemed to turn the MOOC into a commentary on how to do MOOCS, rather than the subject/content/topic/learning outcomes aspect. There were various blog posts about how standard this MOOC looked, how it was aligned to nasty old Blackboard and that it was somehow lacking in MOOC credibility. I followed this compelling this blog post with interest for a while, but then became aware that I was being distracted from what I could get out of this learning interaction and worrying about what other people were saying before the MOOC had had much of a chance. My own personal view was that as far as I knew, this was a free course being provided, that it looked like an interesting course, and week one was a bit early to give up.

Things seemed to improve  after this (and as far as I know, the tens (or hundreds?) of other participants may not have noticed this chatter in any case). What was encouraging was the way in which the CourseSites team responded: engaging with critics, getting more support through the use of TAs and  acknowledging that the Discussion forums in particular were problematic. The next few weeks saw smaller and more focused questions to which fewer people responded. There was also, I think, a reduction in the number of people who chose to be in the MOOC, which seems to be common with many open courses. I nearly dropped out too, but found the readings interesting and practical sounding, and stayed on mainly because there were live lectures scheduled and at a time that just about suited me (10 pm in the evening).

The MOOC in action

I’ve already discussed the fabulousness of the live presentations by Curt Bonk, who really has to be seen to be appreciated in the live environment. This was a major motivator for me to continue. I’m pretty sure the live sessions helped me keep my own word to myself about participating in the course. I know I wanted to and I should as part of my own professional development, but knowing that and making me do it have not always happened. And I think that despite the flexible design of other more connectivist MOOCs, getting off to a good start and keeping with the pack at the begiinning is vital for many students to keep engaged. The live sessions gave focus to the week, prompting me to either review the resources, take notes, or think about questions I might have beforehand.

Lack of a community

One aspect that didn’t really happen (and that is seemingly so much part of a MOOC experience) is t
hat a community of students connecting and collaborating didn’t happen (as far as I am aware.) I’m not sure that 4-5 weeks is long enough for a community to form, at least one that feels accountable for and to each other (as happens on the longer and more formal OU modules).

What also surprised me was that Twitter didn’t play such an important role in this MOOC. Some participants did tweet around the hash tag #bonkopen, but not many. I’ve found in previous courses that Twitter does contribute to a learning community and for me is a vital part of social engagement. There were however, a few valuable connections and interactions I made in Twitter, and who I will continue to follow after the course.

Summing up

I’ll discuss what I actually got out of this MOOC in terms of professional development and subject matter in a future blog post, but for now, the course told me something about my own learning preferences, what motivates me, what I need in place to keep my word when there is no external pressure (such as I have paid for this, I am going to get accreditation, or there is a deadline and which I will look bad if I don’t meet it). I’m designing learning interactions for others, and this course reminded me about the different motivations for engagement for open courses where the traditional carrot and stick does not apply. I realise that in all of this, I may not be the model of a self-actualised learner that I thought I was and that I need systems and practices in place. My ideal online course environment comprises:

  • scheduled live events,
  • opportunity to connect with course author, instructor or teacher,
  • easy access to curated resources,
  • a community on Twitter, and some
  • some kind of validation or feedback/assessment

Wouldn’t it be great if students could choose the components of their ideal learning configuration before starting a course?

Future considerations for MOOCs

I think some sort of external assessment is a motivator. MOOC models of assessment could be  the type that students might pay for some formal feedback, or where there is machine-based assessment giving some kind of pass or score at the end. Whatever model it is, I think it should be an option for students. As an online student, I find assessment stressful but ultimately rewarding and transformative. The value is in the process as much as the result, the opportunity to reflect and respond. I think the CourseSites approach of giving badges for achieving milestones is a valid strategy for a MOOC of this short duration and self-directed study, but I am not particularly motivated (as yet) to get one because it seems to be ticking off tasks done, rather than any judgement of quality or actual attainment of anything.

In conclusion, I’ve really enjoyed the experience of this MOOC. In this case, the community ties are more vertical with a connection with the Instructor and team who have been very hands on in engaging with individual students, and with some looser ties with other students though Twitter and reading blogs. Although the community and social aspects of CourseSites didn’t really work out for me, (the longer term ties exist as connections on Facebook and Twitter), the virtual classroom afforded by Blackboard Collaborate (formerly Elluminate) and presentation of resources and clear course pathway within the LMS provided a reasonable foundation for the MOOC.


4 thoughts on “MOOCing around: reflections on Curt Bonk’s MOOC

  1. Good recap and overview ~ useful too. I’m still wrestling with what works best for me and what could be adapted for teaching or self-paced learning projects. what would work better for others won’t necessarily be what works best for me. Additionally, I find myself trying to explain to skeptical colleagues what moocs are, are not and how to use of them (without destroying the intellectual fabric of higher ed as we know it).

  2. Great post, thank you! Your comments on community resonate with me, even though I have never participated in a MOOC. I have, however, been part of online and blended courses that very successfully created community, as a purposeful and meaningful exercise, in less than a week. Is the scale of the MOOC part of the issue for creating community? Do you think Dr. Bonk had "creating community" on his list for the course? I like the description of the vertical community, with the instructor as the hub and the lightweight, tenuous connections via the supporting networks… Again, thanks for writing this illuminating post on MOOCs.James

  3. Sukaina,Your post reflects my experience of Dr. Bonk’s open course on Coursesites. My prior MOOK experience was with PLENK2010 which was very much in the style of change11 and had expectations of greater twitter and external blog activity in the course. I feel like I connected with only a few people in this course but frankly did not connect with many more in the PLENK course. I could have done more to connect but didn’t feel the need. It is interesting to think about the MOOK as a conference. Going to a big conference like the American Society for Training and Development Conference with 9000 attendees, I don’t think people have expectations for meeting everyone. They meet people in small sessions throughout the event and perhaps in the exhibit hall. Perhaps MOOKS should take conferences as a metaphor and have sessions, exhibit halls and lounges within the overall mook. I agree with your comment of relationship with the instructor rather than students. Dr. Bonk seemed to thrive on being the center of the action. I think he encouraged that type of interaction. He might have done more to have people share directly with one another rather than through him. For example, slides were sent to him to be displayed. They could have been directly posted in the blogs for people to visit. He could have then displayed some of the blogs during the live session and encourage people to view others. In any case, as I reviewed the outcomes people described on the couse blog, I was impressed by the things they planned to do going forward. If there is a class reunion. I plan to attend and wear my badge. :-)Best regards,Chris

  4. @Vanessa – thanks for your comment and insights about communicating what a MOOC is to others. I agree it is tricky – something I found yesterday when describing how it works.@James and @Chris. Really interesting comments on the intentions of the course as regards community. Here’s the closest learning objective for the course ‘Design and share innovative thinking skill activities as well as unique cooperative learning’. I agree @Chris that the MOOC did seem to focus on the live presentations and your idea of getting people to link to each other might have devolved community and community building. OTOH, the course was quite short (is it the shortest MOOC yet?), and I get the feeling that community and groups may have emerged on a longer programme but were less planned in the learning design of the course from the outset.@chris – I love your idea of a Conference approach to looking at MOOCs. As I said in my original post, actual engagement and value seems to depend on prior expectations and what a participant expects to happen.

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