Thursday, January 20, 2011

Digesting #CCK11 - Riffing off the eating meme

You have to start somewhere — the middle seems best.

Actually, it seems the only place to start with a MOOC. I am again taking a massive open online course, a MOOC, with George Siemens and Stephen Downes, and again, people are struggling to orient themselves to this kind of learning. I am becoming convinced that the best learning to emerge from these MOOCs is learning to deal with the MOOC itself, regardless of the content about which the MOOC is organized.

Engaging a MOOC shifts a participant immediately and radically away from the command-and-control structures of traditional education and into the connect-and-collaborate structures of rhizomatic learning spaces. This can be extremely disorienting the first time, a fact that both George and Stephen seem to recognize and are attempting to address with videos posted to the Home Page of CCK11. Their sometime collaborator Dave Cormier has also posted some videos to YouTube talking about how to orient oneself to a MOOC. I'll repost one of those videos here:



For me, the key idea is to approach a MOOC from your own position. This is radically different from the way we approach most college classes, which come to us whole and contained. When we engage a traditional college class, we enter an existing structure with fixed content, fixed authorities, fixed space, place, and times, fixed goals, fixed paths to those goals, and fixed assessments to determine how far along the path we managed to travel within the prescribed time. Good students are often those who have learned to quickly identify the fixed markers, determine the right answers, and give them to the teacher. We can succeed (make an A) in a traditional class without being very self-aware. Just jump through the hoops and move on.

MOOCs do not function this way. Very little is fixed, other than the general topic, and I have noticed that wandering from the topic is hardly ever discouraged in a MOOC. If a sub-group in a MOOC taps into a rich vein of discussion, then they are free to follow it wherever. This lack of fixed reference points is disorienting, especially to good students who have mastered the traditional classroom. We cannot succeed in a MOOC without being extremely self-aware. We must know who we are, what we are about, and what engages us. To use a spatial metaphor, we must know where we are so that we can begin to orient ourselves toward this massive new structure that has many destinations and few signs.

But it is more complicated than that. We must accept that our very presence and engagement itself changes the MOOC. The fact that I am in the MOOC (or you) makes the MOOC different. This is another radical difference between MOOCs and traditional classes. Most of us can remember countless college classes that were mostly oblivious to whether we ourselves were in attendance or not, a member of the class or not. In a MOOC, it always matters who is in and who isn't. In a MOOC, membership is everything.

To use an astronomical metaphor, a MOOC is like a solar system, each member of the system exerting its own more or less powerful gravitational pull on all the other members. Some of us may be Jupiters, some of us Mercurys, some of us just lurking asteroids, and I suppose George and Stephen are the Sun, but whenever any new element is added, then the entire system must shift to accommodate. And we are all constantly adding new elements in the form of blog posts, videos, comments, Elluminate sessions, and so  forth, so that our solar system is becoming increasingly crowded, rich, varied, and diverse — larger than any of us can contain, and with more texture than any of us can cover.

This is why Dave suggests that we first pick a few points in the system to anchor ourselves. The Home Page of the website is a good anchor. The Elluminate sessions are good anchors. The Daily Digest is an anchor. And most importantly, our own professional interests are good anchors.

Then from those anchors we scan and connect to other points that catch our interest, that resonate with energy that we can recognize and follow. We begin to create our own gravity with our posts, comments, videos, lists, SL groups, Tweets, etc. We find that we cluster, that we fall into synchronized orbits with similar objects that attract us. We pull other objects into our orbits. We make many connections, follow some and abandon others. We begin to focus, plowing an orbit through this system, an integral part of the whole while still following our own path.

It's this interplay between our own path and the paths of all the others that makes for a harmonious solar system and that makes for a harmonious MOOC.

You have to stop somewhere — the middle seems best.
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