Oscillating Wildly

Over the last week I have been struggling with my position as #crit101 Course Leader. The underpinning principle of the course is that it is, for want of a better acronym, a cMOOC (of sorts). While it is not massive, it is certainly open, online and a course. Moreover, it is a course about independent learning, offered to students on an opt-in basis. And with a little *c* it was built on connectivist principles, valuing peer-to-peer interaction and collaboration. However, I have found that encouraging interaction between participants is a challenge and that their reliance on me as the expert in the room (metaphorically) is quite significant. In part, I recognise that, this is due to the way I have constructed the course but it also reflects how challenging some of the participants have found learning in(ter)dependently.

One participant stated:

“I have enjoyed that fact that we can do it in our own time and also it’s up to us to complete assignments on time, there’s no nagging!” (Harris, 2013 via Google+)

This is exactly what I wanted to hear and reflects my own experiences of participating in these types of courses. However, while this has clearly worked for some, it has not worked for everyone and has pushed me into a role I did not envisage playing. Do I nag and chase up participants who are missing deadlines or not joining in with their assigned groups? Or do I let things be? If I choose the latter some of the paprticipants may not complete the course? Does that make the course a failure? In the end, I have succumbed to my teacherly nature and sent emails or tweets, gently reminding participants about the work; what will happen if they don’t complete it, etc.

As another partcipant then asked:

“What happened to independent learning?” (Sutherland, 2013 via Twitter).

A good question!

As a researcher, and in the way that I have positioned myself in this first version of the course, I am caught oscillating wildly between teacher, facilitator, guide and participant. I want to be more guide and participant but instead find myself wavering between teacher and facilitator.

One of the problems is that I have not defined what success is, in terms of the #crit101 course. In part this was purposeful. In my efforts to enter into an open and objective research process I wished for the two versions of the course to run, collecting the data based on what happens, allowing me to reserve judgement until I have analysed and evaluated it.

However that is not easy when you have built something from the ground up. Not least, something that reflects your own values and beliefs about education. In many ways I am too close to this project. There is too much of me in it. When a participant misses a deadline or doesn’t join in with a part of the course it feels personal. It feels as though I did something wrong. I should know by now that that this is not the case; that in education and research there are a wide range of variables that can not be accounted for, but nevertheless I feel compelled to intevene rather than let things be. And don’t get me wrong, I know that no matter what happens I will have to analyse and evaluate the data, presenting what happened, openly and honestly.

In an effort to combat this I feel that it is necessary to re-position myself for the second version of the course, reducing expert input and increasing participant interaction. To achieve this I have settled on a number of changes, including:

  • Pre-recorded weekly lectures – rather than live ones
  • Two x Twitter discussions – to encourage more regular interaction between participants. I am also considering the use of break out groups
  • Creating comment groups – stealing profusely from Alan Levine (Again!) I intend to put participants in smaller groups to comment on each other’s blogs
  • Switching week four’s ‘Reading and Analysis’ assignment from a solo activity to a paired activity

It is my hope that these changes will not only help me to redefine my position within the course but also bring the version two of the course closer to the connectivist *MOOCish* principles on which it was built.

Week One: Goals, pushing boundaries, and the c in MOOC

This morning I finished reading and commenting on your blog posts from week one. They were thoroughly enjoyable to read and provided a diverse range of thought on both the motivation to participate in the course as well as definitions for in(ter)dependent learning.

Two key ideas that I felt came out of the posts were: ‘setting goals‘ and ‘pushing boundaries‘. Both concepts have given me a lot to think about in terms of how I understand independent learning.

Many of you when discussing your motivations for signing up for #crit101, set goals for yourself. Are goals integral to independent learning? Are they the starting point for the journey towards becoming a more autonomous learner? These are questions I don’t have answers for yet but they are the start to a discussion that I think we need to have. Moreover, the emphasis placed on goals bring the concept of success into sharp focus. How is success to be defined for each of you in a course that is about independence; and has no grades?

The notion of pushing boundaries is something that I had not associated with independent learning at all. However, the more I think about it, the more I feel that it might be significant. I consider myself to be a highly effective independent learner and one of my main aims is to push the boundaries and challenge myself. How integral is that in my makeup as an independent learner? The minute we decide to work within the boundaries, is that when we start to lose our independence? Is systematised education a boundary that needs to challenged in order to enable learners to become more independent?

Additionally, a further discussion that is developing is about the very nature of the course itself. #crit101 is, to a degree, inspired by MOOCs. A question that we are pondering is that of how important the ‘course’ aspect is to MOOCs and the process of independent learning. To what extent does the c in MOOC effect motivation. If I was not here responding to posts, reminding you about deadlines and lectures, would you still show up? Or could this course run through peer-interaction and your own desire to learn?

Please take some time to read over each others posts and the comments. I have left many questions to be considered and I want to know what you think. I look forward to reading your replies!

“…we can all participate in, and help build new models of online learning.”

A key inspiration behind the format and structure of #crit101 is the cMOOC model of massive open online courses, such as DS106 and #ETMOOC.

Theo Keuchel recently participated in the second edition of MOOCMOOC, a course in which I participated last August. The course explores what MOOCs are and what they might mean for education. Like myself, Theo is asking questions about whether this model of online course can work for school-age students. Obviously I believe that it can or #crit101 would not exist. Reading Theo’s post is like looking at my own checklist, I asked many of the same questions when putting the course together. In my view it comes down to two specific considerations above all others:

  • Do you believe that courses of this type are a valid form of learning?
  • Do you trust young people to participate in such a course?

If you can answer yes to the above then everything else is a matter of planning, pedagogy and technical practicality. However, the questions above strike at the heart of what I feel MOOCs are all about: Freeing learning from the confines of the classroom; bringing it to where the learners are – the connected web. Such an approach is too scary for some, too fraught with dangers. But this is the future… learning should belong to the learners. If the school curriculum can’t offer all that they need or want to learn then they should be free to go elsewhere and get it.

#crit101 is in its infancy, but it is my hope that the course demonstrates what Theo states at the end of his post:

we can all participate in, and help build new models of online learning.”

“But isn’t all learning independent learning?”

Last night saw the first Twitter discussion take place as part of the #crit101 course. It began with an opportunity for participants to have any questions they had about the course answered, before turning their attention to the topic in hand: Independent Learning.

The participants on the course, for the most part, range from 14 to 18 years of age and for many this was their first ever Twitter discussion that had a specific educational angle. Given this fact, I felt that it was a tremendous success, with everyone demonstrating that they had engaged actively with the course material. Although the chat was limited to an hour, many important ideas were raised, and I hope that some of the resurface in blog posts shortly.

We tackled the question of what Independent Learning is. Opinion varied with some seeing it as a disposition whereas others sighted specific attributes. Here are a few highlights:

One idea that began to come up from several participants was the notion of maturity – being integral to being an independent learner. I asked if it was simply then an issue of time or could IL be taught/developed? This was a challenging question that garnered a variety of responses. One response that captured the duality that I often wrestle with when considering this myself came from Rosie:

This is the challenge, isn’t it? Autonomous learners is what many of us (as educators) want to see but do all learners want to be autonomous, do they know how and is it something that can be learned? Another participant asked, what I felt was a significant and thoughtful question:

Learning is happening all of the time, and it is not happening en-mass, although too often we try to teach that way. For the learner, their education is personal to them, therefore to answer Lily’s question: Yes, all learning is independent learning. However, if this is so, is maturity an issue or is it about reframing how we understand and interpret what independent learning is?

As the end neared, I wanted to challenge the group further by considering if independent learning is something that can be learned. What if I have got this all wrong? The participants responded with maturity and candor…

Finally, as it had come up and few times, I broached the idea of school eroding a learners ability to work independently…

Indeed, it might and that is one of the many reasons underpinning #crit101. I want to challenge the very idea of traditional classroom-based education. Here was a group of learners from different year groups, with different backgrounds, abilities and interests, engaged in a thought provoking discussion about the way they learn. What could be more ‘in(ter)dependent’ than that?

*You can read all of the tweets from the discussion here.