In open learning, size might matter

I look with some consternation at the classes I’m setting up for spring. I have put all the presentation information on the open web, but because I need to track 240 students (40 each for 6 class sections), all graded assignments are trapped in an LMS (in this case, Moodle).

At the same time, of course, I read everywhere how the model is shifting, and in particular how the MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are pushing both connectivism and open learning. The latest is Kop, Fournier and Mak’s A Pedagogy of Abundance or a Pedagogy to Support Human Beings? Participant Support on Massive Open Online Courses (2011). The idea is that the social connections in open courses need to provide the bulk of the support for learners: “We would argue that one of the major challenges is to create a pedagogy that supports human beings in their learning where the social connections people make on the network provide their learning support.” This comes up against the idea of the importance of the instructor: “teacher presence supports cognitive presence”. The study concludes that connections with both other students and the instructor are significant, which mirrors conclusions in studies about ordinary online classes.

Several differences exist between the MOOC model and my History classes.

MOOCs have learning objectives determined by the learners, where mine are determined by course descriptions at universities and student learning outcomes. This necessitates that I track learner progress toward those objectives, and quantify them through individual grades.

In MOOCs the level of participation is of importance mostly to the facilitators (you can see my discussion of engagement with brainysmurf here), where in mine retention of students and preventing them from dropping is significant to both my faculty evaluations and the chances to offer the class again.

Legal concerns in a MOOC are the sole responsibility of participants, whereas my classes are offered by an public institution that has to abide by certain state and federal laws in order to receive funding.

But the main difference is that MOOCs are Massive. There may need to be a point of critical mass in order for community to form effectively enough to support student learners. My class limit of 40, which seems excessive to me for the kind of individual monitoring I’m forced to do, may be too small to form that kind of support structure, even with a facilitator as active as myself.

However, 240 (the total of all my students together), may be large enough. If so, the Facebook group, where all my students may join, could provide a space for that community.

So back to the graded assignments trapped in the LMS. I am not concerned about the exams — the multiple-choice quizzes are individual and instantly scored for instant feedback (which is their other purpose, in addition to ensuring content exposure required by the course of study). The essay exams are also individual and are simply easier to mark inside the LMS.

But the “discussions” are trapped there too, though I don’t call them that. They are “sources and writing” forums, where students post sources and construct mini-essays based on the collection they create. I have to track them to track participation, so they’re inside the LMS.

These “sources and writing” activities are what’s causing my consternation. Clearly they should be on the open web. Students could be blogging, then finding the sources on each others’ blogs and creating their theses as posts. But I cannot track them with the granularity I need for 240 students, so they’re trapped.

My sense is that community support is not likely to arise in a forum where the class starts with 40 students, but maybe 27 will actively participate, and of these (experience suggests) only about 7 will actively engage with what other students have written rather than just searching for sources to do their own work. So I’m hoping that 240 in a Facebook group will provide the community element necessary for support when my classes are not MOOCs.

The larger question is whether there is a critical mass that should be achieved to provide such support, and whether a part of the class needs to be an emphasis on participants learning how to support each other. This “development and practice of peer facilitation, mentoring, and coaching” mentioned in the article would have to be intentional and part of class design. If I am unable to fully organize a formal mentoring system (which would take a great deal of time), perhaps the Facebook group can be a place where those connections can be made, if enough students participate.

2 thoughts on “In open learning, size might matter

  1. Lisa, I strongly recommend Piazza (piazza.com) for the course forum and Q&A platform.

    I used it in fall 2011 for the first time, for three classes. It was very effective in stimulating student participation and genuine engagement with the material. What makes Piazza platform very useful to instructors is the “analytics” support: tracing everybody’s activity in Piazza (viewing, asking, answering). Another essential feature is the “peer review” support: instructors and students give “good question” and “good answer” evaluative feedback.

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