Where’s your class? musings on course location

I noticed that Dave Cormier is using a single course blog for his ed366 class, with students as authors. Back in November, I was working on this issue with Brandon Davis-Shannon, whether it is better to have students run their own blogs or work on one big blog, and I’m thinking about it again as I plan my History 103 for fall.

I have done one big blog before, but never many student blogs (except for the POT Certificate Class). Dave has done both and notes:

It is interesting to me that engagement would be lost when students run their own blogs, versus posting on one big blog. It brings up questions about where students perceive the course is located, as well as the usual issues about motivation and self-motivation.

In addition, it may be about the changing world of online courses in the past year or so.

The typical online course offered by an institution is one kind, and for this model students translate their classroom thinking to the online class. The thinking is that on-site the class is held in Room 601, and online it’s held in Blackboard (or another LMS) or at a particular URL or website (though that’s more rare).

It’s hard for students to really see a course that’s held “on the web”, or one where their work is based in their own space, and aggregated somehow for all to see. That involves a mental shift much greater than just on-site to online.

That mental shift is encouraged by MOOCs, at least in their Couros/Siemens/Downes/Cormier/Groom model. Self-direction and/or connectivism are engrained in the format of the classes. (I’m gonna call it the CSDCG model, because no one can stop me.)

But there is another pseudo-MOOC model now, subdivided into two categories which sometimes overlap: institutional (think Stanford, MIT) and commercial (think Curtis Bonk’s class in Coursesites). These are beloved by the New York Times and the Chronicle, who are seeking to reframe educational trends. They are becoming the mental-shifting model instead of the original MOOC design.

That may be because they are held in Learning Management Systems or sites that act like LMSs (I’m afraid I have to count WordPress here, because of its use in this context). This model perpetuates the idea that “class is here“. Yes, you can run your own blog, but it’s preferred that you blog “inside the classrom”. It’s just easier for people to get their head around the idea that the class is at the instructor’s website. It fits with their current thinking, but expands it into the world of blogging. It also fits for instructors who need the two things LMSs are best at: enrollment management and grade tracking.

That seems to be the middle ground, and pedagogically it may be better not to push the envelope too much with students (at least if you want them to stay enrolled). Despite my own learning preferences, which are open and aggregated, most students aren’t conceptually ready for this kind of learning, and the cognitive dissonance overcomes their willingness to engage (which, for some, wasn’t that high to start with).

We can argue for years whether their lack of readiness is apathy, behavioral training in K-12, or cultural ennui, but most of us “practitioners” are interested in what works: what keeps them enrolled, encourages engagement, allows some independence, but doesn’t cause panic. Plus there are increasing concerns about asking students to create their own space at third-party sites, which collect and use student information and content in ways we may not consider ethical.

The WordPress Multi-User site, or the LMS that’s open to all, or the main blog where all blog within it but can have their content exported to save (which is what Dave is doing) may then be the preferred models for balancing these issues with those of exploration and innovation. They are being chosen because they take into account concerns of pedagogy and comfort, not because they can handle 1,000 students and use their content and personal information for other ends, but because they work.

NB: The only obvious exception to this balanced model is Jim Groom’s (plus) ds106, with its student-run blogs aggregated to a main WP site, and where clearly something magical happens. And possibly my own POT Certificate Class, where I have no idea why it (sort of) works, but I dare not apply it to a standard college class.

8 thoughts on “Where’s your class? musings on course location

  1. Good timing with this as I just finished grading for the semester and having some breathing room before the next round of work sets in.

    I think the point you make about “class is here.” Is right. Having run distributed blogs, a combined course blog, and discussion boards, what is key in using any of them is a centralized hub where students can go to reach the other content. In an lms (where I did the discussion boards), everything is automatically centralized (to an extent). The same with the combined course blog–there is truly just one location. Using distributed blogs, I found that organizing the students into groups and having clear instructions on who they were supposed to interact with built into the central course site (WP) easily overcame the potential chaos of the distributed model.

    To a certain extent, it seems less important what the particular form of interaction is (personal blogs, course blog, or discussion board) and more the way the students are given access to these forms. As you say, they’re used to a centralized model, so they feel more comfortable being guided through that centralized space to the other student’s spaces.

    Of course that’s just pedagogically speaking, ethically speaking on the other hand . . . .

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  2. Hi Lisa

    The question “where is the class?” is a very interesting one. As you point out, the distributed model is a pedagogical shift that many students have difficulty adjusting to. In the first session of the CCK12 MOOC (http://cck12.mooc.ca/), Stephen Downes made it clear that, with a connectivist approach, “there is no central place where the course takes place”. He described the daily newsletter is the only “centrepoint”. Downes highlights autonomy as one of the four basic principles of networked learning (along with diversity openness and interactivity). George Siemens noted with concern that many participants found the relative lack of structure difficult to manage in the first few weeks.

    But it isn’t just our mental model of how teaching and learning is normally structured that is challenged; we also lack a conceptual map that could help us to work out where we are, where others are, and where useful information, archives of discussions, and other resources can be found. Pedagogical autonomy is reflected in the structural autonomy of the spaces where (mostly) asynchronous conversations are sited. Flattening the hierarchy and reducing control over learning is mirrored by the leveling of the information landscape, creating a low density suburban sprawl that frustrates our efforts to create a sense of place, community, and belonging. This, too, seems deliberate, as the aim is to discourage groups and communities (which can be exclusionary and inward looking) and encourage a dynamic, open network in which participants are constantly on the move, making and breaking connections as they peruse their individual learning objectives. The resulting support structures might approximate what Marcos Novak described years ago as “liquid architecture”: an architecture “whose form is contingent on the interests of the beholder” (1991 http://goo.gl/Qw2Jm).

    If, instead, we wanted to strengthen our conceptual map of the online environment, we could look to some classic text, like Kevin Lynch’s “The Image of the City” (http://goo.gl/CNUPw & http://goo.gl/Fu8d3), or Jane Jacobs’ “Death and Life of Great American Cities” (http://goo.gl/4Cbja). Where are the paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks online? What is the equivalent of “eyes on the street”? Where is the street? Where are the semi-public spaces that could encourage conviviality and social life? If learning is, in part, a social activity, how can we structure space to enhance the social component of online learning?

    Mark McGuire

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    1. Mark, these are the wonderful questions those of us already aware of connectivism get to explore. They are far beyond the abilities and interests of many college students.

      Downes’ email should not have become central to the class – it evolved that was in CCK08 because people were lost and needed a central source of information. And it does have class location – there is a central website for information. But the class activity takes place in a distributed environment, practicing what it being preached in a very elegant way that allows for exploration of these issues while experiencing distributed learning as a student. The extent to which it can be applied to something less self-referential is still an open question.

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  3. Hi Lisa

    Personally, I really enjoy the loose, open nature of change11. This could be because I’ve participated as a non-credit student, or because I am older and more used to self-directed study and exploration. For me, the live sessions serve as the centre for the course, and the most exciting part. I love to witness the unfolding and morphing of ideas within a group in real time. The CSDCG model (that’s a hard acronym to remember – I’m not sure it will catch on!) is closer to my experience of informal learning – when you can, as you can, and how you can. However, I do think we need better tools and technologies for creating and saving useful connections and spaces in a way that helps us to conceptualise and map what we are finding and the ideas and individuals that we are connecting to. We will all attempt to do what we can with the tools at our disposal in any case, but they are far from intuitive or “natural” at the moment. There is also a tension, I think, between our desire (or the imposed wish of others) for individual autonomy and responsibility at one end, and collective (or community) efforts on the other. We are social beings, and even nomads travel in tribes. I’ve been intrigued by the seeming contradiction in our efforts to escape the claustrophobia and control of groups and communities, while, at the same time, trying to build social connections and enable collaborative action. I am also interested in the figure/ground problem – if the subject is fluid but the environment remains stable, we know where we are; if the environment is unstable, but the subject remains fixed, we can manage that, too, but when the subject and its environment are undergoing simultaneous transformations, we are lost.

    Mark

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  4. Why would we ever think there is one size that fits all? There are ways for all the approaches you describe to flourish as well as to… suck. I’m getting tired of banter about which tool/environment is better rather than talk about the practice, strategies we use within them (which I know is where you aim).

    I do worry about Dave’s remark on “ethical concerns of forcing students to create their own spaces” as well as the worry of pushing the envelope — I think we do need more envelope pushing, not across the board, but at least for part of a student experience. If we do not force students to work through being uncomfortable, if we just make a learning experience safe and fully structured, then we are doing them a disservice in this space for them to learn how to face these challenges.

    That balance is tricky, and your efforts of experiments are inspiring to say the least. So no, i would not advocate one model for every class, the answer to me is “it depends” and a lot depends on the design of the experience, as well as the people involved.

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    1. I know, Alan, that’s been my thing too. And of course one size does not fit all, or even half, or maybe even some. I do force students to be uncomfortable, to share their writing, to go discover stuff. And when I did a couple of classes in WordPress, where their writing was open to the world, that did not seem to make a difference. I do want students in other spaces, not just in an LMS, because they need the skills that go along with that, but I take them there as they find their sources for posting (they have to learn things like using TinEye to find proper image citations, for example). I do not want their learning space fully structured, restrictive, or too safe, so I’m looking for that balance, or at least an imbalance that doesn’t make them fall over!

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