(Initial) Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali's blog has now moved to http://blog.mahabali.me


What Makes this MOOCaholic Complete MOOCs

I’m going to keep this post as short and punchy as possible, to get it out quickly. It is part of a new emerging research project for #rhizo14 that arose out of several different threads, including reaction to Martin Weller’s recent post in stats for MOOC completion rates.

Thanks to Sarah and Sandra (can’t find her post, though) for starting this series of blogposts

My view is that reasons for completion vary so much with context that the stats hide too much

Four categories of reasons that influence my personal completion (or not) of a MOOC are:
1. Personal circumstances
2. Technical/logistical issues
3. The format of the MOOC
4. The quality of the MOOC itself

Personal circumstances
Once it was just that the MOOC would coincide with the time i was finalizing my PhD, or during a time I travelled, or when my kid got sick. Nothing to do with th MOOC itself. Of course, the longer a MOOC is, the more likely it will interfere with personal circumstances and make it unfinishable for me. BUT, if it is a really good one, and really flexible (see below) I might stick with it in spite of all that. This was the case for #rhizo14 and the MOOC actually became my escape from the personal issues, rather than some burden on top of them.

Technical/logistical issues
I mostly MOOC from my iPad while on the go. Coursera works fine for that. Twitter and facebook and google plus are great for that (but I still don’t “get” google plus to be honest). Other platforms like EdX and CourseSites do not work well on iPad, and so if there is loads to do on them with dates, etc., I won’t have enough free PC time to do them (of course I sit on a PC most of the time at work but I am actually working, not MOOCing). Also stuff that requires flash won’t work on iPad (don,t have the needed browser and don’t think i will buy it for MOOCing!) so same issue.

Everyone who knows me well online knows I am also very allergic to synchronous audiovisual stuff and to videos in general. Too many family commitments and infrastructure issues to deal with. Most MOOCs don’t, or have transcripts, or record hangouts, etc. Twitter chats like for #nwoer were great, I could do some of those occasionally.

The format of the MOOC
I have discovered that I dislike too much rigidity in a MOOC. But most MOOCs with peer review assignments have rigid deadlines for that reason. It worked for me with #futureed coz the MOOC Topic was v relevant to me so i wanted to do the assignments and did not find them taxing. But did not work for a stats MOOC – too much work

I also prefer MOOCs with high potential for social media interaction and with enough people on the social media to benefit from that interaction. Definitely the case for #edcmooc, #rhizo14 and to a lesser extent (but v high quality interactions) on #futureed

The quality of the MOOC itself
The question of quality is complicated.Very low quality MOOCs can be easy to “complete’. A cMOOCish thing like rhizo14 has no particular definition of success and I like that – it fits with the ethos of the course as we each define what success means to us. All MOOCs should be like that. For me, #flsustain was very good and useful for me, but I did not complete it because that was never my objective. I just wanted to get some resources and meet some people, i blogged a bit, tweeted a bit, downloaded some stuff, got some great ideas, and left 🙂

I also realized i lately do better at MOOCs most directly related to my professional interests – so education mainly. But also ones that meet those interests in ways I like 😉 like social media, like being a bit flexible (#edcmooc had just one assignment and that is flexible enough for me)

Some MOOCs suck me in completely like #rhizo14, others do it quite well but do not take over my life like #edcmooc. Others, I engaged with non-traditionally like #FutureEd (barely watched videos, read some articles, didn’t post much on the forum but engaged a lot on twitter and blogs, plus the organized #moocmooc twitter chats)

more important than anything, for me, is the connections with wonderful people like the rhizi14 gang, and someone like Shyam with whom I just wrote this article: Bonds of Difference: Illusions of Inclusion
Anyway that’s it from me for now 🙂

Looking forward to whatever comes out of this 🙂


Digital amphibians, technological determinism, and the nuances of social phenomena

I am writing this post to reflect on technological determinism (something in #edcmooc week one we discussed as utopian and dystopian views of technology), and which i was reminded of my Shyam’s post on “digital amphibians” (love the term, did he just invent it?

Let me just first say something we all know, that is so obvious on an abstract level I doubt anyone would disagree: absolutes, black/white thinking, generalizations, one-sided views… None of these work too well to accurately describe complex social phenomena like education. We use models and metaphors to approximate what we see, but these models or frameworks or whatever rarely capture the whole, they only serve to help clarify or shed light from a certain angle. (we do so for the sake of legibility, to communicate, to clarify, but in the end we distort reality and it become unrecognizable to those living it). However good our models are, there are always multiple other angles worth considering.

Now back to Shyam’s “digital amphibians” post. I could not respond to it right away because it was full of so many ideas. I don’t think I can even summarize it here, and I have read it more than once. However, the main points in it that got me thinking (and it is quite possible I did not interpret them the way they were meant, but when does that happen anyway haha) were:

1. The digital amphibian metaphor, which I take to mean people like me who can comfortably navigate both the f2f and the online world; and by having both perspectives, be able to discover new and exciting things not very obvious or even visible to folks on only one side; but also sometimes able to be critical of both sides because they can see the other perspective;

2. Sometimes a digital amphibian can react strongly to something on either side: either with excitement and strong support; or with anger or indignation; he suggests that as “digital amphibians” mature, those reactions may become more tempered, thoughtful, etc.

3. He makes an interesting point about empathy and sensitivity, which I now realize may need to be central when a digital amphibian wants to communicate with, interact with, people on either side who are not “amphibious” themselves.

4. A very important point I think he makes and that we “amphibians” need to keep in mind is that, while we can see the pedagogical benefits (and more) of online learning/communication, its potential, we should not forget how others who care about the bottom line rather than learning, approach it. That in some ways, our passionate defense of (pedagogically sound) online learning may feed into the greedy aspirations of those who do, in fact, want to make education more efficient by reducing costs of labor. When we digital amphibians know that most quality online learning is people intensive. What makes online learning good, usually, is the people aspect of it, the interaction that occurs. Very labor-intensive, indeed, though much of it might be unpaid labor!

5. I like to think of myself as someone who avoid technological determinism. To use Sean Michael Morris’ term, a “digital agnostic” – I don’t wholeheartedly embrace technology as the solution for everything for everyone; nor do I see it as the destruction of everything for everyone. Even when technological tools help/enable me personally learn or grow or do something different, I cannot assume the same approach would work for others, or even work for me all the time…

I am still thinking about Shyam’s post, but it also made me think about a few other things…

6. In a response to a comment, I think he’s saying that he believes it is natural and acceptable for digital amphibians to not always be diplomatic. I take this to mean that it is sometimes OK to respond to extreme determinism by “partial” responses. By “partial” I mean both “incomplete” and “biased” (i love how Ellsworth 1989 uses the dual meanings of this word). Sometimes, a particular perspective gets so much hyperbole that you feel compelled to critique it, even when it has some merit. The hyperbole alone is problemtic.

some examples of my “partiality” within my dual roles

I recently co-authored an article “An Affinity for Asynchronous Learning” and you can tell by the title that it is a biased article (duh). It is not meant to discount the value of synchronicity, especially not f2f synchronicity, but it is meant to tamper the louder discourse that praises synchronicity without critiquing its limitations. I do have lots of issues with synchronous learning, but I managed to participate in 4 twitter chats last week (well, yes, there were power cuts, the kid not sleeping, the husband wanting attention, etc., but i still managed to make some of the time of each of these chats; i got lucky; it’s not always possible).

I recently also published “Why Doesn’t This Feel Empowering? The challenges of web-based intercultural dialogue” – a critique of one of the absolute best synchronous learning experience I have ever facilitated, and while I wholeheartedly believe all I wrote in the critique, I also believe in its power and potential and am trying to convince others to adopt it (yes, to adopt the experience I critique, because knowing what’s wrong with it can help us handle it better to reduce these problems rather than approach the experience with rose-colored glasses)

I mention these two first because they are peer-reviewed pieces that others have commented on and not found “too biased” to be published 🙂 But of course they are partial. They are meant to be.

But maybe one of my most partial pieces is the piece just before this one, posted on my blog a few days ago about meaningful online relationships. It was exactly as Shyam called it: an extreme reaction to something written by others who saw a threat looming large, and although I am normally aware of that threat, I did not realize that my reaction might have also been extreme. Because both articles that irritated me were quite balanced ones, to an extent, while remaining cautious about online learning, and highlighting its limitations. I don’t disagree that it has limitations, but I was responding to a particular point in both articles that irritated me, the point that online learning cannot produce affective, meaningful relationships.

I was there trying to highlight my very personal experience of forming such deep relationships, which I recognize might not work for everyone, but does work for some people.

However, I did not make clear (in my very partial post) a v important point: f2f will always (yes, a generalization worth making) have value; tactile communication (hugs, kisses) cannot be done online (yet!). However, I have had meaningless physical hugs, and deeply meaningful virtual hugs. I have been deeply touched by words I have read (even in books, where I cannot interact with the author) more than physical words/gestures by loved ones in my life.

So two final points to make, quotes that I believe in very much:

The first, by Irvin Yalom (quote not on me at the moment): when we categorize another, we lose the elements of them that are”unknowable”. Most attempts at social research will impose categories for the sake of legibility. For the sake of meaning-making. But we still need to remember there are other dimension to people and social situations beyond those we choose to use at a particular moment in time. (side not: ppl u know online recognize they do not know all of you; but people who know you f2f may not realize they do not know all of you that encompasses the online you; reminds me gain of Bonnie Stewart’s post on cyborgs which I have referred to so many times already).

The second is the notion of thinking of social research as a “crystal” (Richardson 1997 considers this a transgressive, post-modern view of social research validity), whereby the same object looks different from different angles, you look at it from one angle and you shed light on one view of it, but there are multiple other views, and social research attempts to show several of these views. And the crystal as a metaphor is slightly problematic in itself because crystallization implies a rigiidty which social phenomena, inherently dynamic, do not have. However, in thinking about it further, when we write about our research, we sort of attempt to take a snapshot and fix it in time, for that moment. And so, every time I write, when anyone writes, even if it is writing that takes many years like a doctoral dissertation, we are only capturing moment in time of our perspective/interpretation of a social phenomenon. It is not the end-all of our thoughts, nor the full picture of the social phenomenon even at that moment in time, but it is something that we can share.

I would rather share my incomplete thoughts and have them challenged and broken apart, than to keep them to myself and never take them further.


6 Teaching Ideas Inspired by MOOCs

I have written previously that I believe teachers can use MOOCs for professional development. Here, i share briefly some ideas i plan to try in my own course that inspired me from MOOCs I took or am taking.

1. Syllabus negotiated via Google doc
I have always had a negotiable syllabus, but I never thought to actually put the syllabus online in a space where students could comment on it throughout the semester. This idea is inspired by Cathy Davidson’s #FutureEd (MOOC yet to start). (#rhizo14, below, also gives me ideas for how far to negotiate with learners… But that is another blog post).

2. Sustainable assessment
This I learned from #flsustain, Nottingham’s Sustainability, Society and You. I sometimes try to make my assessments authentic (i.e. something relevant and useful to the learner’s life beyond class). I now think I should not have any assessments that do not directly influence the learner outside class. No assignments handed in to me. Only assessments that make sense to learners outside class. When I teach teachers, this means something they will either use in their class, for their school, or their professional development. Something they might want to do again or use again beyond the class. Hosted on a platform they can continue to use. E.g. Blog or wiki or other social media

3. Allow multiple approaches for connecting
I am learning a lot from #rhizo14 (Rhizomatic learning) beyond this, but I think it has been great to negotiate my way around learning via different social media for one course, and since i teach ed tech, my students could benefit from this on a meta-level (exploring multiple intelligences, learning new technologies,comparing their learning potential) – another sustainable form of learning! So i might have my students blog for one week, use twitter for an assignment the next, have a facebook and/or G+ group (unsure they need both) – and then let them choose freely among those (and the Moodle discussion board) for their preferred platform for later weeks.
(To be fair, this idea started for me with #edcmooc below, including giving students annotated content to choose to read/watch, but I participated in more platforms in #rhizo14, so the idea grew)

4. Digital artefact as project
This I learned from #edcmooc, eLearning and Digital Cultures (Edinburgh) – the final project was a digital artefact of our choice that represented learning in the course. I liked the freedom and simplicity of the prompt, though it was actually an assignment that required reflection. I learned from some of the shortcomings of it, too. It asked a little too much (in the peer assessment criteria – which i think in my case should be negotiated) and i would also add one thing (suggested by Sandra Sinfield after i raised the issue in the discussion forum): allow the learner space to explain why or how they think their artefact met the goals of the project. I also think they can ask for a couple of additional criteria to be assessed on that are valuable to THEM personally. I also learned to give learners space to explore some new technologies before the final project to help them choose among possibilities.

5. Quadblogging
This one I learned from Ary and Maddie, CTAs in #edcmooc – have students blog in groups of 4 such that each blogs for a week while others comment and help support and promote, then they rotate. I might do it slightly differently, but along those lines so students who have different commitments throughout the semester do not feel pressured to blog weekly.

6. Medium-term synchronous collaborative events
This one I learned from the #readmake project, not a MOOC, but a 2-day collaborative writing event on a google doc, with a Twitter hashtag on the side. I am not a big fan of synchronous communication online (love it when it is convenient and it works, like today with #rhizo14 folks, but it is rare for me to be able to participate, and infrastructure in Egypt is choppy). Sooo the idea of all people using twitter and some collaborative platform like a wiki to work on something over a short time period of a few days (but not just within 1-2 hours) sounds more doable. It allows for some immediacy but also some reflection and allows for people’s busy schedules and tech glitches.

Will I be able to do this all next semester? See #1: i will negotiate with my students and see! Every semester is different. Will it all work? See #3: some will work better for certain people than others! So the only certainty is uncertainty… As we have been saying somewhere in #rhizo14… Facebook was it?


Novelty, noise, and scaffolding

Some days you come across an idea that provides you with unexpected insights. The idea is simple and should have been obvious to you long ago, but somehow was not, until some other person articulated it well enough.

A couple of days ago, this insight came from a comment on Dave Cormier’s blog post about the upcoming open course on Rhizomatic Learning. Scott Johnson, building on the concept of scaffolding which another commentator mentioned, said:

“Without structure or some realization that help or accompaniment is available (the presence of a sense-making companion maybe?) novelty can be pushed aside as noise”

I’ve known about scaffolding and Vygotsky for years and years, I use the concept often, but this statement opened up my eyes to two important realizations:

1. It made me realize why, at work (I work as a faculty developer), sometimes a new idea that is mentioned in an email or meetings gets “shot down” very quickly by more conservative members of the team – I think I always realized there was some element of others not truly understanding where the new idea comes from, or not truly knowing the dimensions of it, and that this is partly the fault of the speaker for not communicating clearly in the first place and accounting for listener’s background. But the concept of “novelty as noise” is very enlightening. Recognizing that novelty might seem like  “noise”, means we understand that this noise causes discomfort, and you want to “shut it out”, because who wants to keep listening to noise? You’re not able to listen to it, you don’t understand the content of it, and it’s distracting you from listening to more important things. It never occurred to me when introducing novelty in a work setting (vs. a teaching setting) that one could use the concept of scaffolding. Yes, it now sounds obvious, but it was not that obvious to me beforehand!

2. An insight into connectivism: This (the need for some kind of sense-making e.g. via a peer or expert) might be what is truly problematic about connectivism. I have argued elsewhere (publication in process) that cMOOCs are not necessarily scalable across contexts because not all people feel comfortable with the technology or the lack of structure or info overload, and not all disciplines can easily be adapted for that kind of learning especially for non-autonomous and younger learners (well, I might have said it slightly differently, but that is the gist). But maybe what  Scott mentions is what is truly problematic with connectivism – the novelty of it, without peer (or expert) support, seems like noise to the external observer who is not an extremely connected/networked individual… and so it goes totally over their heads. Actually, I think the theory behind connectivism is difficult to imagine or absorb, and even harder to experience for the person who is not highly networked to begin with. I might be wrong, but I think the rest of Scott’s comment about the same people showing up in connectivist learning opportunities rings true: these people are feeling supported and trust each other enough to keep learning together.

This all also made me realize why #edcmooc (eLearning & Digital Cultures MOOC) might have worked really well – it had a lot of elements of connectivism (use of social media not just the traditional MOOC platform) but also some (quite loose) structure. And also encouraging lots of peer support (participants in the first run of the MOOC say they built community before the course even started and that this personal learning network stayed with them beyond).

And so… I think I know why the idea of rhizomatic learning and community as curriculum resonated with me a little more than connectivism. Because the emphasis on “community” seemed to emphasize the importance of the social relationships between learners… versus connectivism which seemed to emphasis the network connections which sounded to me (as a former computer scientist) as emphasizing the network (software or hardware) rather than the people and the social aspect. I’ve never gone too far in reading up on connectivism, and I assume it’s possible “network” means “social community”, but somehow it does not sound completely like that to me… I think I might get my head around all this as we go into #rhizo14. Or not. Either way, I’m excited about that course and the possibilities and social networks I could build and learn with/from through it.

More later…