Participant Pedagogy in the MOOC: Herding Cats or Designing a House?

I have been thinking about this as we have moved through the MOOCMOOC. It is my primary concern that participants be given the tools necessary to be successful, while also being provided the freedom to follow their own learning paths. Determining one’s own path, goal setting and ongoing reinforcement will be necessary. I don’t think that this reinforcement has to come from a teacher; however I do think the reinforcement is necessary so that students will continue to engage in the MOOC.

As I consider the MOOC, I must consider two different types of students: The graduate student who enrolls in the MOOC for credit, and the lifelong learner who enrolls in the MOOC because they’d like to be a part of a vibrant learning community which in all likelihood will endure far beyond the end date of the class.  I have developed learning communities for graduate students for about 15 years now, and I am highly confident with facilitating learning in a CMS. It can become redundant and stale – to be sure – but I’m also highly confident with it.

The graduate student who enrolls in the MOOC for credit may not be highly motivated to engage in social learning. This student has his or her own reasons for pursuing the degree, which might have to do with promotion, with pay scale, or with state mandates. Not the best reasons for engaging in a learning community! Therefore, with some (not by any means all) graduate students, the role of the instructor may be to herd cats.

Within the CMS I can manage the student’s expectation and mandate reinforcement from the community and through this, create some rewarding interaction (once students accept that they must engage, and then realize that they can set their own paths for engagement). The greatest challenge I have found is in assisting the student in forming the habit of engaging in internet research (self-directed around a certain topic) and then “showing up” to build the knowledge of the class. I manage these processes (as I have stated in an earlier blog post) through a highly behaviorist system of feedback. Don’t get me wrong – I’d love to toss that. I am happy to give up the idea that I must grade everything.

My graduate students find that once they engage in the habits that I outline, really, an A is the default. It’s HARD to get a B if you authentically engage in the environment. Students find their intrinsic motivation and realize that once they give the discussion a chance, they enjoy it. They naturally gravitate to those individuals whose postings are engaging. They begin to have real conversations in which they share their most important and valued lessons and resources. They create take-aways that are highly relevant to their personal environments. Some students are sad to see the community come to an end at the completion of the class.

On the other hand, those students who never authentically engage do the bare minimum in the class. They hover on the edge of the B-, and it is painful to read their postings and evaluate their progress. I can feel their pain as they blog. I can feel their disconnection. If these students will not engage in a small, managed environment where netiquette and social reinforcement is expected and enforced (not through proximity but through the awarding of credit) –  how is it possible that setting them out into the wide world will motivate them more?

In short – how will students who are victims of learned helplessness endure in the face of a MOOC? Is the MOOC the solution to learned helplessness? I’m all about natural consequences – but what are the natural consequences to the learner who depends on external reinforcement for his or her academic identity? I know that the system created these students. What are our obligations now that they are in our class? In the past, I’ve tried to wean them off of their need for external feedback (with varying levels of success). How are they going to do in a sink or swim environment? What is my role in their success? How can I avoid the perception that I am “playing favorites” if I provide differing levels of support for students enrolling for credit vs. students enrolling for free?

I worry more about this student than I do about the lifelong learner. The lifelong learner has an internal locus of control. No one is forcing them to take this class. They have their own goals. If the proper spaces are created, and support materials are created this learner should blossom.

For this student, the teacher’s role seems to be that of the architect. The teacher can craft the proper support materials, create the proper learning spaces for each week, and develop a coordinated system in which the student may, if and when he or she chooses, develop their own support networks during the class. I wish all of education were like this. This student needs good support – doesn’t need his or her hand held – and can maneuver through the structure well, as long as the blueprint is clear. To me – this is straight best practice in instructional design.

This is my internal dilemma in the 3rd day of the MOOCMOOC and as I complete the initial design of my own MOOC – the #diffimooc – being offered starting January 14 (shameless plug).

I would look forward to the comments of my colleagues in the MOOCMOOC (and others)– both positive and critical – concerning my reflections. Am I just too entrenched in traditional educational practices and thinking?

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5 responses to Participant Pedagogy in the MOOC: Herding Cats or Designing a House?

  1. Your MOOC looks great! I see those students with learned helplessness all of the time — many of those who are successful in school panic when asked to become creators of their own learning experiences. Honestly, I often prefer students who have been the “failures” because they are desperate enough that they might do anything.

  2. sigrist says:

    The CMS is a terrific idea! About the lifelong learner, sometimes they just engage with MOOC because they haven’t enough money for a college or considers him/herself too old to connect with young lads. I believe the lifelong learners can benefit the most from learning without formal guidance.

  3. Bon says:

    interesting distinctions about learner and facilitator roles, and how they intersect and shape each other. points out how symbiotic they are…makes me wonder again what in my own f2f teaching practices i can continue to work on so as to support students while reinforcing less passivity.

    i’m a grad student too…and stuck on the other side of that power equation as well, where deference and a sort of learned passivity are sometimes surprisingly expected. and in a sense, as a social media researcher but also a longtime hobbyist (erm, blogger?) on social networks, a lifelong learner. so trying to parse out where the distinctions have effects is fascinating to me.

    i will say, i wrote – and eked out a video – today that peripherally takes up the same issue of whether MOOCs can be a solution to learned helplessness…or as i framed it, whether they inherently teach the digital literacy/orientation of decentering the teacher. i decided they *can*, if they’re networked. otherwise, they’re just the broadcast TV education experiment all over again. http://theory.cribchronicles.com/2013/01/09/education-for-a-digital-age/

  4. colin says:

    For the disinterested, I don’t have a whole lot of experience in motivating. For the interested but trained-passive participant: “Change is hard”, especially in the face of many other responsibilities. We’re also imbued with a bigger fear of failure than we have a love of doing good work. What works in my 1:1 interactions seems to be “It’s OK to try something and mess up! (pssst: as long as you know how to recover!!)”

    • akedtech says:

      Very good point Colin! We have to know it’s okay not to get everything right the first time. Also – even though it might be hard climbing up the learning curve, things do get easier! A little persistence goes a really long way!

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