Metaphorical concepts

So it seems that how we think, act and speak is influenced by the metaphorical choices we use to conceptualise ideas. Another eye-opener in week 6, this time from Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. (1980). As someone who resorts to metaphors quite often in language (in my on-going battle to articulate myself with clarity), it was interesting to read that this is more than just language – indeed the very metaphors we choose can influence how we think.

Continuing the spirit of experimentation, I pulled together a video of some of themes in biteable:

In traditional form though, here are some bullets for my own reference:

  • Metaphorical concepts are more than ‘skin deep’. We are able to articulate concepts metaphorically because we conceive of things metaphorically, then act metaphorically.
  • Structural metaphors – where one concept is metaphorically structured in terms of another. E.g. Time is money.
  • Metaphorical concepts may be only relevant to certain cultures
  • Metaphorical concepts may be interrelated, to create a metaphorical system
  • Metaphorical concepts are only partially structured. Time (the target domain) is analogous with money (the source domain), but time isn’t money. Therefore this can hide and limit the understanding of the target domain.
  • Orientational metaphors – organises a whole system of concepts with respect to one another. Spatial in that refer to our being in a physical environment. E.g. I’m feeling down.
  • Metaphorical systems provide an overarching theme to capture many metaphorical concepts, e.g. Happy is ‘up’.

I see the links in this paper with Bayne (2015), in terms of how choice of language, as innocuous as it may seem, can have wider repercussions if not chosen well, or at least without a critique of why the choices have been made.

Having done some further reading around this, I’ve come across Whorf’s theory of language, which perhaps looks at this from a different angle – that the choice of language itself shape how their speakers perceive and conceptualize the world.

In a forum thread earlier in the course, Clara O’Shea talks about mycorrhiza, and the symbiotic association this represents. This seems to be a pervading theme across the course, whether it be related to technology and teacher, metaphor and language, learning and education, teacher and student, instrumentalism and essentialism. There is a rich and intertwined dynamic going on throughout these topics, and it seems clarity is lost when the factors are treated as distinct individuals, rather than acknowledging the interplay between the two.

In terms of how metaphorical concepts apply to the digital environments, this is going to be interesting to explore on the forums with the rest of the guys. With regards to the idea of learning I can already see concepts such as nature, or growth coming through e.g. “it gave me the seed of an idea that grew”, and perhaps this is lost at times with digital, where the viewpoint (in some circles) may be to revolutionise, rather than evolve?


  • Bayne, S. (2015). What’s the matter with ‘technology-enhanced learning’? Learning, Media and Technology, 40(1), 5-20, DOI: 10.1080/17439884.2014.915851
  • Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M.(1980) Metaphors We Live By. (London, University of Chicago Press). Chapters 1-4. pp3-21

Cousin, G. (2005) musings

Week 6 of IDEL and I think we’re moving into more familiar territory. Although digital environments is a very broad term, and Minecraft is still very much an unknown, we’ve begun to start using terms such as VLE, which is a bit closer to home.

Cousin, G. (2005) has been a really interesting read, and a great way to kick things off. I’m quite surprised how relevant many of themes still are, given its relative age (12 years) and all that has changed since.

It seems the author had a remarkable amount of foresight too, for example:

“technologies are constitutive of our identities”.

Given it was 2005 at time of writing – when it could be argued social media was very much a novelty – little could she have known how our identities these days are as much online as offline.

There were some key themes that I picked out:

  • She argues that the instrumentalist viewpoint is widespread at the time that this was written. This concurs with Friesen’s observations (Friesen, N. (2013) that use of technology is been viewed as plugging into the existing pedagogy.
  • Cousin argues that pedagogy has always been intertwined with technology, and that the two are “mutually determining”.
  • Technology should not be viewed as inert or separate from technology. Terms like ‘toolbox’ add to this. She argues that “different media demand different levels and forms of engagement or our senses and social relations”.
  • Power or control is a contributor to the positioning of technology as an enhancement. Again this keeps on coming up in the readings, the most relevant here being Selwyn, N. (2011).
  • She argues that VLEs tend to be skewed towards the simulation of the classroom, again this is referring to the instrumentalist approach.

The paper echoes previous readings in parts on the debate around the approach to technology within education. The resistance to the adoption of technology in education also seems to be still relevant.

It was Interesting to read the author’s observations that to avoid protestations within the teaching community, technology was being positioned as enhancing what is already good about education. This reminded me of a twitter thread recently, about how the notion ‘practice makes perfect’ is flawed should actually be repurposed as ‘practice makes permanent’. The sentiment being here that practice only reinforces something, it doesn’t change its nature. In the same way, technology could also be used to enhance bad teaching practice if the underlying pedagogy isn’t sound.

I can’t help but think that the argument that VLEs mirror a classroom approach still tends to hold true. But I’m not sure if this is entirely unexpected, particularly given some of the VLEs I’ve experienced and the story of their development. Again this refers back to earlier conversations we’ve had on the forums concerning the educational community’s influence in technology.

From my professional experience, many of the VLEs in the workplace have been brought over from more educational or academic backgrounds. We’re starting to see this change, with the advent of more resource-orientated frameworks (such as Fuse), and the development of tools such as xAPI which aim to acknowledge the learning that happens outside of formal training experiences. Perhaps these will feed back into the more academic VLEs, and improve them for the better.

(On a side note, given Biesta’s criticism of the ‘learnification’ of education, should in some cases the VLE be re-titled as the Virtual Education Environment 😉 ?)

I’d argue that with regards to terminology, work environments are more orientated towards ‘learning’ than ‘being educated’. Simple reason being that at work people want to access information and guidance to support them in doing something, usually right then and then. Given that, it’s less about a separate educator or teacher, the learner themselves are taking on aspects of the teaching role themselves by sourcing and validating (to some degree – this could be as little as being top of a search query) a piece of content. A slide on Nick Shackleton’s recent presentation at World of Learning summarises this quite nicely:

I suspect when we look at digital environments and spaces over next couple of weeks this is going to be particularly useful in the ‘day job’, and am looking forward to finding out more!


  • Cousin, G. (2005). Learning from cyberspace. In R. Land & S. Bayne (Eds.), Education in Cyberspace. Abingdon: RoutledgeFalmer.
  • Hamilton, E., and Friesen, N. (2013). Online education: a science and technology studies perspective. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, 39(2), 1-21.
  • Selwyn, N. (2011), Education and Technology: key issues and debates. London: Continuum.
  • Biesta, G. (2012) Giving teaching back to education: responding to the disappearance of the teacher. Phenomenology & Practice. 6(2), 35-49. journal article]

Themes and terminology

In the spirit of IDEL, I thought it was about time to start experimenting on this blog with a few different online tools. I’ve pulled some of the recurring themes and new terminology (for me) that I’ve picked up during the course so far and pulled them into a wordcloud. It’s not hugely different from a list but the aesthetics are certainly more appealing!

Some quick thoughts on themes and terminology from weeks 0-4:

  • I’ve been surprised to see so many political themes used throughout the readings, I didn’t anticipate this. Again it may because I’m not part of the ‘education’ world per se, but the political influence in this area is very apparent with papers such as Hall, R. (2016). This was quite an eye-opener – not particularly due to the content but the author’s (rather militant?) approach to the subject.
  • I’ve dipped my toe into certain learning theories before. Cognitivism is certainly a recurring theme in my circles, and I think this may be as a result of the on-going strive for efficiency. Given the online training is largely delivered under the rationale of knowledge transfer, it makes sense that those developing it what want to understand the workings of the mind, and use this as a basis for their approach. It’s been interesting to explore other approaches such as cognitivism, which seems (from my experience at least) to be a much broader, and richer way of looking at education and learning. I’m looking forward to exploring how this can be used as a tangible framework.
  • It was reassuring on the recent skype to hear that some of the terminology and concepts used so far were new to many of us and not just me! It’s certainly a big learning curve so far to get to grips some of the recommended reading materials, but feel the papers are becoming easier and quicker to digest. Admittedly it’s still taking time to familiarise myself with the key concepts (‘trans-humanism’ and ‘post-humanism’ are still a challenge), but I’m starting to recognise these. The course itself has been very approachable, and this has been the glue that has binded it all together (as it should!).
  • I’ve very much enjoyed experiencing the different forms of communication. The mix of asynchronous (forums, introductory videos and blog feedback) and synchronous (skype chat and skype voice) provides different benefits, and on the flipside different challenges. I felt a strange feeling of relief after the first skype chat session, I think this was because I didn’t feel that I was on a different ‘playing field’ as the others and could add to the discussions. It also reduced that sense of isolation, which I feel is unfortunately common in many online learning/training experiences.
  • Following on from the last bullet, having read and re-read Biesta (2012) I’m certainly aware of my own tendency to ‘learnify’, which may not be the right choice. I’m increasingly becoming more aware of the role of a teacher, and the importance of this, and this is something I’m sure I will continue to ruminate on.


The challenge in choice of terminology

Bayne, S. (2015). intertwines with similar themes as the paper I critiqued, namely Hamilton, E., and Friesen, N. (2013). While Friesen looks at the approaches to research in the relationship between technology and education, Bayne raises some another difficulty (and one that could be argued that contributes to the same blinkered viewpoint) in the term ‘Technology-Enhanced Learning’, or TEL for short. Indeed when reviewing one, it’s difficult to not look at them as a pair, or at least with common concerns about research, discussion and labels in this area.

A couple of key themes I took from the paper were:

  • ‘TEL’ is intended as a rather broad description, yet despite being intended as quite an innocuous and neutral tag, actually has some significant repercussions.
  • Much like Friesen suggests with the constructivist approach (vs essentialist or instrumentalist), there’s a richness in the social, historical and intertwined aspects of TEL that this fails to capture. Bayne argues this is as a result of the each of the descriptors in turn – Technology, Enhancement and Learning.

Given these recent readings (and the others suggested as part of week 4), it seems there are some really intense debates going on, which can only be healthy! My view is they could be seen as ‘growing pains’, and it seems to me that these important challenges to current ways of thinking are particularly pertinent given the current pace of change. I guess the challenge is can the research keep up with this pace, particularly if any changes as a result of these arguments may require time to gain traction and be adopted by the community?

Going back to Bayne’s core argument, that TEL fails to capture the complexity of the situation, does strike a chord with my current professional work. We hear a variety of terms being bandied about – elearning (with and without the hyphen!), online learning, online courses, digital learning – all with their own history, connotations and reason for being.

Heading up a commercial organisation, we often find ourselves having to use the language our customers use (externally at least). We can contribute to influence change with our choice of terminology, but the pragmatic aspects of being able to found online for the search terms our customers are using and also finding common ground in conversations mean we could actually be part of the issue here, rather than the solution! It’s very much a vicious circle however, as Bayne quite rightly points out that terms such as TEL (or elearning or online training) create pre-ordained expectations before conversations actually begin.

I certainly recognise many of the themes in Biesta, G. (2012) in my professional practice, the ‘learnification’ of education in particular. This really struck a chord. This ‘student-centerness’ is prevalent in the circles I work in, and this could be driven by the efficiency angles referenced in many of the recent readings.

This quote resonated, that is referenced in Bayne:

that is, a transaction in which (i) the learner is the (potential) consumer, the one who has certain needs, in which (ii) the teacher, the educator, or the educational institution becomes the provider, that is, the one who is there to meet the needs of the learner, and where (iii) education itself becomes a commodity to be provided or delivered by the teacher or educational institution and to be consumed by the learner. (Biesta, 2005)

Perhaps the very commercial nature of the training/learning (whatever you want to frame it as) I’m involved in is helping to drive this. The lack of human tutoring (much of the training we’re involved in is asynchronous knowledge transfer), and therefore reduced costs is seen as a way of delivering cost-effectively at scale, but ultimately at what price to the student’s experience (and overall impact of the training itself)?


Skype chat – a reflection

Today I hit a bit of a dip. I’m sure it happens to most participants at some stage, but all of a sudden the reality of what I’ve got myself into dawned on me. After struggling but persevering through the readings from week 2 (some of them I found more accessible than others, namely the Gert Biesta paper), I’d then learned what would be required in weeks 3 and 4.

How will I ever find time to do the extra reading?

How do I keep up with everyone else on the course?

The blogs seems to take me ages, how I am going to ever going to tackle a more academic style of writing?

Luckily then, we had our first skype chat this evening. It was hosted by a couple of course tutors, and it came as a breath of fresh air.

As mentioned previously, the beauty of a course on a topic such as ‘Digital Education’ is that we are very much learning by doing. I think the sense of overwhelming is contributed by not only the effort and time to work through the course itself, but trying to maintain a close eye on how the course has been designed and is led by the team. I feel there is as much to learn from the latter as the former, and am keen not to lose the opportunity to recognise the excellent course design and delivery in play. While I am aware that this blog should reflect on and critique the discussions, motions and readings been proposed, I’m finding it is increasingly more useful to record my observations of the course I’m taking part in.

Tonight’s Skype was a chance to discuss ‘critical perspectives’. The brief for week 3 and 4 felt a little daunting, particularly since it’s such a leap into the known for someone who hasn’t been involved in formal education for such a long time (and at a significantly higher level than previous). Having now reflected on the skype chat, I feel more assured about what’s involved and required.

In terms of the chat itself, I think it came at a really good point in the course journey so far. Week 2 had felt a step up, and given some of the content was more difficult for me to contribute to when compared with the discussions in week 1.

I felt like we’d established strong early connections through the forums, but for me, this was the first time that there was a sense of a learning ‘community’. Perhaps this synchronous, fast-paced dialogue, through a platform like Skype, is an important element to establish those human connections, in a way that other platforms, such as forums cannot yet deliver. This format felt like an online version of a group face-to-face discussion (with many other distinct advantages), and I’m yet to consider what the stronger elements are at play here – am I finding comfort in a recognisable form of learning, or is just appealing to my human traits? Perhaps a bit of both.

Throughout the Skype session the example from week 1 – The disembodied student – was at the back of my mind. I’d built a dialogue with these people already, some of them more than others. How would the interactions change in this new format (especially given the pace of comment is more rapid)? Would I learn more about the other students I’d engaged with already and those that I’m yet to meet? Who is really at the end of the other computer (and do I really care)?

For my own reference, I wanted to document the practical aspects of what I feel made the session a success:

  • We already knew of each other, through our forum postings. Enough connection had been made (and enough common ground established), before putting the students in the increasingly involved environment.
  • Rory and Clara gave ample opportunity for chat participants to say hello to each other before getting stuck into the real purpose of the chat. Like the ‘ice-breaker’ in an instructor-led session, it knocked off some the edges and made us all more comfortable in offering our opinions.
  • I sensed that all the participants had been involved in chat environments like this before. In many ways, this is a pro and a con of the course. By the very nature of what we are studying, there’s shared knowledge we can apply in the very practicalities of how we are learning. However how transferable the format of a course such as this to those with less experience is one to unpick.
  • Using chat, rather than voice and/or webcam felt appropriate for the development of the group so far. Very well judged, and certainly reduces some of the apprehension some may have about the voice chat next week.
  • Having two chat hosts working in tandem added real value. WIthin such a big group it ensured the conversation could continue at a good pace and with a strong direction. Of course, and it goes without saying, that both hosts were obviously very experienced in the format and knowledgeable in the subject matter!
  • Rory had either prepared a list of questions to pose (and in a logical order), or he is particularly quick thinking. Either way being equipped to direct the conversation well is key.
  • Not every student was in the group. I’m looking forward to meeting others online already connected with on the next session next week!

Bravo on a well-designed learning experience!

The automated teaching assistant aka ‘teacherbot’

The developing potential in it was clear to see in Sian Bayne’s paper (Bayne S. (2015) Teacherbot: interventions in automated teaching. Teaching in Higher Education. 20(4):455-467) on the ‘teacherbot’ developed by a team at the University of Edinburgh, and used in an earlier MOOC.

The twitterbot examples we’d found as a collective were by their very nature designed for consumption by large audiences, and in most cases offered little interaction. They use the power of algorithms to source, rework and mix up varieties of content.

Given Twitter’s primary use as a platform for interaction, it was really intriguing to find how the teacherbot had been designed for use for a particular set of people (namely the MOOC participants) but also provided value in several ways.

It seemed like the bot offered some immediate efficiency gains, for example, automated reminders of assessment deadlines, based on keywords. But it seemed to me in the paper that one of Sian’s key arguments was that automation should not just be viewed as simply a way of gaining efficiencies. Indeed exploration in this field should be framed differently, to provide a wider field to test its potential.

So the real excitement comes from the examples of interaction between the teacherbot and MOOC student, even if it was “slightly ‘clunky’ and often rather wide-of-the-mark”. It seems in some cases it provoked useful reflection and discussion, which would add value to the student’s experience.

The paper did make me ponder on a few things: It’d be fascinating to see

  • It’d be fascinating to see teacherbot v2. Given its first iteration was understandably clunky at times, and that an algorithm/bot improves when it is receptive to feedback, it’d be useful to view how much interaction happens the second time around, and the value it brings to the student experience. Given subsequent ‘polishing’ of the teacherbot interactions, I wonder if it would become increasingly difficult to spot it as a bot. (Obviously, there are the ethical discussions to be had here about not raising awareness of this with students, but putting this to one side for now…).
  • Taking this further, and should bots become more commonplace with these environments, would students increase or decrease their interaction with the bot as a result, and ultimately would they even care if it was human or non-human? Is that relevant to the experience, and is this just a personal choice?
  • In some of the forum postings, there has been some discussion about the procurement of technology within education, and how this has in several instances been sold into the institution or organisation gain as an efficiency gain (primarily). The pedagogical advantages have been at times been a secondary consideration. Given the speed of development or development of any technology is often tied in with the adoption rate (more usage brings more development), should we think more pragmatically about this, and ensure that any technology we wish to bring into education has an efficiency element to appeal to certain stakeholders within the decision-making process?

Twitterbots – something more than just scale

I’ve got to admit, I’d always assumed twitterbots were just the platform’s version of spam. I’ve used twitter fairly regularly over the past 2-3 years so, while no expert, would assume I’m one of their more savvy users. Sure, I’d had the occasional tweet from a ‘bimbot’, but assumed bots were being used for little else.

So I was a little surprised to see this introduced in week 2 of the IDEL course, and it’s been a very pleasant surprise! Of course, having now read a little more about them, I sense the deep relevance in the discussion about technology and the role of ‘teacher’.

The recommend blog post provides a great introduction to twitterbots, and I was particularly struck by the description:

What these bots show is that the future of automation—whether of work, errands, or other routine tasks—is about the combination of human creativity and the raw processing power of machines.

And boy, when the balance is right it can be a beautiful thing. What could be suggested here is it combining technology with human creativity can help scale this – to reach a wider audience, have more impact, produce more, and even produce

“something that is actually greater than the sum of its parts”.

The ‘infinite monkey theorem came to mind when I read this. I wonder if technology has previously just been assumed as a way to scale (an industrial version of the monkeys), to aid efficiency and deliver increased permutations. Perhaps what we are now beginning to explore is something much deeper – how it can elevate our creative output to a higher level, and help us create something much bigger than ourselves. Ultimately our creative output is the centrepiece, but technology can help us mould this is new and exciting ways.

I’m looking forward to spending more time this week looking into twitterbots, and how they can help us in learning and education. My favourite so far? The ‘here’s your reminder’ bot, simply because I think it has very sarcastic overtones…

Algorithms in learning

I was lucky enough to listen to a talk from Chris Littlewood from Filtered in Manchester recently. His business is exploring algorithms as a way of providing a scalable solution to the idea of content creation.

Ben Betts, from HT2 labs, suggested at the same event that a transition may be taking place within L&D functions – moving away from the creation of elearning content, to simply curating the best of what’s already out there.

The technology that Chris’ team are developing takes this one step further – so rather than a person deciding what is relevant and scouring the web for the best content (and by ‘best’ I mean most likely to add value), algorithms are used to scale this up, gain feedback from students on the choices made, and use this to improve the algorithm itself.

With algorithms and technology helping education and learning become more ‘intelligent’, it feels like we could be on the cusp of something really exciting.

Week 1 takeaways

So week 1 is already over! Wow that went quick. The case studies on ‘constructing community’ have provoked some real food for thought, particularly given the polarised situations in the examples.

A few key points and thoughts from the first week:

  • Whether the student environment is online or offline, the complexity of community doesn’t really change. It may be different in format, and with different challenges, but ultimately all individuals within a community are unique with their own needs, personalities and capabilities. In short, ‘digital’ doesn’t seem to dumb things down, or make it more straightforward. Instead it may heighten certain issues (e.g. the feeling of being swamped), reduce others (e.g. physical impairment, and unconscious bias towards this), and bring new challenges to the table (e.g. increased diversity of nationalities could bring cultural clashes to the fore)
  • Tutors or leaders within a community have a tough balance to strike! Be too interventionist and the community could lose some of its as yet unexplored potential, – the value be ‘throttled’. Keep things too unregulated and focus could be lost, and the community could become a real turn-off for some.
  • How someone designs an online learning environment has a major bearing on the nature of the community within it. It seemed to me that in several of the examples, the structure of the course influenced a student’s reaction and ability to ‘learn’ from it. Perhaps in the past I’ve underestimated this. However, I also think that building community is not something that can be overtly designed (see my first point about the complexities of individuals). Perhaps it is also about ongoing refinement, and being observant of any improvements that could be made from one iteration to the next.
  • Digital literacy is likely to play a part in the participation levels within a community. It seemed to me that in some of the examples, some of the causes of the challenges could be placed with the individual, rather than the learning experience itself. Again the tutor has a tough job to identify these and support when it makes sense to do so, particularly when in an online environment it may be more difficult to spot those struggling (they may just go quiet) than compared with the more traditional classroom. And how do we avoid losing their contribution in the community discussions?

And finally, one rather pertinent point:

  • There is a huge amount of value to gain from a community within a learning experience! May sound like a rather odd thing to be explicit on, but I’d previously mentioned that ‘community’ has not been a common element in many of the online learning experiences I’d had (or created – for a variety of reasons). I’ve been massively impressed (but not surprised by this!) by the other individuals in the groups and really benefitted from their expertise and opinions. Being able to see the group interact with each other, and challenge each other (it’d be great to see more of this though), really enhances your own thinking, rather than relying on one source of expertise or content. It’s going to be interesting to see how the community develops over the next few weeks, particularly when initial novelty value and enthusiasm may wane?

Feeling swamped – MOOC perspectives

We’ve been posed some very interesting scenarios this week on the topic of ‘constructing community’, and it’s been fascinating to read the different takes from fellow students on these on the forums.

I was particularly intrigued by some of the points raised about the sense of feeling ‘swamped’ in a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) environment, and thought it would be worthwhile diving into this a little deeper.

In the example provided, there seemed to a variety of factors contributing to this feeling:

  • the sheer volume of students on the course
  • the volume of content created by the students on the course
  • engaging with content outside of the main environment (e.g. additional reading)

It got me thinking about the nature of MOOCs, and strategies that could be put in place to help manage these challenges.

(Before looking at this, I think it’s important to note from the outset that this could be seen as a ‘nice’ problem to have! The fact that the MOOC has attracted successfully attracted thousands of students obviously taps into a subject that people are keen to develop their understanding in!).


Although the example doesn’t give details, I’ve found several MOOCs I’ve participated in to use ‘engagement’ as a metric, or contributor of success.

The majority of MOOCs I’ve come across have primarily been a) free of charge and b) require no prior knowledge or experience. While this is one of the fantastic aspects of MOOCs – being able to provide a learning experience for anyone, anywhere. But this could be a double-edged sword, with a bigger and more diverse audience, perhaps that sense of community and connection is more difficult to bring together, simply because there may be more that makes people different, than similar.

Therefore it’s difficult to base success of a MOOC simply based on an end assessment. Given a person could potentially complete an assessment without actually touching the course content or interacting with other users, how to do you evaluate success this way?

(And given many MOOCs are used as a brand awareness activity by universities, and could be considered a ‘marketing’ activity, engagement (however this is defined) is probably a better metric internally within an institution).

Given engagement is a key driver then, perhaps it creates an onus on students to contribute, even if it offers little value (to themselves, or the other students). As the example itself states:

“What was the point of adding another blog post when there were so many floating around already?”

Perhaps then a strategy for the course designers is to think carefully about the metrics related to the course, both from an academic, student and institutional perspective. As ultimately what may be quite subtle measurements could extrapolate to fairly profound impact on the overall course experience. (I think of Ken Robinson’s quote here, “If you design a system to do something specific, don’t be surprised if it does it”.)

Group size

I wonder if there was a way the course tutors on the MOOC in the example could have split the group size into smaller cohorts. It seems there has been plenty of discussion over ideal group sizes within MOOCs elsewhere, with understandably little agreement (given the nature of MOOCs are quite diverse).

One interesting question to pose is how to create cohorts, and what to base the cohort decision on. Registration date is the obvious one, simply batching them based on chronological enrolment. But could geographic location but one option, and perhaps levels of engagement itself? Ultimately this would need some consideration and piloting to make the MOOC experience for students more enjoyable, without losing any of the diversity and breadth of opinion that could occur outside of the student’s specific cohort.

Managing expectations

On further reflection, I wonder if the feelings expressed by the MOOC student were representative of the wider group. It strikes me that this student could be trying to view everything created by the course and its students, which in this scenario seems unrealistic.

Hajira Khan, a fellow student on this IDEL course, suggested moderators have a key part to play in this process too:

“The tutor for the course should be an active moderator so that discussions are moderated and are kept relevant and concise.”

That role of tutor could be key to keeping the discussion on track, but also managed what is expected.

The feelings are obviously genuine and not to be dismissed, but changes should be considered for future MOOCs in line with wider feedback too, this student’s experience could be an outlier.

One consideration for tutors is to ensure there is the facility to capture feedback like this early on, and where possible have the flexibility to adapt the MOOC where possible to get it back on track.

Slightly off-piste I know, but I also wondered if that feeling of being swamped had been cited as one of the reasons for the notorious MOOC drop-off rates that occur. After looking at several sources, it isn’t named explicity (although it could contribute to the wider tag of ‘bad experience’).

Daniel Onah, of Warwick University, discusses the following contributors to MOOC drop-off rates here:

  • No real intention to complete
  • Lack of time
  • Course difficulty and lack of support
  • Lack of digital skills or learning skills
  • Bad experiences
  • Expectations
  • Starting late
  • Peer review

So while feeling swamped could be a contributor, it seems the reasons for drop-off could be quite wide-ranging!

Constructing community and the workplace

Week 1 on the IDEL course is all about ‘constructing community’. Naturally the discussions around this will help us forge our own community as part of the course. This is one of the key reasons why I embarked on the MSc, it’s very much ‘learning by doing’.

I think one of the key things to keep on top of during the next few weeks and months is to maintain that ‘helicopter view’, and to consider the course design that has been put in place throughout. I see a huge amount of value in making notes throughout on the course experience, and how the tutors have facilitated it.

Although I’m part of communities both online and ‘in the real world’ (if that exists anymore), surprisingly it’s not something I’ve come across a lot within online learning environments. With the employers and clients I’ve worked with in the past, elearning has been very much served up as asynchronous elearning content, largely based on knowledge transfer. And the end goal has always been certification – the course has very much been a shortcut to an outcome.

The motivator on the MSC is intrinsic – we’re learning because we want to – and the differences in motivation perhaps give more flexibility to the delivery format, and the encouragement to read outside the course itself.

Even after a week on IDEL, I can see the benefits of a richer, less controlled experience, and one that is facilitated, rather than simply using the online equivalent of a ‘lecturer’. How this could work in a commercial world, and for some of the partners we work with is something for me to extrapolate. Ultimately there’s product, administrative and operational factors at play to consider – but one worth thinking on further.

One of the reasons I’ve found that companies shy away from using communities within their learning environments has been the perceived lack of control. The irony is that the conversations that are happening online may be happening anyway, over the ‘watercooler’ as our American friends say. This comes back to the cultural dynamics at play within an organisation, and probably the role (and importance) of the L&D function within that organisation.

I’m sure we’ll be discussing Charles Jennings’ 70:20:10 theory at some stage during the course. But it seems to me that fostering that sense of community, as we are doing now on the MSc, is crucial to maximising the potential in the peer-to-peer learning.