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The Course Hath No Bottom: the 20,000-Person Seminar

 Published on May 5, 2015 /  Written by /  Reviewed by Bonnie Stewart and Rolin Moe and Sean Michael Morris and R L Widmann /  “Crowded world” by twinkabauter; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 /  24

A few years ago, Sean Michael Morris and I wrote, “Meaningful relationships are as important in a class of three as they are in a class of 10,000.” In the rest of that article, we wonder at questions of scale: how to scale up, when to scale down, and what it might mean to scale sideways. My question here: is it possible to scale up and down simultaneously — to create more and more intimate learning experiences for larger and larger groups of learners?

I’m currently co-teaching Shakespeare in Community, a Massive Open Online Course from University of Wisconsin-Madison. The goal of the course is to bring thousands of learners into conversation. While I’ve taught MOOCs since 2012 on several platforms, this is the first time I’ve developed a Coursera MOOC. Coursera is a platform well-oiled for content-delivery. In fact, when I sat down with Daphne Koller, the founder and president of Coursera, she used the word “content” several dozen times. I asked about “conversation”, “dialogue”, and “community”. Her responses showed that these are, for Coursera, an afterthought. And after playing around inside the guts of the tool, it remains clear to me that these are, indeed, an afterthought. All the proof I need is that it’s about ten times easier to upload a video, and track the watching of that video, than it is to administer the discussion forum. But Coursera does content-delivery incredibly well. My content feels stroked and adored by the platform. It feels genuinely loved. As learning management systems go, I am happy to go on record saying that Coursera is one of the best.

However, I remain certain that learning is not something that ought to be managed. The better we become at managing learning, the more damage we do to learning. This is the cruel irony of the learning management system. The better designed it is for doing its core function, the worse off the learning that happens inside of it. As a technology, the learning management system is genuinely Orwellian. I like best the learning management system when it is still a baby, before it has fully grown up, before it has earned its stripes. But every learning management system is almost immediately on its way toward extinction. They die quick deaths at the point they forget that learning is an encounter, not a spreadsheet. The gradebook, and the demands it places on every single other feature, ultimately kills the learning management system. (Thus, I wouldn’t blame the technological systems so much as I’d blame the institutional and political climates that drive them.)

If we are to use these systems, we need to carve out more space in them for nuance — fashioning simpler platforms that serve as launching pads to places outside their own orbit (both physical and virtual). And every course inside a learning management system should ask students to reflect on the “rhetoric of the room” — the ways the shape of the room affects the learning we do inside of it. We either critically interrogate our tools or are subject to them. There is no middle ground between these two.

The MOOC’s the Thing

At this point, every MOOC fails if it isn’t, at least implicitly, about how we learn in a MOOC.

There has been much pontificating about MOOCs. Much discussion of the ifs and whys and whethers. There has been decidedly less practical discussion of how we might make better MOOCs. There has been little discussion about what the MOOC can teach us about learning. And I don’t mean what we can learn from machines, from big data, from so-called “objective” or “quantifiable” research. I don’t mean what we can learn from IRB-authorized participant surveys or some other “study” that proves what is proven already through plain observation. Instead, we need more deeply subjective work on MOOCs. Many of us don’t have time for the years that can pass in legitimizing the double-blind-peer-reviewed claims of an academic article. The folks for whom this work can do the most good are designing and taking courses right now, this week, not in two years. What can we learn from (and with) them?

The bulk of the MOOCs I’ve taken or eavesdropped upon have not been particularly well-designed. And I find this equally true of the connectivist MOOCs I’ve encountered and the ones from silicon-valley MOOC-providers like Coursera and Udacity. The problem is not that the MOOC is experimental but that it is often not experimental enough. The MOOC landscape has been cut up into neat and tidy categories, and too many MOOCs conform to pre-established scripts. Most Coursera MOOCs, for example, look identical to traditional online courses circa 2005 or earlier, and efforts to scale up those courses has meant more content and less attention to interaction. Coursera is a triumph of marketing a decade-old approach to online learning, not a triumph of learning design.

I say this, and yet I am just now teaching a MOOC using Coursera and have been more often than not delighted by the elegance of the platform — especially the stark lack of feature bloat I’ve seen infect almost every other learning management system I’ve worked within.

Connectivist MOOCs (cMOOCs), which encourage a conversation that is distributed across the web, have also fallen into the trap of conforming themselves too often to a script. The cMOOCs I join now, with a couple exceptions, do not feel as though they’ve evolved from early cMOOCs, as much as they feel beholden to them. Most cMOOCs are disasters of learning design. Beautiful disasters. Joyous disasters. Productive disasters. But disasters nonetheless. As if a course literally exploded onto the internet, leaving a smear of barely intelligible bits across the web.

I say this, and yet I have designed a half-dozen cMOOCs. I love them all like children (this one and this one and this one and this one), but I find myself wanting to kill all of my darlings. And not just in the name of experimentation. But because killing our darlings is at the root of pedagogy. Never do the same thing twice, because the same thing twice is already rotten. We learn from every one of our successes and mistakes, and we encounter each learner and each learning environment anew. As I’ve said before, in another piece with Sean Michael Morris, “the best best practice is to imperil best practices.”

All of which is to say that even if I’ve become a genuine fan of the MOOC medium, I continue to wish the medium would ask more questions of itself. And not the kinds of questions that can be answered by an objective study. The control group is a violence we can not afford. Surveys do not with patient ears attend. And snark or dismissiveness is not the answer either. Instead, we need to sit right down in the MOOC. But be always so light on our feet as to remain unentrenched.

The folks most poised to think with the MOOC are the ones building and rebuilding them. The folks most poised to think with the MOOC are the ones taking them. Everyone else is a cipher to this great accompt, working only upon imaginary forces.

And this is why I continue to teach online — not because I love teaching online, but because I’m determined to get to the bottom of online learning. Determined to see that it hath no bottom. There are many things about which I remain uncertain. What I know thus far is that content can not be poured neatly from one container to another — from the face-to-face class into the online one. What I know is that none of these technologies will save education or us — except, perhaps, from the urge to look to tech (and not to ourselves) for saviors.

Content is Dead and Gone

At the point that our content feels stroked and adored, we know that actual learning has stopped. Learning is at direct odds with content. In fact, learning does battle with content. If content wins, learning loses. We do, instead, in the best learning environments, grapple with content — we kill it on the road when we meet it there.

And so, I approached Shakespeare in Community, my latest foray into MOOC-development, with the goal of creating content that was, at every turn, self-undermining. My aim was, from the start, for everything I created for the MOOC to facilitate and be secondary to the dialogue among the learners. And I created more content (at least twice as much) than I’ve ever created for a course, but this MOOC wears its content with a difference.

Some choices I’ve made in my work on this MOOC and how they are motivated by its pedagogy:

  • Before the Shakespeare MOOC, my own face (aside from a mere avatar) has never appeared in a single online course I’ve made. Best practices for online learning insist the teacher should be present and that one of the best ways to show this presence is through lecture videos featuring the teacher at the head of every unit within the course. My consistent response to this imperative has been to put videos featuring students (and not myself) at the head of the MOOCs I’ve taught.
  • With this MOOC, I determined that I’d approach the production of lecture videos like I would a documentary film shoot. My goal was to find the collaborative energy of Al Filreis’s Modern Poetry MOOC — but asynchronously. Ultimately, I filmed over 40 hours of interviews with just under 70 experts, from child actors at the Young Shakespeare Players and the Children’s Theater of Madison to adult actors from the American Players Theatre, students from George Washington University and the UW Odyssey Project, faculty from GWU and UW-Madison, administrators from the Folger Shakespeare Library, and more.
  • From this footage, I edited about two hours of video (all of which is also available outside the course). While I shot much more footage than is likely shot for most Coursera MOOCs, I included in the course much less video than is included in most Coursera MOOCs. This was a design decision. I wanted to leave as many gaps as possible in the conversation for learners to fill with their own voices. Long monologues do not encourage dialogue. My hypothesis, though, is that 15-minute video documentaries, each with many voices, do.
  • The first moments of the course, the first remarks in the videos, the first text on the page reflect uncertainty. There is no authority in this course, except insofar as everyone is an authority. I did not select and highlight footage that foregrounds what is known. Rather, many of the videos begin with a stumble, a glitch, a false start, a moment that shows even experts at their most vulnerable. And, ultimately, every video champions discovery more than knowing or certainty.
  • Facts are shared, details are offered, and content is delivered. But never at the expense of questions or openings to discussion. I aimed not to withhold content, or obscure it, but to make it secondary. Content comes as a relief to many learners who are primed by Coursera for a pedagogy that equates content-delivery with learning. Admittedly, the videos I’ve made pull the rug out from under some learners, because I am not also offering the trappings of traditional education, like quizzes, grades, one static path through the material, etc. My approach is not to alienate these learners, but to give them just enough stability to find their footing as they venture into the course. There are no imperatives, though, so efforts to merely follow instructions are frustrated.
  • I decided to bring myself more fully into this MOOC than any of my previous online courses. I position myself in the videos as a conductor, what Howard Rheingold calls a “chief learner,” showing up quite a bit in the first video, orienting learners to the course, but less and less as the videos proceed. However, I do appear, even if only briefly, in most of the videos. (My co-instructors also appear consistently but infrequently.) My goal is to establish presence the way I would in a classroom — by making eye contact with every student — even if the bulk of the learning happens with me not at the front of the room or on the sidelines, but in the midst of (and as a member of) the rest of the learners.
  • I wanted to teach this course with as large a group of co-instructors as possible. I believe massive courses should be massively taught. In this case, I’m working with three other primary instructors: R L Widmann, Sarah Marty, and Catherine DeRose. And, while I directed and produced the videos myself, I worked closely with Mark Neufeld, the graphic designer for the course, in thinking about the MOOC’s pedagogy. The course also features guest instructors for one or more weeks, including Sean Michael Morris, Joshua Calhoun, Eric Alexander, and James DeVita. Finally, every one of the nearly 70 interviewees becomes a defacto instructor, as do all the learners in the peer-driven learning environment.

In my introduction to the course, I write,

“Shakespeare begins Hamlet with the words, ‘Who’s there?’ The question is deceptively simple, but it is one that opens a whole host of potential rabbit holes for us to tumble down. What I know is that how we begin something new is important. The first thing we say. The first question we ask. The first part of ourselves we show.”

I am, from these first words in the MOOC, showing my pedagogical hand, talking about Shakespeare and also about the nature of the course itself. Then,

“The second line, ‘Stand, and unfold yourself,’ is a command in response to the first question […] Taken together, the two lines offer uncertainty, curiosity, and also distrust. They wonder at humanness but worry at its edge.”

R L Widmann (my long-time collaborator and mentor who inspired this MOOC) writes in her introduction to the course,

“My Shakespeare, the one I love best, offers me an opportunity to explore the world in which I live and those worlds to which I will never be able to travel in real time.”

And in our first posts to the discussion forum, we each reveal something of ourselves, something personal and honest, not scripted. But our posts are lost there almost immediately, among the hundreds of other posts, none clamoring for attention more than the others. The notion that one or two or even four experts could deliver knowledge of Shakespeare to the world is, honestly, incredibly strange to me. The work in this course is an encounter with the text, and there are lots of guides and lots of people to engage in discussion about what we find. The course functions much like a face-to-face class does when I break students into small groups. I can’t possibly be in all of the groups at once, and it is better for the learning environment that I’m not. Instead, the voices in the room break from murmur to cacophony, and we leave having deeply heard several of our peers and having heard beyond them the hum of a much larger room.

Those That Are MOOCs Already — All But One — Shall Live

Shakespeare in Community launched a little over a week ago and currently has over 18,500 students enrolled from 157 countries. But numbers are not what the course is after. Most of the seminars I’ve taught have been groups of 15 – 35 people. My task for myself in this much larger course is to find a space where I can be both “lost” (in productive ways) and “found” in the sense that I see people and let them see me. My goal is to help create an experience in which the learners can do the same. Functionally, it doesn’t feel all that different from a class of 15 – 35 people (although a MOOC could never replace that). This course scales the experience, not up but across, through the network of participants — which changes the nature of the experience in all manner of ways.

In a thread from our public Facebook group, a student remarked that the course, to her, felt “scattered.” It also feels scattered to me. In the way that Central Park in New York City is scattered. I can’t be everywhere at once, and I’m easily overwhelmed by the scale, but if I find a calm corner to hang out, I start to meet people and see stuff I wouldn’t have otherwise seen. And the course is glad to have me, even if I end up just passing through.

The key for me is to recognize that almost 20,000 students means lots of different kinds of stuff will be happening that appeals in different ways to different students. Not all of these things will appeal even to me. And there will be corners of the course that I never see (could never even hope to see, because of the sheer volume). But there are people here, ones I would have otherwise never met. They talk to me about Shakespeare and also about their own learning. And there is something marvelous about every syllable they write, tapped out in the incessant vibration of my various devices that beckon to me throughout the day and night. Because of them, and the hum of their voices, I go to sleep bleary-eyed and wake up bleary-eyed.

O brave new world, that has such people in’t!

Add to the Conversation

24 Responses
  1. And the burning question I am left with is this: Will you ‘assign’ this piece as a reading to your 20,000 learners, inviting the ‘learning about how you learn in a MOOC’ outcome to fold back on itself like all wonderful things do? 😉

    1. Yes, Donna. In fact, I already started to by sharing this article in the Facebook Group for the course, where we have been having lots of meta-discussions about learning and Shakespeare. I also shared it from the Twitter account for the course. I may also share it inside the course itself, but I’m still mulling that. There’s a discussion topic and text “lecture” (really a provocation) during the fourth week of the course (written by Sean Michael Morris) that wonders at meta-moments in Shakespeare — and uses that as an occasion for learners to think about what happens when we put Shakespeare in a MOOC. I think one way that we abdicate authority as teachers is by pulling the curtain back on our own processes, so I’ve always had these meta-level discussions with students.

  2. E

    a timely contribution, thankyou – we’ve just been talking much about such in Cormier’s ‘rhizomatic learning’ space/happening/course thingy and, as you do, considering the differences between approaches to the ‘mooc’. the view of the mooc as theatre seems a great way of looking at the educational encounters that work well – nice! many of us think of teaching as orchestration of conversations, rather than either mere facilitator of chat (or egads drill mastering), and agree that if a course isn’t concerned primarily with how and where and why ‘learning’ happens it might as well shut up shop… unpredictability is as much a necessary part of the equation as structured preview and review in the unfolding of the space and the flow of information… but I don’t see any of all this in terms of either/or… surely both /and /and some more?

    Your line that ‘learning is at direct odds with content’ lept out at me in this otherwise very nice piece though, and has me amused and wondering why this current obsession with that word ‘content’ – as though it isn’t a metaphor… ‘Learning does battle with content’? If you mean that making meaning of text is often a struggle, then yes, a struggle to celebrate and engage in.. but you seem to suggest that ideation is less important than interpersonal relationships, and there I beg to differ – any text is surely the marriage of the two, and produces more than the sum of its parts…. for there is no meaning without ideational ‘content’, but neither is there text and meaning without the construction of roles and relationships and the active negotiations that we recognise as ‘learning’.

    The first fully online course I ever did was a Coursera one, which is team taught, and which encourages participants to go forth and multiply, and indeed most of what many of us experienced as learning went on via social media, not the central platform [http://ro.uow.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1435&context=asdpapers] – it felt like a perfect mix really – neither all one nor all the other. Now I’m getting into Wiki Educator and finding that open platform another interesting mix, where the learning that is the course development process is as open as the final course ‘product’ and all the resources in it and all the subsequent learning…. ‘tis good, and makes me want to be there (as well as in your Shakespeare course, which sounds pretty great)…. but I wouldn’t advise infanticide (!) – I’d prefer to leave everything just as it is, open for everyone to consider and discuss and continue learning from 😉

    1. What I’m not a fan of is capital-C “Content” as is fetishized within phrases like “content delivery” or “content mastery” or “content management,” phrases I have been hearing far too often of late. The word “content” here suggests a container that isn’t perforated. Knowledge as a thing — the gathering of information into our brain — that can be objectively tested. A course that doesn’t burst its bounds. A course has lots of ideas, lots of text, lots of thinking. And all of that is crucial. (I really like your word ideation, which suggests something more fluid.) Would we say that water and rocks and dirt are the “contents” of a river? If so, then I’m all for that kind of “content,” but I wouldn’t fetishize the bits, and we still need community to inflect that lower-case-c “content.”

      I think we might be saying variations of the same thing. Love how you phrase it here: “there is no meaning without ideational ‘content’, but neither is there text and meaning without the construction of roles and relationships and the active negotiations that we recognise as ‘learning.'” 🙂

      1. E

        thanks for replying Jesse, interesting and engaging all this talk about the dreaded c word (!) – I totally get what you’re referring to yes, and am more amused than bovvered to be irritated by the way the rise of IT has popularised certain rather silly ways of talking about ‘text’ (though I may just vomit if I hear the phrase ‘user-generated content’ when ‘writing’ would do just fine), but what I introduced into this broad conversation about ‘content’ isn’t actually wording or thinking that I’ve authored, so much as a theoretical approach to discussion of language that’s speaking through me… it’s from systemic-functional linguistics (the only interesting and sensible way of looking at language, she said, completely without bias!)… where it’s very well understood that (and how) every single ‘text’ we exchange, however short or long, or multimodal, is a representation of three kinds of meaning at once, and where the mechanisms by which knowledge is constructed are seen as rather more nuanced and wonderous than mainstream educational discourse can quite countenance, which pretty relentlessly insists still on perpetuating the ‘conduit metaphor’ that Reddy (1979) ridiculed so well, as if he never had, and as if higher ed never passed the post of structuralism all those decades ago… I just have to keep sayin’ my favourite quote from MAK Halliday (1993), which goes something like this: “language is not a domain of human knowledge… it is the condition of knowing, the process by which experience becomes knowledge”… I have no idea if that makes the slightest sense to anyone out of context like that, but in context, it’s a really genius insight I reckon 😉

  3. Aw shoot, Jesse, I agree with you that learning must be (and always is) personal, and it grows well when it stems from relationships within the class and even with the teacher. And I agree that knowledge is usually co-created by both the students and the teacher. This doesn’t mean, however, that the teacher is not a necessary source of knowledge that should be shared with the students. I am taking your Shakespeare in Community course and loving every minute of it (including an amusing little dispute with another student who had to have the last word about his point on Juliet). I appreciate the online lectures, the comments by the professors in the videos, all the wonderful materials you have curated for this course. You are teaching us! This is content and is not a dirty word. Your knowledge as a scholar and professor of Shakespeare for 15 years informs our initial contact with the plays themselves. You point us in the direction we should go and then turn us literary toddlers loose so we can crawl, walk, and stumble on our way. But we your students do depend on your knowledge in this course and defer to it since it does become the rope we will grasp to help us climb.

    1. Thanks so much for this. The feedback means a lot to me. I definitely agree that we need teachers, and we all have a lot to learn from teachers. My idea here is to also champion what teachers learn from students and what students learn from each other. My work has been more focused on building a learning environment, setting the stage if you will, but the players on that stage are mostly students (especially in a huge course like this), and I want us to celebrate their growing expertise as important (but, yes, not a replacement for the need to also have teachers using their expertise to help orchestrate learning experiences).

      It’s totally okay to depend on me (or the other instructors here), and even for all of us to use content as a buoy, but let’s also find time to crawl, walk, and stumble together. That’s been the most joyous part of this course for me. 🙂

    2. William Gay

      Sheriday, you have articulated what I too enjoy about this course, my second MOOC, but this more engaging than the other. I have deliberately “stood back” and absorbed, choosing not to engage with other learners this time around, just to view all I can from many perspectives about a playwright I have studied and loved since high school 50+ years ago.

      Jesse, you are a master teacher for drawing me in, not the monk in the front nor the scribe at the side, but a mystical manipulator who grabs my attention and makes me THINK, really THINK. Thanks for that!

  4. Hi Jesse
    You say that Coursera courses seem to regard interaction as opposed to content as secondary. Have you heard of the Modern American Poetry Coursera course? This must be the bench mark for Coursera, and went way beyond my expectations in terms of participation, live video discussions etc. I am thoroughly enjoying the Shakespeare course but realise it is designed along different but none the less stimulating lines.

    1. I’m very familiar with ModPo, Eric. I mentioned ModPo briefly in the piece above, but I probably should have waxed even more poetic than I did. It is indeed the best course I’ve seen on Coursera, and I’ve registered for every iteration, including the upcoming one. 🙂

      What I love about ModPo is the way that Al brings student voices into the live webcasts. I also think he’s modeling a unique hybrid approach to the MOOC — the online course is linked directly to face-to-face events at the Kelly Writers House.

      I wanted to create something a little different, but I was definitely inspired by the approach of ModPo.

      1. Hi Jesse
        Apologies – I should have read your article from the beginning! I’ll look at it again now. Yes, when I did the ModPo last year I felt as if I was in the room with the tutors during the webcasts. It was the next best thing to being in a real group/class. Look forward to Much Ado. I hope to go to the Globe sometime this year as I’ve never been.

  5. Darron Passlow

    I agree with your comments generally on MOOCs.
    I also agree that education now is about inspirational conversation between like – minded individuals with some mentoring and catalytic interactions from keen knowledgeable “co-ordinators”(experts, instructors, leaders, innovators, etc).
    You and your team are trying hard to fill this latter important role (I am not sure you have cracked this Yet? )
    It probably needs a different approach with 10s of thousands of participants.
    my concern, along with yours is that the MOOC format discourages interaction and is too hit and miss.
    This needs to be addressed.
    Current course has provided me with a wonderful opportunity to join in an exciting informative debate.
    I happened to mention along with Romeo and Julie, that I loved S sonnets and that S must have loved them also as they feature in R&J (prologues to Act 1 and Act 2.
    This comment (accidentally) attracted a small number of very inquisitive and knowledgeable participants.
    The discussions and meet – ups were exhilarating , personal, informative, inspiring and pleasurable.
    I personally have learnt so much in this way.

    The question is how do we get these small, personal, informative interactions going more readily. They make the course and the learning experience so rewarding. I think you and your team need to focus on this. Happy to help with further info, if required.
    Good luck a d thanks for your dedication and inspiration.

  6. Heather Macdonald

    Dear Professor Strommel

    Writing as one of your older – I hope not the oldest – students, I want to thank you for a wonderful learning experience so far. I have done several Coursera MOOCs on a wide variety of topics, and as someone newly ‘flying’ now that I am retired, I have soaked them all up, learned a huge amount and loved them all. They have all more or less followed the process you outlined.
    Echoing Michele Bethke, this MOOC has been great however, and I have gained a great deal. I am a retired English teacher and my long experience with Shakespeare, since schooldays, has been dogged by looming exams. As a teacher I had to try and enlighten sometimes reluctant adolescent schoolboys, but have had to keep a wary eye always on the demands of exams.
    But now I am free, and you have given me the opportunity to think about things I have not had time to do before; to learn new ideas from you and your team and from my classmates, many of whom have come up with great insights. I have experimented with some new technology, but most of all, I have been able to re-visit the words of Shakespeare, often with a different perspective. So thank you so much.

  7. Allisa Cherry

    This has been a super helpful post. I’m currently taking Shakespeare in Community, which is not just my first experience with a MOOC but my first foray into online education in general. And, while I’m inclined to approach the internet with a tentativeness that borders on pre-printing press superstition, your enthusiasm makes me feel a little less overwhelmed. Maybe even hopeful. So, good job there.

      1. Elin

        Timely article. Being a long time teacher, I gave up the teacher-in-front position for the circle, emphasizing that I was also a learner. The issue in the MOOC are digital trained educators or course developers assuming their students have a high level of digital knowledge. The outcome perhaps is a bias against new learners to the digital age either by economic reasons or age. To some it is a foreign language. My students-at-risk did not have the exposure to smart phones or computers other than the ones in school. So for them, the sage on the stage is still important.

        1. Darron Passlow

          Wonderful thoughts. You are obviously a professional teacher.
          I think there are 2 separate issues here.
          1 Students at risk education
          Put the technology aside (it is only a tool), your approach removing the “sage on the stage” seems like a step in the right direction (to increasing the conversation and learning).
          2 Technology for MOOCS
          Having completed a few MOOCS now, I have worked out how to get the best out of them (for me!) – bit selfish hey.
          But I do see that there needs to be better technology that focuses on allowing meaningful conversations to take place between like minded individual.

      2. Shane Hopkinson


        While I am more than happy to give up being the ‘sage’ I think there are other forces afoot here. Namely the idea that students need a ‘guide’ and so that ‘guide’ needn’t be a content expert at all (and indeed certainly not a full time staff member).

        Once we trained teachers with degrees in history and english and then added a teaching diploma – now we give them 4 years of “learning management” and 6 weeks of content knowledge. So while I know what Jesse is driving about about content there is a shadow side to this as well.

  8. Darron Passlow

    Erin brings up a point about “students-at-risk”.
    This is a community that would be bigger than those not at risk.
    This community of “at risk” learners needs our attention also but probably outside this debate.
    In Australia, there was a government education drive (a few years ago) to get a PC in the hands of every student.
    it achieve a lot but did not help the really disadvantage (based on health, wealth, social standing, cultural attitude etc)
    More needs to be done across the globe. Australia is just a microcosm of what is NOT happening across the world.
    Probably a debate for another day.

  9. Shane Hopkinson

    I am loving the Shakespeare MOOC and joined as much for the content as the pedagogy. The promo suggested that it was more than content delivery and so represented an approach to MOOCs that recognised the best thing to do with 20K interested people was not to deliver expert opinion. Its been great – if a little short and sharp.

    I have done a number of MOOCs and enjoy them a great deal. I am also a sociology lecturer using Moodle to ‘manage student learning’ on line. I don’t really like teaching this way but I am sure it can be done better but we need to think more about what that might mean so I was hoping the course might give me some clues. I have done courses on a number of platforms and they vary particularly in how well they let me interact with the content (i.e. on my terms). I am a sociology expert and bring that knowledge to the discussion and I learn from others about their experience and their expertise and share mine. Most times I learn about my own views trying to explain them to others.

    I just did the Civil War history on EdX its fantastic but they seem to think that you should break one hour lectures into 4 parts and install a quiz. I am assuming this is some kind of EdX requirement since the quizzes were too easy to test anything and could probably been answered in advance. I think you do need good lecturers – so content knowledge is important BUT its people’s passion that really hooks me. I have been engaged with MOOCs because the passion came across. This is true of the Shakepeare course – but the expertise is downplayed here which is good.

    That said I am an expert learner (I have a PhD) and I don’t take these courses for any kind of credit – I don’t feel I need to do the tests or assessment. So when I say I want to engage and learn – say about Shakespeare – there’s nothing at stake for me. I can engage when and where I wish and Jesse has no power over the outcome. This is fine but in professional practice I do and I think this matters a lot. Not just in the interest of me retaining my power and authority but in terms of student expectation. I know on Facebook some students were annoyed at Jesse’s approach (and wanted to be told by an expert). I think a lot of my students understand learning to be about guessing what the lecturer wants to hear and giving it to them (i.e. the banking approach) – and they will also be able to give ‘feedback on whether they are happy with my performance). An approach that I think is pretty well how most of my colleagues approach things.

    In my teaching practice its still largely a cut and paste of lecture and seminar format to online delivery mechanism. It makes a lot of assumptions about student’s willingness (and ability) to engage with the technology. I have recently started a first year course on social change in which I have loosened the reins a lot in terms of outcomes BUT at the end of the day I still have to provide some assessment and that positions me in a position of power. I plan to explore some self/peer assessment tools but am not sure this is where the solution lies. So I am sympathetic to the project of improving online learning and of moving away from content towards dialogue. I think Jesse and his reflections here are how I experienced the course – tho I was pretty time poor and pretty much engaged thru the Facebook page as a means to limit the complexity of discussion with 20k students.

    Be interested in talking more about the issue of assessment.

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