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Second Week Reflections: Social Learning in a MOOC

Posted by on Tuesday, July 30, 2013 in Meeting Notes, Reflections.

Our discussion on Monday of the social aspects of learning in a MOOC was an interesting one. It’s clear that many of us are benefiting from the interactions we’re having with our local study group, although I wonder what our study group members who weren’t present on Monday would say about that. Perhaps some of them are getting along just fine in the MOOC without interacting with local colleagues…

For those who do benefit from the local group, I posited on Monday that it was the smallness of the group that mattered more than its localness. It’s certainly challenging to build relationships with other MOOC students through the Coursera discussion boards–there are thousands of students, the boards are chaotic, and there are limited social tools for connecting with others. I can imagine building a small learning community in a virtual setting–I do it all the time on Twitter–but I don’t see the Coursera MOOC environment as particularly conducive to that.

But perhaps, as Todd indicated, it’s the persistence of the relationships in a learning community that is more important than its size.  I knew many of you before this MOOC began, and I expect to interact with many of you regularly after the MOOC is over. Those persistent relationships are helping motivate me to keep up with the course and see what I can learn from it–so that I can participate in our study group conversations.

There’s a motivational piece to social learning, but there’s also a cognitive one. We know from the research on how people learn that, as we learn something, we need feedback on our learning. We need to be able to try out ideas and techniques and solutions, to see what works and makes sense and clarifies. In some contexts, that can be done without others (e.g. checking your answer in the back of your math textbook), but in most contexts, we need to receive this feedback from others. Expert feedback is usually best, but feedback from other learners can be very helpful, too. (Jargon alert: We call this kind of feedback “formative assessment.”)

Dani’s unfortunate experience with peer assessment in another MOOC points to the challenges of matching students at random to provide feedback to each other. Better, I think, to provide feedback within a “local” (small, persistent) learning community, where students know and, to some extent, trust each other. For students taking a MOOC who don’t have a study group like ours, where do they get this kind of feedback? The discussion forums? The forums could serve this purpose, if well structured by the instructor, but perhaps only for some students and in some teaching contexts. As I mentioned on Monday, I hope to see some technical innovations in MOOCspace that help address this challenge.

Thanks for another stimulating discussion this week! I should add that what’s not reflected in the whiteboard notes above is our discussion of the roles that MOOCs might play in the higher education ecosystem. There’s also no geography in the notes! I expect that we’ll spend more time next week actually discussing the course content.


One Comment on “Second Week Reflections: Social Learning in a MOOC”

I have not participated in the local meetings this past two weeks, but I HAVE participated in the local group, thanks to #vandymaps (and thus, twitter), and into the future, maybe more blogging. Apropos your post Derek and this week’s discussion, I’ve been reflecting on the social experience as well. Why have I spent 8 hours each of the past two Sundays on this class, when I am otherwise SLAMMED? This qualifier (“slammed”) shouldn’t be underestimated in what follows.

I am attempting the MOOC (#mapmooc), in part, because of an interest in geography and I like maps! But that’s insufficient to explain 8 hour Sundays, I think — in fact, I’m sure.

In part, the attempt is also motivated by the idea that a Director for a digital learning institute should actually take and finish a MOOC, rather than only auditing MOOCs, though I don’t think that explains the 8 hour Sundays either — I could always complete “the next MOOC” rather than this one.

It strikes me that I mostly owe my stick-to-itiveness in this case to #vandymaps. Initially, #vandymaps was a local learning community (I did skype in for the pre-MOOC-kickoff meeting with all my local colleagues, huddled around a table — very nice). A few of the #vandymaps people I would have counted as friends at the time of our pre-MOOC meeting (and still do, btw!! :-), but most of you I didn’t know well, or not at all. Nonetheless, #vandymaps is still grounded in a local learning community (Todd’s big, warm welcome to the group is as an important a qualifier as “being slammed” though with the opposite sentiment). But for me, this local community is one that (a) I am currently operating in virtually through twitter, and that (b) is being expanded through twitter to include others.

Its no accident that I used the #vandymaps hash tag to label the local group!

For me, I had enough social ties with people in #vandymaps initially that even virtual interactions were affective and therefore effective, so I see the “persistence” characteristic as directly causal in my case, but the locality characteristics (in my case) is causal of that. (This group is not shy about computing metaphors, so think Bayesian networks!!! 🙂

Another exciting aspect of this MOOC experience is learning twitter. Apropos this, and the influence of “local” and “community”, is my nascent but growing interactions on twitter. Here is a tweet that links some themes in these comments:

“28 Jul: Rocketing towards distinction in #mapmooc 🙂 The local group, #vandymaps, is such a great help — a variant on Tobler’s law!!!”

This has been retweeted by the instructor, Anthony Robinson, and favorited by others, including AP from Scotland — VERY neat, but I only just learned of this (because I am only just learning twitter!). So, this doesn’t explain my two previous 8 hour Sundays either, but these and other acknowledgements on Twitter (by non-local, as well as local persons) might be an influence on my future in this course.

But this connection between Tobler’s Law and local learning communities is really interesting. Recall that Tobler’s Law says that “Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things.” The Law doesn’t ascribe a causal direction. Even though I am operating virtually with #vandymaps, they are “more relevant” to me than the world (at least so far as my #mapmooc behavior to date is concerned)– its interesting, and will receive much more thought. It’s also bringing me back to tried and true sentiments of “think global and act local” and “soldiers fight for their countries but die for their friends”, and thinking through more variants on themes of locality, friendship, collegiality, obligation, reputation, etc. More later, I hope!

I see the importance to locality and Tobler’s Law (directly or indirectly causal) to other activities too, most recently the 5 hours I spent on a big multi-institution proposal this weekend — why? Because it was being headed by Vanderbilt, I’m part of this community (though not a co-PI) and “we” were all in this together, though all working virtually and asynchronously (but not through twitter 🙂 There are studies on locality and collaboration btw — will dig those up for a scholarly article.

Thanks, Derek, for the post!

Douglas Fisher on July 31st, 2013 at 6:44 am

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