Saturday, July 27, 2013

Drowning in freedom

Today there is a vast range of free open courses and communities where you can learn just about anything; if you know how to take advantage of them. Although MOOCs and open learning offer new paths to learning for people who otherwise have no access to higher education there is still a high threshold for participation. You need a high level of digital literacy to find the courses, sign up and especially to participate. You need to be a proficient self-learner with high motivation and confidence in your ability to succeed. You need to be open to new methods and have a wide range of learning strategies. It's not surprising then that most MOOC participants already have a degree and are at home on the net. Even if we feel overwhelmed by the MOOC hype, out there in the "real" world few people have ever heard the term.

An excellent article by Keith Brennan in Hybrid Pedagogy examines how connectivism and MOOCs fail to support inexperienced learners and those with low self-esteem in education: In Connectivism, No One Can Hear You Scream: a Guide to Understanding the MOOC Novice. He identifies key factors for student success: self efficacy, cognitive load and prior knowledge. Self efficacy is the belief that you will succeed and this is essential in courses like MOOCs which lack the scaffolding and encouragement of more traditional courses. This belief is also essential for dealing successfully with the cognitive load, the volume of new information and assumed skills, the you are faced with in many online courses. Many MOOCs and connectivist courses assume a high level of prior knowledge, in particular when it comes to using social media and digital tools. If you lack these skills you will find such courses bewildering and there is a high probability that you will give up.

Inexperienced learners need lots of encouragement, feedback, guidance and quick support responses and these are generally missing in MOOCs (both c and x varieties). Of course there is plenty of peer support but I can imagine that even contributing to discussion forums  can be daunting for inexperienced learners. Seeing peers succeed can be a motivating factor if you already have a positive attitude to your own ability but if not the sight of others succeeding where you feel confused can have a demotivating effect. Brennan gives a list of demotivating factors:
  • Watching others succeed while you don't
  • Too much information delivered in a chaotic environment (Twitter hashtags, blog feeds, RSS, discussion forums etc)
  • Decentralisation of the learning process (too much choice, "drowning in freedom")
  • Complex tasks with little or no guidance
All this can be stimulating for some but not everyone is comfortable with this level of freedom.

"Not everyone knows how to be a node. Not everyone is comfortable with the type of chaos Connectivism asserts. Not everyone is a part of the network. Not everyone is a self-directed learner with advanced metacognition. Not everyone is already sufficiently an expert to thrive in a free-form environment. Not everyone thinks well enough of their ability to thrive in an environment where you need to think well of your ability to thrive."

Courses need to have clear pre-course information of what skills you need to participate fully (maybe linking to pre-course training or courses that will teach you these skills) and a clear description of the kind of teaching and learning that the course will employ. The new learners that so many MOOCs claim to be aiming at need help to get on board and more help to keep them there. Self-service is great if you know what you want but confusing if you're used to being served.

"MOOCs are littered with the drowned, who want to participate, but see their sense of possibility get sucked under by an experience designed to, in part, ensure they sink."


  1. There are many important points here.
    I agree completely with that it is only the experienced learner, social media aware, structured participant who can take benefit of most of the available MOOCs.
    It may be that it is a strategy to attract only these participants. I is much cheaper for the organisers. Otherwise they need to give much more support to different kinds of participants, unexperienced in many aspects.

  2. Thank you for sharing, Alastair. I drew similar conclusion in my paper: