Monday, December 15, 2014

Reflections on a course in open networked learning

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Over the last 8 weeks or so I've been a facilitator on a course called Open Networked Learning together with colleagues from two other Swedish universities. It is a hard course to pin down since it resembles in many ways a MOOC but has no ambitions of becoming massive. Inspired by the connectivist MOOCs it is open to all who are interested and the content and discussions are accessible even to non-registered learners in a Google+ community though registration is required to contribute. The course material is mostly recycled open educational resources and the majority has a Creative Commons license. This term's version is in turn an adaption of three earlier courses run in cooperation with several institutions in the UK, some of whom have gone on to running their own variations of the basic format. So the concept is sustainable and has spawned an increasing number of variations on a theme. Here are my reflections on the important issues from this term's course.

The importance of community

An extremely useful guide to building communities in open learning has been written by Tanja de Bie (University of Leiden, Netherlands), Community handbook (April 2014). It includes excellent advice on dealing with different types of participants from experts to beginners, passive learners, haters and trolls. Our course happily did not attract any negative participants but they can be a problem in many MOOCs so it is essential to plan in advance how to deal with them so they don't pollute and sabotage the whole course.

The core of our course is online collaboration and therefore learners are encouraged to join PBL (problem-based learning) groups during the first week. Each week the groups are assigned course material to watch and read, choose a case scenario to discuss and finally present a solution. However we realized that not everyone wants to belong to a group so we also offered alternative paths: working with one partner or going it alone.

The results of this choice became quickly apparent. Solo learners dropped out very quickly whereas the PBL groups became lively and supportive communities that helped each other to complete the course successfully. Even if we tried to offer support and encouragement to the solo learners we lost most of them and this is a common experience in open online learning. Leveraging and facilitating the formation of self-supporting learning communities would seem to be the major hurdle to overcome when running this type of course. Once formed these communities will ensure that all or at least most members complete the course. Those who fall outside these communities require strong internal motivation to successfully complete the course.

The value of scaffolding

De Bie describes three phases in an open course: introduction, mature and closure. The introduction phase is crucial and sets the tone for everything else. It's a confusing period for many who may never have participated in online learning before, so nothing should be taken for granted. Facilitators need to work hard in the first two weeks to welcome participants and encourage them to contribute. Activities should have a low threshold so that everyone can be active as fast as possible and all activity should get positive feedback. De Bie suggests providing templates for student introductions, recording welcome videos and compiling an FAQ page as vital elements to a successful start.

We have considered asking participants from this course to act as mentors in the spring 2015 course. The new participants will have a partner in the first two weeks who understands how it feels at first and can provide help and reassurance that could make the difference between dropping out and fully participating.

Many suggest not counting participants until the initial dust has settled and you see who is really on board. There is little point in counting people who register and then disappear. This simply creates unrealistic completion rates since these people never really started the course. Some of them just want to see what's going on but have no intention of participating. Count who's involved after the introduction and work from there.

Synchronous meetings

Although hard to arrange when participants are spread over several time zones, synchronous meetings (using Google Hangouts, Skype, or similar tools) can help groups to bond and create a community feeling. In our course the regular hangouts were often described as essential for participants' continued engagement with the course. Our tactic was that facilitators arrange the first meetings and then pass on responsibility to the participants and this worked very well. By the end the groups organized themselves.

Rewarding engagement

Positive and constructive feedback is of course a major incentive but we shouldn't downplay the importance of simple but effective motivators such as badges. This is an area for future development but awarding a badge for the successful completion of each unit can help retention rates and inspire participants to keep going. Badges could also be awarded for soft skills such as giving good feedback, helping others with problems and being active in discussions. In some platforms you get awarded points for such activities and your score is visible whenever you log in. Another motivating factor can be showing that participants can actively influence course design and that their work will be available for the next course as a good example or as a case to study.

If you feel like joining us in spring 2015 just keep an eye on the ONL website.

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