Sunday, June 14, 2015

Supporting new learners in open education

Help! by GotCredit, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by GotCredit

Last week I attended a conference at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm called MOOCs in Scandinavia which was an opportunity to take stock of the development so far and hopefully create a springboard to future development. Scandinavia is a rather late arrival on the MOOC front and there are still only a handful of institutions offering courses in the major consortia but there are also many examples of off-piste open courses that haven't got the MOOC label but are extremely interesting nonetheless. The highlight of the event was of course the final keynote from George Siemens, MOOCs and Learning Sciences: Where we have been. Where we are going, who concluded by claiming that MOOCs are actually rather irrelevant but that they raise important issues about how higher education needs to adapt to the digitalisation of society. A welcome perspective to warn against focusing on just one interpretation (or misinterpretation) of open learning.

However, although I thoroughly enjoyed George's lecture and it gave me several new avenues to investigate further there was another talk that gave me immediate food for thought. Sandra Milligan and colleagues at the University of Melbourne have been researching student data from MOOCs and looking at factors that affect learners' course completion. Their work is presented on the blog Crowd-sourced learning in MOOCs. They see a clear correlation between previous learning experience and depth of involvement in an open course. They describe five types of open learners (expert, competent, emergent, beginner and novice) and the research examines the following hypotheses:

  • there is a complex, latent ‘21st century’ skill required by MOOC participants to crowd-source their learning in MOOC forums;
  • individuals possess this skill to differing degrees and these differences explain in part differences in learning outcomes;
  • forum activities such as posting, voting, and viewing do not in and of themselves generate learning, but skilled learners are adept at using them in particular ways to generate learning; and
  • measurement theory and its associated methodologies make possible a mapping of patterns of forum activity onto a learning progression describing the hypothesised latent skill, and this mapping can be used to infer individuals’ level of skill.
Novices and experts have totally different ways of approaching a MOOC. Novices tend to see the course material as content to be consumed and will only look at the prescribed material and nothing else. They will not contribute to or even read the discussions in the forum and will not build a peer network to help them learn. They expect to be lead by the teacher and do not know how to take charge of their own learning. Experts, however, know how to dig deeper, read beyond the stipulated pages and above all take an active part in discussion. They have learnt how to learn. The research team in Melbourne have produced a useful rubric sheet for assessing a learner's level of participation and this can be used for learner self-assessment and can help to guide learners towards more active involvement..

This leads me into thinking about factors that affect learner involvement in open courses:
  • Study skills
    Those who succeed in online courses tend to be those with good study skills. This means they can find information, check sources, take notes and reflect on what they have found. Online learning today differs greatly from the classroom tradition that most people were raised on and requires new skills that take time to acquire. If we want open learning to really reach out to new categories of learners there must be local support available to help them acquire these skills. Here there is a major role for libraries, learning centres and other further education institutions but they need funding and a clear national strategy. 
  • Learning confidence
    It's not just study skills that affect participation it's also the confidence of the learners. Many new learners are hesitant about participating in a course that they might feel is too advanced for them. The slightest problem or misunderstanding will confirm to them that they are "too stupid" for this sort of course and they will immediately drop out. What happens when confident, experienced practitioners mix with novices in a discussion forum? It's not unusual for experts to participate in a MOOC simply to see how it is run and to get ideas for their own courses. If experts start posting in the forums, as they generally do, the effect on novices can be disastrous. The novices are naturally daunted by the high level of discussion, feel that they have nothing to contribute and are afraid of asking "stupid" questions.
    Here we also need careful scaffolding to give new learners more confidence; progress maps that make learning more visible, mini-certifications like badges,teaching self- and peer evaluation, facilitating collaboration around tasks etc.
  • Language skills
    As I have written earlier I think proficiency in English is a significant factor in online learning. If you are not reasonably fluent you will tend not participate in discussions or complete assignments. English language MOOCs can provide more support for non-native speakers with subtitled videos and transcripts but more importantly the course material could be published under an open licence so that local institutions could provide translated and adapted versions more suited to local issues and culture.
If we really want education to be available to all we need to focus on developing support structures, both online and face-to.-face.


  1. See this course about preparing learning online:

    I remain.

    /Mats Brenner, Learning Center - University of Gävle, Sweden

  2. I also attended that conference and thought Sandra's presentation was very interesting. That said, at the AMEE conference in September, one speaker, Allison Littlejohn seems to have come to a different conclusion, meaning that autonomous learners won't necessarily participate in all aspects of a MOOC, such as forums, instead pick and choose which aspects of a course will be most useful for their purposes.

  3. Thanks for the comment. I agree that experienced autonomous learners will choose the most interesting parts and ignore the rest. They tend not to be interested in getting certificates and therefore only take what they need. They are also unwilling to spend time interacting. That's why open courses are such a fascinating environment with so many different learning strategies.