MOOCs, Constructivism Unleashed #edcmooc

Maddie in My Mooc Adventure describes the E-learning and Digital Cultures MOOC experience well in her reflection. She does an excellent job describing the design of the course and how it was intended to operate. One point that resonated with me was how she discussed the fact that each participant could achieve their own learning objectives and engage in the content to different degrees.

This strikes me as exactly the point of having free, open source education platforms.

Let interested, engaged people work with some new content and learn from other people.

In short, rather than relying on a behaviorist model of “watch video lecture, take a quiz/test”, the E-learning and Digital Cultures MOOC adopted a more social constructivist or situated cognition approach to designing the learning experience. They gathered videos and readings from existing sources within a set of topics related to technology and our interaction with it – past, present, future. Notably, they used open source materials that were freely available on the web. From these sources, they presented discussion questions. The final assignment was the creation of a synthesis piece in which the participants were asked to create a digital artifact using two different media (e.g., text, images, video… whatever you like) on a platform of your choosing (as long as someone else could click it and see it, fair game).

The course was also interesting because of the emergent social interactions that happened across multiple platforms. These were strictly voluntary. Love Google Plus? Great. Love Facebook? Great. Want to twitter chat? Sure. Or don’t. Up to you grown-up taking this class for free.

Personally, I loved it.

Others, did not. They were expecting the instructors to “tell us what to do”. There was confusion about the digital artifact (what are we supposed to do? what is the ‘right answer’?). Some people ran with it and created beautiful videos and Prezis and Storyboards.

This says more to me about the participants and their expectations than the course design.

However, this is a common phenomenon when students are accustomed to “here’s a procedure, now practice” encounter a class which requires them to engage with content, synthesize, and problem solve. I appreciated the course designers creating an open environment and launching interesting conversations about complex topics that are not reducible to quizzes.

The other advantage in a MOOC is that if you don’t like it… .stop taking it. It’s free. That’s the best thing about it.


Non-digital communication #edcmooc

In week one of the E-learning and Digital Cultures MOOC, we watched a short film called Inbox that explored how two strangers could be linked by a red bag as magical communication device. The bag worked by sending whatever was in the bag to the partner/connected bad. So, the young woman and the young man starting chatting back and forth by post-it note. There was a lot of debate around authentic communication and whether people could “know” each other digitally and then connect in person as well. Did the technology (the bag) symbolize a connection? A separation? A space? The modern day version of writing love letters? (An art some say is lost).

In this short film, Sticky Note, there’s a similar theme. I won’t ruin the ending for you, but we have a case where two young college students make a connection via post-it note even when sitting face-to-face. Is the connection authentic? Did the mediation of the sticky note allow the young man to express some creativity? Does the post-it note serve as short term introduction to long term communication?

Leading me to wonder, given all the modes we have for communication, why do we seem to regard the face-to-face as the “default” and everything is compared to that. Recalling that romances once were conducted by letter and telegram, are we still exploring new ways of communication? Or, mediation of communication that allow time for reflecting and pausing that face-to-face does not? How are we or our students allowed to communicate in creative ways?

Do you consider your digital identity a separate self or is it identical to your real-world self #edcmooc

The question of digital identity as a separate self or identical to my “real self” was the most intriguing one to me from the list of questions posed for the week 3 twitter chat.

I have struggled somewhat with the difference between my digital and real selves. For faculty, there are inevitable questions about Facebook (should you be Facebook friends with students?) and Twitter (is what I’m tweeting “acceptable” or “professional”?).

My twitter feed, for example, is at the moment a collection of comments from professors (my professional identity), DC food trucks (a personal interest), priests (my Episcopalian identity), politicos (I follow my two Senators’ posts), and my university. Which followers care about which topics? Should I have separate twitter feeds for the professional and the personal? Or, do I present myself as the person I am with varied interests both professional and personal?

I think the question is not whether the digital self is the same as the real self, but rather how many digital “selves” do we have? I maintain a professional web page where you could learn about my professional life, but I wouldn’t say this encapsulates my whole self.

It’s a matter of representation in the end. Any representation is a limited perspective on the phenomenon (or person) it is trying to represent. It highlights some things and masks others. The line on the graph tells you some things, the equation gives other information. No digital self is the complete whole of the person just as we as people present different facets of our lives in different situations/contexts/settings – digital or otherwise.

The telephone: communication or torture? #edcmooc

Lady Grantham (Maggie Smith) of Downton Abbey fame on the installation of a telephone:
‘Is this an instrument of communication or torture?’

This post is in response to the short film, Thursday, that was assigned to the EDC MOOC. The basic notion of the film is two people (let’s call them digital man and digital woman) going through their day as many of us do. They use coffee makers and alarm clocks. Their work life is spent on a computer. They connect on their ubiquitous smartphones. The film also follows a mockingbird and her nest that have adapted to this world of high rises and urban digital life.

My impression is that the people are not unhappy. The world is not devoid of nature. Digital man and digital woman even embark on a date via elevator to outer space with the bird tagging along.

The first instinct of many is to see all the ways the people in the film are disconnected or connected only via technology. This leads to questions about “authentic” connections vs. digital ones. Or, how has technology disrupted a way of life? Are we less reflective? Less communicative? Less connected? Even as technology connects us in more and more ways?

This brings me to Lady Grantham circa 1915. Bemoaning the next new thing that, in her view, destroys life as we know it. Utopia vs. dystopia has always been the debate about technology.

With each new technology from electricity to the steam engine to telephones and onward, hasn’t there always been this conversation about what will be lost in society? I imagine conversations about the loss of letter writing occurred once telephones became common now we’re concerned about tweets and texts taking over the written word. I imagine the first telephones were also considered intrusive by many or isolating (you didn’t have to walk down to the neighbors). Then, we all got air conditioning and people stopped sitting on porches.

We have as a society had to adapt to technology since the creation of pen and paper. We, as humans, are always looking for ways to connect and communicate with each other more efficiently and effectively as well as more frequently (people wouldn’t be engrossed in Facebook, twitter, etc if not for seeking connection). Connections are just taking a different form.

Systems rather than determinisms

Another MOOCer posted this note commenting on the deterministic views of technology. I agree with the author that we need to teach students how to work in a technological world. I see technology (either in general society or in classrooms specifically) as being as deterministic as the users make them. This is because technology is one tool and way of working among many that are constantly adapting. The culture is a system of interacting factors that are influenced by and influence technology.

Math textbooks in the 1920s and 1930s called for students to be able to do long calculations (6 to 8 four-digit numbers) in their heads rather than relying on what was then a technological support – the pencil and paper. The symbols themselves have been considered crutches. It is very similar to the conversation that happens about calculators or other technology tools.

Students shouldn’t rely on them, but we can’t ignore technology and pretend it doesn’t exist. Or, that we live in a world where it represents a threat. There are many wonderful opportunities that arise because of technology as well as the threats.

We can either allow the threats to overcome the positive aspects. Or, we can learn how to adapt and to adopt technology to serve our purposes. Sometimes this means tossing the old out for the new. Sometimes it means adapting the current system to incorporate new tools.

Early Impressions of MOOCing

The MOOC I’m enrolled in has now officially begun. The MOOC phenomenon raises some intriguing questions for higher education and the way we know it now. Thus far, the first and most notable aspect of the EDC MOOC is that while the “official” class started January 27, 2013, the students began to be engaged in discussion, conversation, and information sharing at least a month in advance of the course. So, many learners are clearly highly motivated and interested in the topic. So, what if for the classes I teach, I opened up venues for students to engage in creating the course before the semester began? Would they? What content would emerge?

Second, the content in this class has been given and we are encouraged to engage in it as much as possible. Leading to the learning principle of “you get what you pay for”. In this case, the payment is time. If I put time in, presumably I’ll learn more about e-learning and digital cultures. But, I don’t have to be engaged in the course at any particular time or place. And, more notably, I can work with as much or as little of the content as I feel the need to do.

Finally, what if higher education offered more of these specific, needs-driven, short courses? Would working professionals or people looking to develop their own knowledge be interested? What if we break down the credit hour structures and the program structures and offered more special topics courses? What might we put out there as options for people who are seeking to learn but don’t need another degree?



I am an Associate Professor of Mathematics Education at George Mason University in Northern Virginia. This year, I have started teaching courses for mathematics specialists (a.k.a. elementary and middle schools teachers who specialize in learning about math and helping other teachers learn about math). To help me in this endeavor, I’m also enrolled in a MOOC scheduled to start in January 2013. The course is called E-Learning and Digital Cultures. and so far is bringing together people from all over the world interested in learning in a digital world.

I’m hoping to learn more about how digital learning and people’s digital lives intersect. So far, teaching online has been a great experience for me as a teacher and I would like to be able to make it an even more enriching opportunity for my students in helping them connect and apply the content in new and innovative ways. In the Coursera course, I’m hoping also to learn what it’s like to be a learner in an online environment to help me become a better online instructor.