December 17, 2015

HumanMOOC: Learners are Free

So, the more I look at the dichotomy behind the dual-layer MOOC, the more puzzling (and offputting) I find it. Here's a quote from a post I found at EduGeek Journal that explains the idea in detail (there is no author byline, so I am not sure who wrote it): Words That Don’t Work: Courses as Neutral ZonesApparently, the idea behind the "stream" is that the stream is totally controlled by the instructor: "When a learner can look at two pathways, one that is controlled by the instructor and one that is controlled by themselves, they have to make a conscious choice between two different power dynamics. They may not be able to understand the nuances of instructivism and connectivism, but they can understand enough to choose between following the instructor’s prescribed pathway and creating their own pathway."

I am no doubt one of those people who doesn't understand the "nuances" of instructivism and connectivism ... but I can see that this design model assumes there are times when learners give up their natural freedom and cede it all to the instructor. And to that, I say: ouch. As I explained in a tweet in a convo about this topic yesterday: The space to make choices exists because LEARNERS ARE FREE, not because you "give" them space to choose.

Stream or garden, whatever metaphor you want and whatever course design you use, learners are free agents. They are going to do what they do because they choose to do so, not because you "tell" them to. And just like in life, all choices have consequences (a.k.a. karma). Some of those choices may play out in the design of the course (i.e. grading, if the course has grades), but the more important consequences of the choices play out in the learners' lives. Are they missing out on something that would be really valuable to them later? Or just choosing not to jump through a hoop for a grade? It's all choices all the time, and to create a model that seems to assume it's good for students to give up that freedom of choice at any time for any reason does not fit with my teaching philosophy. But cuique suum, to each his own. After reading the EduGeek article, I can see why the Canvas course is meant to be impervious to the outside, with a strictly top-down, instructor-driven design.

But setting aside the content side of the course, here's what makes me really sad about the Canvas space: the students' Profile Pages are not a way to see what people are doing and learning inside this "stream" experience. In the year 2015, I would have expected that Instructure had learned something from Facebook, Twitter, and Google+, etc. about creating dynamic content on those Profile Pages, showing all our contributions to the class across the different course areas, but zip zero nada. How can students get to know each other if when they click there is nothing but a few static links on the other person's Profile? How can they follow each other and be learning buddies together in a course? I want to go find people and see their contributions, and then go join in discussions with them, but those Canvas Profile pages don't show what people are doing in the course ... much less letting students design their own Profile pages with a look/feel that reflects the identity they want to create and share online.

So, I have to ask: where is my "student presence" at Canvas? It's definitely not being shared there on the Profile page, which means I cannot effectively connect with other students, not in a really useful way so that I am learning from others right there on the Profile page. As a result, I prefer not to participate in Canvas... but when I choose not to participate in the Canvas class, that choice does have consequences, and they are not good consequences: if the goal of a class is for people to learn and then share what they learn (and that, at least, is always my goal), by walling things off separately, we are losing out on many possible opportunities to be learning from each other. And, as I said: ouch.

Just based on the garden/stream metaphor, I had thought the dual-layer MOOC had more to do with Mike Caulfield's vision of both gardens and streams as highly dynamic spaces — The Garden and the Stream: A Technopastoral — with the stream being a user-centered series of events: "the Stream replaces topology with serialization. Rather than imagine a timeless world of connection and multiple paths, the Stream presents us with a single, time ordered path with our experience (and only our experience) at the center."

But students are definitely not at the center of Canvas, at least not in the so-called "stream" of the HumanMOOC course (maybe there are other design options; I wouldn't know). Mike rightly raises concerns about the strengths and weaknesses of content that takes shape in the context of a person-centered stream, but Canvas has no learner streams; this is NOT the stream of the technopastoral.

Just take a look at the "course stream" in Canvas (that is the label of the link on the course home page). Is there anything even remotely appealing about this? Anything especially human? Nope. It's not even an adequate serialization in Mike's concept of the dynamic stream:

Just labels, no content of any kind. Now, compare that sad screenshot to what the #HumanMOOC stream looks like at Twitter. I think you can see why I can learn much more there at Twitter ... and I'm here to learn, and share what I learn. When I retweet, I spread the learning through the network... including my own PLN beyond the MOOC. To me, that's where the power lies: multiply the learning, hoping it will go far. In Canvas, alas, there seems to be nowhere for the learning to go.


  1. I haven't used that platform so I find your experience and insights helpful .... interesting that the spaces outside of what is the designated home are vibrant (as they should be, if it is a cMOOC -- is it? --). I think your post reminds us that we are not "there" yet with visions of connected learning and moocs and all that ....

    1. Kevin, I was so hoping for more from Canvas, but it still just seems so disconnected. I had such great experiences in Connected Courses and in Rhizo15, and I could see you guys having a blast with CLMOOC (I just was too swamped to join in, but so much fun to watch). Luckily there is some great stuff happening at Twitter for #HumanMOOC, but the blog hub, at least so far, is very sleepy. But still, I've met some really nice people. That's the best thing about these courses, good or bad; even in a course that was terrible (like the Coursera one I did), there are such great people to meet! HAPPY HOLIDAYS! :-)

  2. One thing to keep in mind: when Mike utilized the stream in his writing, he completely changed its meaning from what it previously meant to most people. That is why his ideas are confusing to many: they still want to hold on to the pre=technopasotral meanings of stream. But he does point towards the ideas that came before him, which is just what I was doing when I pointed to his ideas.

    The core, main idea of instructivism is that the instructor is the center of the learning experience. They hold the power in the course. They hold the keys to earning the grade, the badge, etc. If a learner wants to pass the course, they have to give up their freedom to choose and follow the path that the instructor has prescribed for them. Those aren't my ideas - that's what the literature says about instructivism. So when the stream is a metaphor for instructivism (which is technically closer to what it was before Caufield borrowed it), the student is not at the center. Research shows that this is what 70-90% of all instruction still looks like today. And, a large number of learners prefer it. Its always surprising how many learners are willing to give up their freedom of choice just to be led by the instructor at every step. Again, that is the literature, not my feelings. I am a connectivist through and through. I prefer to follow my own path. But not all learners are me.

    In an instructivist path, when the learner is not the center, the learners also have a different view of student presence. Often, discussion forums are seen as the ideal place to add student presence. I'm not a fan of forums, but many are. In general, most studies find that learners feel very connected to other learners if they can interact in the forums. Not my ideal of interaction, but again I'm not all learners.

    And that is the thing - different people have different preferences. What you call a sad shot above, some people find awesome. I agree with your preferences on this, but not everyone does. Some people look at the Twitter feed and say "so what?" But, it would be more accurate to compare a screen shot of the forums and the Twitter feed and not the profile page. Again, the profile page is designed on a pre-Cauffield concept of stream.


  3. But back to learners being free, I would submit that education has never been that simple, that black and white. If you want to earn the grade, you have to give up your freedom and submit to what the instructor says you have to do to earn that grade. Some instructors break free from this instructivist mindset and design for student-centered learning, or social constructivism, or connectivism,. But that is still a choice of the instructor to give that choice to the learner. That is the power dynamic that has always existed in education. Learners are free to take courses or not, but once they enter into an official degree program, they give up that freedom to choose expect in the case of electives. But even in electives, they have to choose one of a few limited options, and once they do they give up the freedom and still have to do what they are told to earn the grade. Even in most MOOCs, once they enroll and decide they want the badge or certificate, they still usually have to give up their freedom in order to earn those credentials. Education always involves a power dynamic of some kind. The goal of the design of HumanMOOC, DALMOCC, and other dual-layer MOOCs is to expose those power exchanges so learners can make those choices for themselves. Some learners love to be guided by the instructor. That is their preference, but should only happen if they choose that and not because those that hold the key to the grade force them to do so in order to earn a passing grade.

    The goal of the garden/stream design is to restore that freedom of choice back to the learner. Education has overwhelmingly for the most part taken it away from them. Volumes have been written on how that is the case. Thousands of articles have been written about how instructors don't give learners a place to choose. That's not my idea. It's a documented fact in the world if education.

    To me, when you say "to each his own" and "that does not fit my teaching philosophy", I find that problematic. You assume that your teaching philosophy is automatically the best. You assume that learners are "missing something" by not doing it your way. Many would disagree with that. People are different and have different preferences. The key to the pathways design is that "to each their own" is where true freedom lies. When an instructor trumps their teaching philosophy over the others, they are imposing their views on others that may not see things the same way and taking away their freedom. When an instructor puts a Twitter widget on the home page of their course, they are making a choice and imposing that choice on their learners. To me, it's not freedom to say "you have to look at Twitter and do something with it on the first page of the course." That is still imposing an instructor-driven choice from the beginning.

    BTW - A better translation of suum cuique is "may all get their due" - often used by enforcement divisions in a punishment mindset.

  4. Thanks for all the comments, Matt! I'll try to highlight some items I'll keep on pondering and questions I have:

    STREAM. We talked about this at Google+ where Matrix thing sounded like it fit your notions much better. In what sense is the Canvas space even LIKE a stream...? I still don't see it. Streams FLOW, but there is not much flow there at Canvas. Instead, there are boxes arranged in order by time, but the boxes are not strongly connected. When I click on someone's avatar I go to their profile, but I cannot find where they are in those other boxes which are shut off one from another. No flow. Nothing that "streams."

    STUDENT PREFERENCE. My sense is that students do not necessarily prefer teacher authority; it's just all that they know, and, like many people, they fear the unknown simply because it is unknown. A lot of the work I do as a teacher is about helping students UNLEARN what past schooling inculcated in them: unlearning things about writing, unlearning things about learning itself... getting out of their comfort zone. I love it when students comment in end-of-semester evals that the class got them out of their comfort zone to try new things. I'm not sure if your Canvas space is designed to help people stay in their comfort zone or not; I'm guessing that it is...? My preference (and again, just my preference; I understand that you prefer differently) is to be a highly engaged instructor, helping students to grow and challenge themselves to go beyond the comfort zone. That, in my opinion, is where real learning happens.

    CANVAS STREAM. I'm not sure that "awesome" is the first word that would come to anyone's mind about that Canvas screenshot; that would be pretty high praise for something so unremarkable... although maybe I'm wrong (it would be interested to see how many hits that page gets, for example, just as a measure of utility if not awesomeness). In any case, my point is this: in something called HumanMOOC, it is weird that the "course stream" has no human features. There are NO people there, no names, no avatars, no human activity. That seems very strange to me, especially given the stated goals of this course. I would have expected that a stream would be a dynamic presentation of the contributions people are making to the class in real time. Clearly, I was wrong about that, although I am still curious whether such a stream is possible in Canvas, or whether you chose to turn it off as part of the research design.

    PHILOSOPHIES. I put out my philosophy because I think it is the best for me; I never said it would be the best for you or for anybody else. I hope very much that it will be good for my students, and I share my philosophy with my students in the first week of class (our "shopping" week) because I know full well my courses are not going to be ideal or even good for all students. And my complaints about Canvas are from my perspective as a student in this course: yes, I am missing something; no, Canvas is not good for me.

    And about cuique suum, I love that motto and it has a whole range of overlapping and even contradictory meanings. Your comment prompted me to write up a post about that, something I've been meaning to do for ages, so that you for the nudge to finally do it!
    Cuique Suum: Responsibility, Diversity, Motivation ... all in two little words

    1. P.S. Here's the philosophy statement that I have online for students to read about my classes. And I always overenroll because usually 10-20% of the class will drop when they find out what the class is like. I'm glad we have that shopping week! Try before you buy. :-)


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