Complex Attitudes Toward Technology #EDCMOOC

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about my students’ attitudes about technology. They are firmly within the Millennial/Digital Native demographic, born during the 1990’s, and very attached to their devices, particularly their smart phones. Our class begins at 7:45am, and when I come to unlock the door, nearly all of them are looking at their phones. When we get into the classroom, they transition from their small screens to the large ones — the terminals set up in the classroom. I don’t buy the “Digital Native/Digital Immigrant” split, though I do find it convenient as a way to think. Still, my students do have an interest in and ease with technology that fits the Digital Native label.

As we have been working our way through the EDC MOOC, a lot of our discussion has been about technology and its positive and negative aspects. We’ve had several discussions about technology and education, and they have taken place face-to-face, and online, both in synchronous and asynchronous formats.

Some fascinating, complex stuff has come out of it.

First, my students aren’t good at face-to-face discussions. I joke with them about how hard it is to get them to talk. I recognize that our classroom isn’t the best for encouraging this. It was designed poorly, with tables in a rectangle, students facing one another, but with terminals on the table, blocking their views of one another. The technology provides a distraction, but also a literal barrier between them. A few have something to say during our discussions, but they die out quickly.

And yet, if, while we are in class, I ask them to have a discussion on TodaysMeet, they have lots to say. (TodaysMeet is a twitter-like online application, with its 140 character limits, but with a set time limit, so that it disappears after an hour, or two hours, or a week (though one can save a transcript of the discussion). So while our face-to-face discussions die out, our synchronous online discussion — which takes place while we are all in the same room — goes on strong. I project the TodaysMeet discussion on a screen in the classroom, so everyone can see what is happening (similar to a twitter feed being projected at a conference session). At one point last week, I was essentially having a discussion with the screen: no one was talking out loud, but students were posting comments, and responded to them out loud. It was very strange.

Also strange: We looked at some of the online discussions for EDC MOOC together: the MOOC Discussion Forums, the EDC MOOC Facebook group, the Twitter feed, the YouTube comments. And I pointed out that several times, people in the class were responding to other people in the class, and having interesting conversations online. But here’s the strange part: a lot of them didn’t realize that they were conversing with people in the class. They are on a MOOC Discussion Forum, exchanging ideas online, with someone who the day before was sitting a few feet away from them, and they didn’t realize it. It’s not that the screen name was a pseudonym; they just had no idea what that person’s name is.

Now, as much as my classroom has physical barriers, it also has lots of opportunities for face-to-face interaction. In nearly every class session, students work in groups on some exercise or other. They do lots of work online all semester, but I try to take advantage of our face-to-face time to have some physical interaction. But they don’t know one another.

Now, I’m not a Luddite or a Techno-Alarmist, and I tend to see the utopian side of technology more than the dystopian side. And I don’t think the world is going to crumble because young people are online so much.

Because I do think my students crave interaction with one another. As much as they love their screens, they want to interact with people — and not just online.

I asked students about their experiences with hybrid/blended, online, and MOOC classes (EDC MOOC is the first MOOC class for all of them), and most said that they like the convenience that online learning provides, but they mostly prefer having a face-to-face teacher. They seem to be enjoying the resources and discussions on the EDC MOOC (and a few of them are really enjoying interacting with people from all over the world), but many said they would rather have a class where the teacher knew them by name; the scale of the class makes it frustrating for them.

So what we have here, I think, is a big ball of complexity. I won’t call it a ball of contradictions, where students seem to want certain things (connection to others; online convenience) but also seem to be rejecting them (not knowing classmates; not liking online classes). I much prefer to think of this as complexity, more than just a one-or-the-other way of thinking about technology.

I read something this morning that may help me sort through this idea. Inside Higher Ed published a piece by Joshua kim called “6 Big Takeaways From the EdX Global Forum,” where he describes what he learned from the conference for EdX MOOC designers and teachers. One of them was, interestingly, how much MOOCs are contributing to onground (what he calls “campus-based”) education. He says in part:

What our students want is to be taught by their own professors.  They want to form relationships with the people teaching them.  What MOOCs have done is raise the quality bar for residential teaching.  It is no longer acceptable to have (expensive) residential classes built on a model of information transmission.  The price of academic content delivery has quickly dropped to zero, thanks to the MOOCs, meaning that the value add that colleges and universities provide to students must be above and beyond content delivery.  That value add is the personalized learning, coaching, and mentoring that comes with relationships.  That value add is the educator getting to know the learner as an individual.  The paradox (or irony) is that MOOCs make the faculty member more valuable than ever. 

It says a lot about what my students want, and why they want it.

And it says a lot about why I like my campus-based hybrid/blended classes, as challenging as they can be sometimes.

And it may say a lot about why blended MOOCs might have a future: online convenience with onground connections.

Even if we end up using an online, synchronous discussion while we sit in the same dark room….

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The Final Assessment #EDCMOOC

Quick reminder: I’m using the EDC MOOC as part of a longer, onground college class. I have been writing about how my students are responding to the MOOC.

Today, we went over the Final Assessment for the MOOC. We looked at Hamish’s introductory video, read the “What You Need To Do” section, and looked at a few of the samples from the previous runs of the EDC MOOC to begin to generate ideas.

They were intimidated.

I think their feelings might have come from Hamish’s discussion of some participants saying the final assessment is too easy, and his encouraging people to look at the samples.  “Then tell me it’s too easy,” he is, in a sort of ominous half-whisper.

That’s mostly a joke. I don’t think Hamish’s tone is what intimidated them. I think it was seeing the samples, even just briefly. They seemed to get the sense that that they needed technical skills beyond the ones that they possess. I tried to calm their fears by discussing some of the links to the online tools on the “What You Need To Do” page, and how they might use them. (For example, with Animoto, they can create create nice looking videos. Weebly is good for posting text-based pages with embedded images or links or videos.)

It’s interesting to me that their initial reaction is to be intimidated. I talked, too, about how they can consider the final assessment as representative of what the MOOC is trying to do: get them to think about alternative ways to be educated. There’s no professor to grade their final projects; they will be graded by one another, in keeping with the cMOOC feel of the course. There’s no “paper” to write; they can think about how one can show what one has learned through something other than a traditional text-based essay. I still didn’t have the sense that they were comfortable with things, but I hope I gave them something to think about as they walk the labyrinth in their minds.

A couple of things stand out for me as I reflect in today’s class:

1) I have said it before when talking about teaching with technology: for my own students (and, I think, for many young people), they know what they know, and they know it very well. But they have no idea how much they don’t know, and when they encounter something new, they do so skittishly. I suppose this is just basic educational psychology, where we encounter something new and try to deal with it in terms of what we already know (Scheme Theory?). See a multi-modal assignment and think about it in terms of text-based assignments that are typically required of them. I think it’s one more point against the idea of “digital natives” (not that we needed more points). Their first reaction isn’t joy at being able to play around online.

2) As I’ve said before, I’m very interested in the idea of Hybrid MOOCs — using an existing MOOC to supplement or replace the content of an onground course, as I am doing with EDCMOOC. I’m especially interested in the role I would play as the teacher in such courses. I think it will change for every class, though my role in this class is rapidly taking shape. I am trying to stay in the spirit of the course, and allow them to learn from each other and other members of the MOOC, more so than from me. I have tried to make it clear that I don’t have The Answers for this MOOC. They will need to generate answers themselves, with the help of their MOOCmates. The role I am playing is Guide. I have taken MOOCs, and online classes, and I have taken and taught dozens of classes, and so I know how to approach a structured learning situation, even one as non-traditional as EDCMOOC. So the advice I have been giving is more about how to learn, where to find information, how to approach a discussion, how to break down an assignment. I think this is certainly related to #1 above — I know how to learn, and it doesn’t intimidate me, because I’ve been through enough difficult situations that I know I’ll find a solution somehow, at some point.

Which has me thinking about how much time I spend with students teaching them how to learn. It’s not easy to do, mostly because I’m almost always pressed for time with content. If I have to choose between What I want them to learn, and teaching them How to learn it, I’m going to focus on the What, and assume (or hope) that they know How. Maybe I need to rethink that from here, for all of my classes. Maybe they’ll get more What if I give them a little How.

One last thing: at the end of class, I asked them to give me a quick show of hands: How many of you would drop this MOOC if I wasn’t requiring it?

Nearly all of them raised their hand.

I’ll need to think about that one some more….

More Student Reactions to the #EDCMOOC

As I mentioned in a response to a comment from Jeremy on my last post, I teaching two sections of the course that I am embedding the EDCMOOC into. I commented on the first section on Monday: students seemed a little fearful of venturing too far into the MOOC, commenting on YouTube, but not doing much else. However, the second section was much more adventurous.

Some students posted to the MOOD Discussion Forums (even starting a new discussion), a few posted to Twitter (no Botty exchanges, though), some to YouTube, and a couple to the Facebook pages that have the EDCMOOC hashtag.

Given their interest in engaging in lots of different ways, we had an interesting discussion about the MOOC and their experience with it.

One student did say that she, too was anxious about posting. Knowing that thousands of people could see what she wrote, she was nervous about what to say. A couple of other students expressed the same feeling. One posted something and was a little shocked to get a response within seconds — very different from the asynchronous online discussions we have been having in class.

But another student pointed out that the anonymity of being online made her feel much freer to respond than she would in a face-to-face class. Others in the class agreed. This seems much closer to the kind of assumption we make about online teaching — that it can be so much more freeing for students, particularly for “digital natives” who spend so much time online. I’m using the quotes purposely, because I know that the “digital native/immigrant” terminology is problematic. I was also careful to say it is an assumption that students will feel freer to express themselves online. I think they’re both complicated.

It was interesting to get students’ general impressions of the MOOC. Many are negative or neutral. A lot of it, I think, has to do with the nature of the EDCMOOC. It’s very unlike the classes they have taken, even the online classes many have taken. Having experienced the first version of EDCMOOC, I knew somewhat what to expect, and I prepared them by discussing the difference between xMOOCs and cMOOCs. I think EDCMOOC is kind of a hybrid MOOC — xMOOC-like in its institutional sponsorship, but cMOOC-like in its insistence that knowledge be generated through interaction among students. So they knew, in some sense, what was expected of them. But I don’t think they were prepared for chaotic way things are playing out, with no assignments before the final assessment, no lectures from the professor stressing the important stuff, no preferred avenue for discussion, with questions to guide what is said. It’s disorienting, to be sure. I have purposely let that disorientation happen, without being too much of a guide myself.

(The whole idea of the role of the onground teacher in a blended/hybrid MOOC is fascinating to me, and something I will explore in a later post.)

I can see how all of this disorientation is playing out. For the first class, the result was intimidation. For the second, it’s a willingness to play along, with various degrees of trepidation. They’ll do this, because it’s required, and they’re making the best of it. But one student said it was “weird.” Another was thrown by the lack of (traditional) teacher presence, since he assumed “teachers are usually the experts in everything.” A few like the fact that they can communicate with people from all over the world, while several miss the face-to-face interaction that would come from a traditional class.

I’m thinking about asking how many of them would drop this MOOC if I wasn’t requiring it. I’m a little hesitant to put that idea in their heads, though. But it would be interesting to know.

All of this makes me think of The New Yorker article, “Will MOOCs Be Flukes?” which Hamish linked to on Twitter a few days ago. The article discusses some of the (well-known) problems that MOOCs have encountered with things like completion rates, and whether or not they matter, given how MOOC students are using them. MOOCs were touted as a way to get college classes to people who might not otherwise go to college, and those end up being the people who are NOT taking MOOCs. (To be fair, I don’t know how many MOOC creators or professors were the ones who touted this potential audience; I think a lot of that hype came from outside commentators.)

My point is, I wonder how much my students fit into the demographic for people who are likely to take and complete a MOOC. Statistics show that MOOC participants are “self-motivated, self-directed, and independent individuals who would push to succeed anywhere,” according to the New Yorker article. Are these my students? Some of them are more self-motivated than others (I have an unusually large percentage of Biology students this semester, all with dreams of medical, dental, or pharmacy school). But certainly not all of them are. On the other hand, the New Yorker article also points out that students taking University of Pennsylvania-sponsored MOOCs tend to be “young, already well educated, from developed countries, and, for the most part, employed,” a demographic that does include many of my students.

I’m not looking for definite answers, and I wouldn’t expect to find them in such a small sample. But I am interested in how MOOCs can be used to supplement (or even replace) the content in onground course, and I wonder how well hybrid MOOCs might work for my own students in the future. Would a more traditionally-formatted xMOOC have been less intimidating? Would my being a more active guide have helped? Will their attitudes change once they are used to the format of EDCMOOC?

I will say I am enjoying the experience (both taking the MOOC mysalf and using it as a hybrid for my class), and I plan to do more of this in the future.

My Students’ First Reactions to the #EDCMOOC

As I discussed in my last post, I am teaching a blended or hybrid MOOC, where I use the #EDCMOOC as material for an onground course on Writing for the Web. Because the onground course requires a discussion of values, the MOOC topics fit well, and build on issues that we have been discussing all semester in the class.

I met face-to-face with my students this morning, for the first time since the MOOC began. We spent some time discussing their experiences. Some observations:

First, some of them were a little overwhelmed by all of the material, and most didn’t venture too far out of their comfort zone. I asked them to post to two different venues (EDCMOOC Twitter, YouTube Comments on the videos, Discussion Forum, Google Hangout, etc.) Of the 18 students who posted, only 3 actually posted to two different venues — all of them to a Discussion Forum and to a YouTube video. The other 15 all posted comments to two YouTube videos (despite my instructions to branch out).

I don’t see this as some kind of rebellion, or as some kind of laziness. I see it more as taking delicate steps into a fairly large, kind of scary learning space. As we got closer to the time that the MOOC began, I talked a lot about how MOOCs are indeed “massive,” with thousands of students from all over the world. And with so much material available, they knew they couldn’t possibly take all of it in (something the facilitators acknowledged in their course Introduction). Watching a video and making a quick comment was a safe way to dip a toe into these waters.

I also think that watching videos and commenting on them was a natural move for them. They are clearly visually-oriented, and pay close attention to videos that we watch in class, so I know this is the kind of thing they are drawn to. It’s an easier way to take in information than reading a text, even if the videos are more abstract, and their messages not as clear. I think there are real implications for online learning here, something that Coursera seems to recognize, if my experience with other MOOCs is an indication: videos are more likely to keep someone’s interest than a text:

In addition to the four videos for Week 1, I also asked my students to read the Chandler essay on Technological Determinism. I anticipated at least some discussion in class — at least some questions about it, given how tough a text it is. I asked for a quick show of hands for how many people had read it. Not a single hand was raised. I did get a quiet, “I started it….” from one student. But no one finished it, and the great majority seemed to have not bothered.

Again, knowing these students, I don’t take it as laziness or rebellion. This is a very different type of learning for them, and they don’t know how to approach it, so most aren’t venturing very far. The class much more “open” than most that they have taken —  there isn’t a systematic body of data to memorize; rather, there is much to interpret, a higher-order way of engaging material.

Interestingly, the students who did venture beyond YouTube comments had very insightful things to say. Whether that was because they were naturally more intellectually adventurous, and thus could make more interesting connections, or they were able to make those connections because they ventured out, I cannot say. But they were interesting.

One posted to a Discussion Forum thread on how much material there is, and how, as a student, he did feel overwhelmed. The original poster discussed the #EDCMOOC Twitter, and how hard it was to keep up with the stream. My student noted that he was also having a tough time, despite his familiarity with Twitter (and, interestingly, he did not post anything to Twitter).

Another student commented in class about how hard it was to get a discussion going on the Forums. It seemed like people were simply posting, and not engaging with one another, something she had hoped would happen. I suggested she look into the kinds of affinity groups that Hamish mentioned in the Hangout; that she comment on blogs rather than Forums (bloggers love to get comments); or that she create her own affinity group.

Interestingly, some of the students who did engage in conversations on YouTube did so with their onground classmates, but didn’t realize they were doing it, because their screen names didn’t match their given names. There is an interesting point about anonymity and freedom to make comments that could be worth exploring over the next few weeks.

So these are initial observations. I hope to continue to find some trends as we move on. While my students’ situation is a little different from most (they are taking the MOOC as part of another class; they are being forced to participate; they are being guided to participate in specific ways), I hope that their experience might serve as a kind of example for how people participate in a MOOC.

Fascinating so far.

My Blended/Hybrid Class #EDCMOOC

I’m finally getting around to posting my first thoughts on what’s happening in the #EDCMOOC.

I have a particular take on this MOOC, and while I hope to comment here about the course material, I am just as likely to comment on how I am using it with my own students.

I am currently teaching two sections of a course called “Writing for the Web” at a public university in the U.S. My theme for the course is Professional Writing and Social Media, and we have been looking at the ways social media have changed the way professional writers (that is, those who write on behalf of businesses and organizations) have seen their jobs change as a result. So, for example, in the past, a writer could send a sales letter to several thousand people and never hear from any of them. The letter might have resulted in customers coming to a store, but the writer’s job was essentially done once the letter was sent. Now, if that same material was posted on a company blog, or in a tweet or Facebook post, the writer would need to check back frequently, interact with users who may have commented, answering questions, providing more information, etc. It’s a very different writing process.

Professional writing takes up about 2/3 of the course. The other 1/3 comes from the course’s place in the university’s General Education Program. Without getting into too much detail about the program, the course is also required to discuss a particular set of values. For my course, those values are discussed through the lens of technology, particularly social media. So we have been looking at issues of identity and image creation (I was pleased to see that “masks” came up in the first Google Hangout), privacy and anonymity, and other issues that arise when people go online.

When I was putting the current version of the course together, I saw that the EDCMOOC was being offered during the last 5 weeks of my semester. I had started (but did not finish) the first iteration of this MOOC, and so I knew what the general approach was. It seemed like a natural fit for my course — my students could address issues of utopia/dystopia and being human as a way to explore the values that are required to be discussed for the General Education Program.

I teach the course in a blended or hybrid format; we meet face-to-face once a week, and the rest of their work is done online. Adding the MOOC creates another layer of hybridity — now the course is part face-to-face, part online through my university’s CMS, and part MOOC. All semester, I have been asking students to think about the differences between a life online and a life offline (I’m careful to avoid calling it “real life,” because a life online is just as real for some people as a life offline). This MOOC adds another layer to that discussion.

As part of their work for my class, I have asked my students to watch the four films this week, and to read the Chandler essay on Technological Determinism. Then they need to post to two EDCMOOC discussions, whether through the MOOC Discussion Forums, Twitter, an EDCMOOC Facebook group, a comment on the films’s YouTube version, the Google Hangout, or by creating a blog. Finally, they need to go to the discussion forums on our own CMS and post something about how the MOOC work for the week relates to some aspect of our Writing for the Web course.

So far, their work has been pretty good. I have kept the scope of their work fairly open, in keeping with the spirit of the EDCMOOC, while suggesting that they keep our course goals in mind. I have encouraged them to not merely post comments, but to take advantage of the fact that they are in a class with thousands of people from all over the world, and to engage in conversation with them.  Some have been able to do that. I will post some observations about their interactions as we move along.

As a teacher and scholar, I am very interested in the idea of blended or hybrid MOOCs — incorporating a MOOC into an established on-ground class. Blended or hybrid MOOCs have been tried at other schools with varying levels of success, though this is my first attempt. I will post some thoughts on that, too. I know that one of the goals of EDCMOOC is to explore the ways MOOCs are used in education, and I appreciate that the course facilitators have been posting their thoughts on how MOOCs are being used.

Definitely more to come.