Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Catalysts, Coaches & Guides in self-directed learning

The MOOC is a model that invites questions about the role, perhaps even the redundancy, of teachers in a self-directed learning environment. Although key people deliver what could be called core content in a MOOC (although even attending to that is optional) these people are perhaps not teachers in the conventional sense.

Clearly they have a deeper knowledge of their topics than (most) others in the MOOC and presumably have been invited to contribute because they have spent time thinking about and working in a particular area of specialisation. But their role is as much 'peer' with interested others as it is 'teacher' in a conventional, and admittedly rather antiquated, sense of an authoritative figure who directs the learning of others. Their role could be defined more as content providers or catalysts. Perhaps it makes more sense to give them a formal title like ''Catalyst" - as in this week's Catalyst is Martin Weller - to signify their role as something other than presenter or lecturer. Content Provider sounds too generic and distanced - Catalyst is more inviting. As I mentioned in my last post emotion is important to teaching and learning: education is not the filling of a bucket, but a lighting of the fire (William Butler Yeats). And its important to think about the labels and language we use and their emotional freight.

And perhaps there is a need for some other support, even for self-directed learning and self-directed learners, besides that which might be provided by Catalysts. Perhaps instead of teachers, we need coaches, as explained in   
Atul Gawande's piece in the New Yorker

For one thing a coach is focused on the learner, rather than the learner being focused on the teacher which seems a more appropriate power and authority relationship for a self-directed learning experience - and here I'm not thinking just about the MOOC but about what education more generally might look like in the near future - and for another, in a coaching relationship, as Gawande explains, the person who is being coached can be positioned as an already competent practicing professional, in the case of say, a professional tennis player who still has and still needs a coach. Learners in a MOOC, or any self-directed learning environment do already have many competencies, or can learn as they go along, and mostly can make their own way.

Gawande's point is that coaching is about helping people do what they are already doing, but doing it better.

How much more rewarding might it be if there were Coaches who could observe self-directed learners in action and tell us how to do it better. There are already informal Coaches out there in the MOOC membership and it could be argued that the MOOC model positions virtually everyone as a potential Coach to others. But in Gawande's discussion he is talking about much more focused support than generic tips, like say, How to Get the Most out of the MOOC - which is not deny their usefulness, in fact they are essential. But perhaps people who perform this role might better be termed Guides.

We all know how one piece of relatively simple information can make a huge difference, even when we know a practice or a subject pretty well, but someone has to help us identify what that piece of information is.
As Gawande also outlines in the piece, some teachers already teach in this way and are instinctively coaching rather than teaching. Its just that its not what first comes to mind when we think of teaching but it might soon be and perhaps might soon have to be if self-directed learning becomes increasingly the norm.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The tale of the 'achingly beautiful' and 'sad' Tweet

My engagement with the MOOC has taken a big leap forward because it has helped to increase my confidence and experience in the e-environment. I am already convinced of the value of participating in the MOOC because of this. It has helped to break down my threshold of resistance and fear of going on-line. But, as I mentioned in my previous blog, now I've gotten over my initial resistances its turning out to be fun. Like a game, I'm learning some rules and skills as I go, by trial and error. I think the capacity for fun, the capacity to have fun and its connection with learning is under-rated because fun is, at least partly, a mode of emotional engagement. Its a bit like 'flow' the creative state where you have the wonderful experience of being absorbed in something and forgetting about yourself for a while. Emotions are important in learning, in creativity and in the on-line environment as I happened across recently.

In my non-MOOC Twitter stream, someone reTweeted a post by David Dobbs (@David_Dobbs) a writer who included a link to what he described as an 'achingly beautiful' and 'sad' review in the NYTimes Book Review of a book about Ernest Hemingway (sorry I still havent taught myself how to include the direct link here - you can get it via David Dobbs Twitter and link to his blog, if you're really keen.)  I immediately started following him because he had used those words and tweeted to tell him so, but only because my confidence has increased in the on-line environment through participation in the MOOC. I wasn't expecting a reply - I  just wanted to let him know I responded to those words.

About an hour later another Tweet from David Dobbs came through to all his followers saying thanks, and that he had had amazing reaction to the Tweet about the Ernest Hemingway review. My theory is that it generated so much interest because it had the words 'achingly beautiful' and 'sad' in it and that lots of other people had been attracted to it for the same reasons as me. One of my favourite Tweeters is Maria Popova at Brainpicker because she loves things she recommends, she adores them, she swoons over them, she is moved by them and I respond. Enthusiasm goes a long way with me. Of course there's a danger that emotion can be manufactured and faked quite easily online but for the time being, at any rate, I like to think its a relatively authentic space - at least until its more comprehensively colonised by marketeers and profit-mongers.

I suppose as far as teaching and learning goes, explaining to people that getting involved in on-line learning and getting into the on-line environment is likely to be fun -  rather than something they 'ought' to do in order to keep up -  might attract people, curious people, who like playing but don't like being told what they 'ought' to do.  But it won't work if you're faking it. The on-line environment at the moment IS surprising, amazing, unpredictable, as well as frustrating. Continuing my metaphor theme, its a wild, untamed, unruly place - the technical and intellectual equivalent of an undiscovered continent: we don't know what it is yet. I'm talking about the on-line environment in general here but it also applies to the MOOC environment.

The best teachers are ones who are passionate about what they do - hardly a radical idea but one that deserves closer attention for the relationship between emotions and the life of the mind and learning. As is probably not surprising to some, I'm also a fan of Antonio Dimasio who wrote 'Descartes Error'. Descartes was wrong - its not that 'I think therefore I am'; its that 'I feel, therefore I think and connect.'

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Metaphors for a MOOC

Browsing through the stream of information, links and data attached to and associated with this MOOC, I noticed that some time is spent amongst participants discussing and trying to decide what a MOOC is. I have
been thinking about it too and come up with the metaphor of an interactive library. Part of the learning in a MOOC or from a MOOC is figuring how to 'tame' a MOOC and manage it - deciding on a metaphor is one way that helps me tame it and manage it.

Information overload is a danger that can overwhelm people participating in a MOOC (and being online or on Twitter or just about anywhere on the internet  - therefore learning to manage this environment is a 'transferable' learning and really valuable one). I read about the dangers of information overload in one of the first introductory blogs. But it occurred to me that we don't suffer from information overload when we walk into a library - even though there are thousands of books and many millions of pieces of information lurking in the data bases. We don't suffer from information overload in a library (although we can) generally because we go there with a purpose in mind, even if our purpose is just to browse the shelves. That is why the organisers of the MOOC encourage participants to set goals or give themselves a direction - its a potential way of navigating the maze of information and data that appears and is part of a MOOC.

A MOOC is a library that's similar and different to a bricks and mortar, dead trees library. It's different because for one thing some of the 'books' and 'bits' (tweets, etc) can talk back to you and you can talk to them - hello Harry Potter, this is the amazing world we're living in - more than J.K. Rowling could dream of.  Its similar because although the information doesn't come bound and printed on paper, a MOOC is a collection and a curated collection, of information that expands, exponentially, as it goes along. This is perhaps the nature of knowledge in this era too. Knowledge expands as it changes as it expands. Its not fixed, static or stable - which is itself a dizzying concept to get your head around at first. But you could argue that knowledge has always been like this - its just that the pace of change has accelerated exponentially and the online environment literally gives us a window into how this happens - we haven't been able to properly conceptualize it until we can see it in more or less concrete terms and see it more or less with our own eyes.

Because it feels a bit like walking into a library perhaps explains why a MOOC is exciting too. Its full of things to browse and explore, new things, unfamiliar things. And because I am lover of knowledge and learning a MOOC seems full of possibilities and potential new discoveries. The thrill of the unknown and the new is why I love learning and the life of the mind. A MOOC (and a library) is kind of like a vast intellectual department store but everything is free.

But the tech stuff associated with the MOOC - setting up this blog, trying to learn how to post and link and find and browse and store - can be treated like a game, if you have the time. I feel like I walk down the same path and come up against a door that won't open. I try another path and come up against another door that won't open. I shut the game down. But I come back the next day because I know that lots of other people have figured out how to open that door and are way, way past me and having more fun than me because they've been through level one, two, three, four, five or whatever and its become second nature to them. But to get to play with the fun stuff you have to learn to master the basic stuff. I want to play but you have practice before you start to get the pleasure - like tennis or scrabble.

As one my favourite educators, Ellen Langer, (a Harvard University psychology professor) said a long time ago, if you can turn something into a game it doesn't feel like learning, it feels like fun. So there's another metaphor to help manage and cope and tame a MOOC - its a (learning) game.

What other metaphors are out there?

Tolerance for Frustration & Ambiguity

I have wanted to reply to people who have joined/acknowledged, responded  'reached out' in American parlance (sorry guys) but butted up against my limitations again. You have to persevere which is challenging if you're not in the mood but kinda fun if you are.

I was thinking the perfect mentality for this experience is a technical mind AND pleasure in communicating and writing. An atypical combination that perhaps will become more common as it is more and more demanded of us. I suppose its that old connectivity thing again - we can't be either a tech person OR a writer/communicator in this era, we need to be and its better for us to be a tech person AND a writer/communicator. These will inherit the earth or rule the new world. or both.

But I'm also thinking tolerance for frustration and ambiguity are characteristics of adventurous and creative, inquisitive people - and a lot of academics/learners could be described this way - who can put up with ambiguity and like finding some sense in it all. Somewhere in the stream of things I have read around the MOOC someone mentioned sense-making as a critical capacity that is developed in a MOOC also. I would like to be able to keep records of things I read so I can share them more effectively.

I was just getting the hang of the bibliography business and this is a whole other realm.

I can also feel how writing in this space, the blog space, can easily become addictive, if only for the fact you have an imagined audience that is listening to you and wants to hear what you say. Who's ego can resist that? Again it flatters and soothes the academic ego quite nicely - whether or not there are any actual readers.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Getting started

I've dipped into the Twitter stream a few times to see what's happening and to get oriented. I have read a couple of other blogs and watched a really informative video/interview. My problem is I don't have the skills/ knowledge to track these pieces of information that could enrich the blog and my personal record of the whole experience.

I am fortunate to have not one but two tech advisors - friends of whom I can ask dumb questions. But it really is an exercise in problem solving at a detailed level, at least at a level of detail I find difficult and I can't call on them at every and any moment. It's down to me to make it work.

So I guess what I'm doing here is keeping a blog about what it's like to venture into an on-line environment without many skills.

I have set up this blog and I have I think successfully registered it at the appropriate place.

I do have a Twitter account in an entirely different name that I also started as an experiment. I guess it's find to experiment except that you/one hears/reads about the importance of managing one's on-line identity and being careful. How forgiving is an on-line environment of experiments? I hope someone in the course will talk about on-line identity management and creation.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Uncomfortable, unfamiliar and in public

Joining a MOOC  is exciting but nerve wracking too because it's unfamiliar and public. Adult learners learn in the privacy of their own space and time but in an on-line setting it feels public even if no one or only a few read what you write. People who read this blog are still strangers with whom I have not had an opportunity to build trust or to size up. In a classroom there are loads of visual clues you can cue in to to get information - these are non-existent on-line.

As I write too I'm aware that I'm unsure of the appropriate form of address. Is it 'you' 'we' or 'they'? The grammar of on-line communication is something you learn as you go too.I'm trying to do two things simultaneously - write to record my own perceptions in a way that makes sense to me but do it in a very public forum. Its an unfamiliar juxtaposition, especially for someone like me who considers herself an experienced writer.

I don't have a problem with learning as I go. It suits me fine. But it takes a bit of courage to be prepared to fail in public or make yourself look silly in public because you don't know the most basic things. When you are starting on a PhD this fear might be more intense - you feel like a fraud and are unsure of what you do know, what you should know and what you don't know. I'm thinking about this experience in relation to doctoral study because my colleagues and I are thinking about trialling on-line learning for doctoral candidates as a way of offering support and assisting their candidature. Part of the reason for diving into this course is to get a first hand experience of going on-line and learning on-line: Lesson No. 1 - it won't suit everyone.

People in the MOOC who are experienced bloggers, Facebook users and Twitterers will enter into it with more confidence than those of us putting our toe in the water for the first time. This is not my first blog ever but it is only about my third of fourth ever. I have Twittered a bit lately but not very actively.

On the other hand, at this point, the experience of being in a MOOC seems to parallel the experience of doctoral study. I watched Dave Cormier's YouTube video on Knowledge in a MOOC and if you substitute the word 'thesis' for MOOC it seems a pretty useful description of the doctoral process, that beginning candidates might find helpful to orient themselves and get an insight as to what they're in for.

With on-line learning, perhaps all learning, you have a steep learning curve. You learn a lot, fast and then forget what it was ever like not to know the ropes. That's why I want to keep a record of this. Because we try as fast as we can to get away from that feeling of bumbling around not knowing and a lot of academics never ever want that feeling again, yet that is, for a lot of the time, what it feels like to learn and in particular what it feels like to start doing a PhD.