MOOCs, e-learning and distance lecturing: #EDCMOOC


Dear MOOC,

it is me not you…

…was the alternative title I had planned for this post, to be honest though—that would be a lie.

It is you, ALL you!—Just kidding.

I am still trying to get my head around the business of e-learning, distance learning and MOOCs. When I asked on a mailing list for tips for live online teaching in front of a class that is wholly and fully on the other side of the globe and thus the other end of the ether, I got a lot of tips on recording lectures. I have recorded vidcasts. I have indeed a YouTube video* on writing a methodology chapter which has over 20.000 viewers and provides me with some interesting statistics about retention. What I don’t have is my mojo when lecturing live online. Without being able to react to the audience because I can neither see them properly, due to the bad connection, nor overcome the darn space that traditionally was the lectern I faltered.

A couple of years ago when I asked her to shadow me during my teaching, a colleague gave me the good tip of walking through the room and physically overcoming that space and boundary. My big quest at the moment is: How to overcome this boundary, if the space to overcome is virtual as well as physical?

*It is not my best work and was only meant 
to be an experiment, 
but somehow it went viral.

The Learning Spaces

So inevitably the whole discussion about e-learning is a discussion about learning spaces. There are schools and kindergartens designed by architects with the aim to create learning spaces that the learners can engage with and within, that are aesthetically pleasing and support mental health and well-being.

Now how could this be possibly achieved in a MOOC and if not a MOOC in a very simple straight forward distance learning module? A module in which I try to convey academic skills, whilst overcoming not only linguistic but also cultural boundaries. I found that in distance learning I do face problems similar to my usually diverse groups of students: I try to introduce different ways of working, different ontologies, not to forget cultural sensitivity for using visuals, or lastly answering questions such as: Will this visual metaphor actually make sense in a different culture? Only the particular culture I have to provide distance teaching for is 5.000 miles away, and contrary to expectations, somehow the problems appear bigger in the distance. The boundaries are more difficult to overcome.

So providing different learning spaces might help. Within the ethos of internationalisation of the curriculum we are going to run a pilot that addresses the use of different virtual spaces to create a learning space that supports communication across cultures, challenges ideas and initiates inquiry. This is the idea at last. I can keep you updated on how this is going. Meanwhile, I have a lecture to plan and I don’t know my class. I cannot use my empathy and ‘sense’ the room, see the reactions or even hear them say something because if someone in the back of the room mumbles that will not be transmitted amidst the disturbance noises in the connection, the bad microphone and the slow internet connection. So how do you or can you at all substitute the ‘feeling of the room’—the human connection you make with your students by reading the tiny sometimes barely visible signs in body language and facial expression? For someone who is so used to working with people it feels as if one of my senses is cut off.

Now I am very lucky with my colleagues, to one of whom—much much more versed in providing webinars of all sorts, than me—my concerns seem superfluous. She advised me to act as if I talk to my friends or family on Skype and because I am so used to videoconferencing software I should not have a problem. Luckily I do have such grounded people who just look at me and my home-baked dilemmas with this ‘shrug of a shoulder, what is your problem’ expression and provide an instant coping mechanism. So I know how to cope—well theoretically at least—on Monday. Yes of course the ‘but’ was just around the corner. BUT coping is not the same as a solution of the underlying issues and I find it always hard to just get on with things if there is a bug somewhere that needs fixing. Only fixing might be beyond my capabilities and this my friends, although the admitting comes easy, is something I do not like to consent to.

While pondering the possibilities of virtual space engaging with the EDCMOOC brought other questions to my mind.

The Learning Power

Another topic that needs addressing particularly in regard to MOOCs is that of power relations between learners and teachers, learners and learners, and after the last debacle about professor McKenzie dropping out of teaching a MOOC apparently also between teacher and teacher. Further, we could add the whole institutional and structural dimension to the analysis and this post would never end.

The learners base their judgement of the subject on a sneak peak of virtual discourse, which seems a bit mono-dimensional thinking: interacting about virtual cultures only within the virtual space and thus not translating the discourse into the analog world. Considering that one of the articles we read highlighted how the means of communication change the discourse if not even cognitive processes I feel as learner caught in limbo. The dimension of looking from outside in is missing and I cannot but wonder if leading the discourse virtually inevitably biases our experiences and opinions.

Back to the more obvious power relations: There are apparently 7.000 active learners in the EDCMOOC. The gate keepers to this course are a handful of lecturers and teaching assistants, which creates a ratio of not even 1:1.000. You might argue that in any formalised learning environment the teacher (instructor) wields the power of the gatekeeper to knowledge. However, the discourse in analog time and analog person is more fluid, nuances become more apparent and are easier to challenge for the learner. Then oral communication is not a prescribed shape, it is different each time, it changes with each learner. Once that communication is given shape, in a vidcast, a blog or A 140 Characters of Tweet** it is and will remain in that shape and interaction from the learners’ side does not shape the side of the provider. One can comment, interpret, re-iterate but not change the creation of one side of the discourse because it already took place.

**I just had to make that pun! 
And no I did not read the book.

Much more than in a traditional course do virtual media permit the communication of bias of a topic. From moodle or wiki lay-outs to imagery used. These design elements, which I use in my teaching for the students to question, are a given in the MOOC, establish the course’s identity and therefore its values and norms. A lecturer who is biased can easily be challenged and easily be found out because normally this bias is communicated as such and sometimes as learning incentive. Implicit biases that are part of the structure of the course are sometimes difficult to see and even more difficult to challenge.

I hardly dare stating that I very deeply despise the concept of transhumanism because the discourse I get from the platforms in the MOOC is positive if even only in the adventurous nature of this thought. I love playing with ideas but having grown up in East Germany the dangers of institutionalising ideals stand strong in my world view and all I can think about with my admittedly utterly limited understanding of the transhumanist concept is: it cannot happen as long as we have not even gotten the hang of how to be human. Technology is not a solution but it will show the gaps in societies much quicker and much clearer, mainly through access. Will there be a new feudal system where instead of land and title access is the new means of power? See I am not even able to play with the idealistic notion of this concept. Yes, I know the course still made me think and engage but I daren’t posing my thoughts. So I snug them into this post, knowing that most blog readers will not go beyond the magical first quarter of an article.

Course Design

While I am still ranting about access I go back to course design for MOOCs but also other forms of e-learning. There is an inherent problem with this particular MOOC: Asking learners to sign up for dozents of platforms cannot be the point of a MOOC. What if the learner does not agree with the terms and conditions? Can the learner then not hand in an assignment? Why not handing it in via various sources? Who has the power to decide to limit this seemingly limitless technological playground? Why limit the picture upload to Flickr while I just as well could have used Google+ or Facebook to name only two. Wherein lies the actual freedom of a MOOC? Access? Time and spacial independence? Contextualizition or what in creative learning is called relevance is utterly lacking. Yet, each week I have to watch these 4 or 5 YouTube videos that are occasionally meaningless to me. For instance this movie:

I am not sure but I believe we were supposed to contemplate and engage with the topic of digital cultures. Though, watching this movie all I could think about was that you do not get DNA from cut hair you need the roots, and if calling the inspector Foucault wasn’t just a tad too obvious. First and foremost though I kept wondering how the heck this would ever translate into my actual problems for online teaching—I still am and the course has only 2 more weeks to go.

So the question concerning course design is how can you offer learning goals and as a learner achieve these goals when they are not made clear at the beginning of the course and through the design of the course? How do you actually achieve to enable thousands of learners to get to the same achievement or is this even a remit of a MOOC? I have decided trying to understand this structure purely from the perspective of a learner and abstained from even running Google Scholar to get a first scoop on what is out there. Because so far my learning experience enables me to keep the view of the learner and translate this into my e-teaching—hopefully yours.


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