Saturday, October 27, 2012

MOOCs and Connectivist Instructional Design

george seimens
George Siemens (Photo credit: heloukee)
I am very interested in the instructional design of MOOCs. While I was working at Tacoma Community College, I co-taught a course called "Health Information Management 101." The purpose of the course was to introduce health information management students to all of the technology that they would encounter in the course of getting a certificate or degree in health information management, as well as collaborative technologies that would help them successfully work online (this is where modern HIM is going). The idea was that we would use all of the tools to teach the class that were also part of the curriculum. We taught the course using a "multimodal delivery" method: it was a hybrid online but students could choose at anytime to take the course online or show up for the lab. The whole point of the curriculum was to help students get the idea that they did not have to learn how to use any software program, but that they could gain transportable skills that would enable them to use any technology to meet the needs of any situation. When students are taking HIM classes, they can't be taught the technology of the work place because that technology in HIM changes too quickly. One year, hospitals and insurance companies are using one program, the next they are upgraded to a new system or have moved on to something else. They are as bad as schools and their learning management systems. What we had to teach was the core skills that allowed anyone to adapt to any technology they might find themselves in. We got the students up to speed on texting, messaging, sharing and collaborating using wikis, blogs, Google docs, and even toyed with Second Life. The idea was that if we could create a community online of HIM students, then they could help one another manage the pace of technological change in their field. We wound up succeeding far beyond our expectations. Within a couple of semesters, the network we facilitated, had first semester students, second semester, and students who were working in the profession all talking to one another in twitter. We even had students who were in other fields also talking to our HIM students. Our "classroom" was streamed live from a lab where we assisted students with the different projects. We wanted a space where local students could drop in physically if they wanted to or participate remotely. What we noticed was that students started helping one another as much as we were helping students. One of the reasons for this was that each assignment was basically a detailed guide on how to use a particular tool, and each assignment asked the students to share their work with one another. They wouldn't just sign up for Twitter; they would add the entire class to their account. They wouldn't just sign up for a social bookmarking site; they would share their bookmarks with the class. Creating the community was built into the lessons. This class was not  MOOC but it gave us the experience of letting the community, even the community outside of the classroom, drive the learning.

Around the same time, we ran into George Siemen's essay, "Connectivism: a learning theory for the digital age"as well as the work by Stephen Downes on the same topic. We were then so far beyond the ADDIE model of instructional design. There was no model of typical instructional design that could account for what was happening here. Stephen Downes wrote in the Huffington Post "At its heart, connectivism is the thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks. Knowledge, therefore, is not acquired, as though it were a thing. It is not transmitted, as though it were some type of communication." We were really excited by many of the ideas around connectivism because it is the only learning theory that does not have the justification of the old model of education at its heart (i.e. hierarchical, top down, sage on the stage, medieval lecture halls, exclusivity, etc.). Connectivism accounted for how our students were working, interacting, and collaborating. We could piece together bits of social constructivism and other theories to account for some of it, but none of the other models we looked at were as complete. This isn't to say that we agreed with everything about connectivism. Instructional designers are a very practical bunch. We tend to evaluate a theory based on its usefulness, not its pedigree. And a theory is just that - a theory. Theories do not spring forth whole like Athena from Zeus's forehead - they are postulated, tested, experimented with, and revised. Connectivism isn't wrong just because it does not validate every theory that went before it. The questions that instructional designers ask are like Wittgenstien's answer to the afterlife: "The real question of life after death isn't whether or not it exists, but even if it does, what problem this really solves?" A theory, for instructional design, should be a tool that answers questions that are actually being asked. It should lead to real solutions to instructional problems.

I participated in George Siemen's and Stephen Downe's MOOC, "Connectivism and Connective Knowledge 2008" (CCK08).  And unlike other education classes I had taken at the graduate level, this one was taught using the method it was teaching. Each week, there were blogging assignments, discussions in Twitter, Facebook, the discussion forum in Moodle, and even in Second Life. There were weekly guest lecturers as well as presentations by the course facilitators. The real heart of the course was the groups of students who would meet virtually, using the collaborative tools of their own choosing, who would discuss the presentations and readings. These groups were self-organized, leaderless, and informal. Yet, there always seemed to be someone in the group who would carry the discussion back into the course to have questions answered by the facilitators. And the facilitators would sometimes participate in the discussions. This experience was highly interactive. There was interaction with the facilitators, the content and between the students. Interestingly enough, the research shows that interaction is one of the primary measures of success and retention in online classes: the higher the degree and opportunity for interaction, the more successful a course will be. This course completely changed how I think of course design. Giving students the opportunity to apply what they are learning to their learning experience, workplace, and previous knowledge is a powerful experience. This should be at the center of our learning design and course outcomes.

Another experience that I think ties the two course models together was my experience in Jim Groom's DS 106 - a digital storytelling MOOC from Mary Washington University. In this course, there are detailed instructions on how to do each assignment, and more importantly, how to create your own assignments. There is also a degree of networking and collaboration that I don't think has ever been attempted before. Students don't just participate in the network - they literally become the network. Each student is asked to create their own domain on the web. Each one becomes acutely aware of their status as a node in the web. This is the way it should be. Students of digital storytelling should know their media as well as any painter who creates their own materials. Again, the network created in DS106 goes far beyond the idea of a classroom. The twitter hashtag #DS106 basically has a life of its own with past and present students, artists, media professionals, and followers from around the world all participating, collaborating and sharing art, video, and projects.

So given these experiences, what should connectivist instructional design look like? Based on the principles of connectivism, learning should:
  • Provide for a diversity of opinions
  • Allow students to create connections between specialized nodes and learning sources
  • Foster their capacity to learn (teach metacognitive learning skills)
  • Increase their ability see connections between fields, concepts, and ideas
  • Teach students to build networks that will allow students to keep current in their field
  • Allow students to choose what to learn and how
Aditionally, in a presentation that George Siemens gave on instructional design for the MOOC "Connectivism and Connective Knowlege 2008" he said that learning should be designed for adaptability, for "patterning, wayfinding, and sensemaking" and focus on "content, context, and connections." He says that it is difficult to take all of this and try to build some mechanistic formula for creating learning experiences. I agree with that - but this is also a teaching philosophy. The best way to help students get this is to model it in our teaching. This is exactly what MOOCs can do that traditional classes can't. In this blog, I will be collecting assignments and activities that model these principles, that have the connectivist principles built into them.

If you have some that you would like to share, as a student or as a teacher, feel free to add to the comments below. 

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