Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Proto-MOOC Stays the Course

Proto-MOOC Stays the Course
April 24, 2012 - 3:00am
By Steve Kolowich

The most provocative aspect of massively open online courses, or MOOCs, is how massive they can be. Last fall, several Stanford professors drew nearly 200,000 students to a series of free computer science courses, an experiment that spawned two companies. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology opened its first massive online engineering course this spring to the tune of 120,000 registrations.

But for Jim Groom, an instructional technologist and adjunct professor at the University of Mary Washington, open online courses are not about scale and efficiency. They are about imagination and anarchy.

A year ago, before MOOCs became so widely discussed as to be baptized into the lexicon of The New York Times, Groom decided to take his course on digital storytelling, DS106, into the open waters of the Web, inviting anyone, anywhere, to create, submit and comment on assignments. The reins have been slipping from his hands ever since, and Groom says he could not be happier.

There is no textbook in DS106. Groom and instructional technologist Alan Levine, who teaches the other DS106 section at Mary Washington, do not lecture or teach media editing skills. In Groom’s section of the course, in-person attendance is optional. The instructors consult with students about the design of the course and its website. Two of Groom’s students are building out a new section of the DS106 website where students can vote up each other’s work. Levine and his students are in the process of planning another area where students can remix each other’s work.

“The students are in many ways running and designing this as it goes,” says Groom.

The weekly assignments, which make up 30 percent of the final grade, are created by the students themselves -- the 75 enrolled at Mary Washington and the hundreds of others participating free on the Web -- and aggregated in an assignment bank on DS106's website. [snip].

Like a lot of user-generated Web media, the assignments are often quirky and brief. One assignment challenges students to tell the story of a relationship in three captioned photographs. [snip].

Each assignment is rated, by a group of DS106 veterans, on a scale of one to five stars based on difficulty. Rather than pointing his students toward specific tasks, Groom directs them to do a certain number of stars’ worth of work on their own free blogs each week. Their work is aggregated to the DS106 website, where anyone can view and comment on it.

The decentralized model is no accident. In short, the goal of DS106 is to teach students how to be creative, capable Internet citizens, able to consciously shape their own identities and narratives online. Minus the modicum of structure and authority exerted by the instructors, the course operates much as the Web does. “DS106,” says George Siemens, a professor at Athabasca University and one of the early pioneers of open teaching, “is itself an expression of its content.”

In a video primer created in 2010, Dave Cormier, a Web projects coordinator at the University of Prince Edward Island, describes MOOCs as “a way to connect and collaborate while developing digital skills.” Everything that students create is immediately public, and it can rarely be found in a central location. “There’s no ‘right way’ to do the course, no single path from the first week to the last,” Cormier explains.

Ideally, a MOOC “re-inspires the online space with imagination, and actually allows us to understand that the [learning management] box we’ve been living in for the last decade is just the beginning” of what is possible when teaching and learning move out of the classroom and onto the Web, Groom says.


But massiveness, on the order of six-figure enrollments and eight-figure venture investment, is not on Groom’s agenda; his checklist is “community, collaboration and coordination.” [snip].


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