The MOOC That Wasn’t

Having been inspired by the Massive Open Online Courses of George Siemens, Stephen Downes, Dave Cormier, Alec Couros, Jim Groom and others, I opened my History 104: Western Civillization course as a SOOC (a Small Open …) this January.

Nobody came. I created discussion questions, opened all readings and provided extensive online lectures with audio.  I alerted enrolled students of privacy issues and set everything up in an open WordPress blog so it wouldn’t overload college servers. I post all in-class activities in audio and broadcast with video. I built it.

They didn’t come. Analytics make it clear that no one outside the enrolled class is even observing, much less participating.

George Siemens asked, in a comment to his own What’s wrong with (M)OOCs?:

I’d also like to see other domains try the course format. Most open courses that I’ve seen have been somehow related to educational technology. Where is the mathematics mooc? Or biology?

At the time (December), I answered with my own concerns about technology proficiency on the part of the professor, course design, professorial load, etc. But then I decided to try it anyway.

One may hypothesize on the various reasons why no one showed up for mine. I didn’t advertise properly (mostly I used Twitter, meta tags, and an announcement in our online newsletter for the Program for Online Teaching). We’re not a university, and I wasn’t sure I would get support at my college. But the most significant reason, I think, was implied by Dave Cormier when he responded to my Twitter invitation to everyone to join my MOOC:

My cocky reply (that he hadn’t taken it from me) didn’t hit the point. [I’m sure it’s very common that people think that because already took a history class, they have nothing important left to learn. This isn’t at all true, of course – history is a changing field that transforms its theses with every new generation that analyzes the evidence, and every new discovery of evidence itself (for example, the possible discovery of Olaudah Equiano’s baptism record that has caused such controversy) .]

There are several other ideas at play here. Maybe it’s not about the offering of MOOCs, but about the participants (or lack thereof). Perhaps the question is not why are there no (or so few, assuming we can’t find them) MOOCs in mathematics, biology and history. It’s why would anyone want to participate in them?

The subject matter?

Unlike educational technology and contemporary media/web studies, history is a traditional discipline. The “data” doesn’t change every few months, or at least not at a level where ordinary people might feel comfortable shaping (and sharing) an opinion. The feeling that one may contribute something to a MOOC about education, technology, or modern media is likely much higher. Anyone can play. Everyone can find something interesting to explore, since they’re on the web and think about it all the time anyway. Or they figure, I’ve been through the school system, so I have something to say about education. I know the web, so I have something to say about technology. I know these edufolks, so I have something to learn from them and to share with them.

The “students”, then, are inside the course content before they even start. They can’t start from inside the 17th century.

[It is tempting to point to Michael Wesch’s wildly successful anthropology classes at Kansas State as the obvious exception to the ed/tech focus, but even there Wesch is focused on the anthropology of culture and communications in such a way as to make the web central to the task. It’s not just that he has students using RSS feeds: the focus is often Digital Ethnography rather than traditional anthropology, although all the tools of the discipline are in play.]

If it’s about the subject matter, and if I were at a university, I could offer a History of Contemporary Media or something trendy that would catch interest like this, and possibly have a successful MOOC.

The content? The community?

In traditional fields, there is no need to join a MOOC to get information about the subject. You can go to anywhere on the web to learn not only the facts of history, but to read journals and analysis. You can find all my lectures on Slideshare (and hundreds have, apparently, from all over the world). If you don’t like me, MIT, Harvard and other big schools will be happy to provide you with the “content”.

If it’s not the content, connectivists (and even constructivists) would say it’s the community. Getting all the minds together to work on something creates something much bigger than the sum of its parts. It could spontaneously self-create, which would encourage participation. According to Rick Schwier, such a virtual learning community would need elements such as motivation and rules for engagement. But a community forming around an issue isn’t, I think, a MOOC — it’s missing the “course” element in the same way that content alone is missing the course element. A learning community is more like a social network.  A MOOC needs a facilitator.

The facilitator(s)?

The facilitation provided by the instructor is what makes a MOOC a course rather than a website or a social network. If the subject matter were just OK, and the content could be found anywhere, and the learning community really wasn’t exciting, then the only reason to join a MOOC would be to learn directly from the teacher, that particular teacher (or teachers). And we know the names of these desirable teachers only through the subject matter interest, content, and networked connections that we have already accessed.

So it’s also entirely possible that no one cares about a MOOC unless it is:

* led by a university-connected person well-known in the blogosphere, Twitterverse, etc.
* focused on contemporary trends already of interest, and
* instrinsically appealing to the digerati, edubloggers, researchers, or edupunks (sorry, Jim)

This conclusion would, unfortunately, make the modern MOOC simply the shiny object of the new age, rather than a harbinger of meaningful online learning experiences.

Now, of course I (a non-university, not-very-well-connected, traditional discipline-focused instructor) will continue with open courses, and encourage open education in general. I believe strongly in public education and my responsiblity as a public servant, which to me includes what Dean Shareski calls the “moral imperative” of sharing my methods and knowledge.

But perhaps this is a start to answering George Siemens’ question, and why no “M” is participating in my OOC.

12 comments to The MOOC That Wasn’t

  • Ouch.

    I could try and summon the grandest empathetic “I feel your pain.” But for almost next to nothing in worth, I salute your effort and grace of coming up short of expectations.

    In a way, Dave’s comment is on target. Participating in a course is a full on long term commitment, and if it is not for the credit, for the grade, there has to be a mountain of motivation to sustain outside participation. Or it has to have some electric element that will draw you in. Would you jump to take an open class with me on the Petrology of Pyroclastic Rocks?

    So yes, as you suggest, for MOOC topics that are tapping into current interests, be it ed tech, or just the feverish fun of ds106, are going to do better than MOOC-ing a traditional course. Your market for a history course, unless it is really recast into something that will draw in more than people needing to beef up their base knowledge– may– sadly– not have enough curb appeal on its own. Jim Groom might claim you need a radio station 😉

    This it needs more than to be built (c.f. Field of Dreams) and promoted via social medua; I’d almost guess it needs a maniacal force to solicit participation.

    I honestly missed your tweets, and even in this post, I am not even seeing a link to the UN-MOOC that I can see what I might have missed. If it were me,, putting on my crystal clear hindsight lenses, I might have privately asked a few key outsiders, or other partner history teachers, to be a presence. Or a partner class elsewhere that could leverage the content and shared space.

    In the end, it is almost the course-ish nature of courses that might limit the spread. Bless you for putting yourself out there on the effort, and perhaps MOOCs are not magic. Or worth the trouble.

    I hope at least all of the material building is not an effort in vain and you have content/media to re-use.

    If a MOOC falls in the woods alone, does anyone hear it fall?

  • Ah, that built-in cloaking device must be turning itself on again. The link to my non-MOOC is above in the first paragraph: “I opened my History 104: Western Civilization course as a SOOC (a Small Open …) this January“. We’re in our fifth week, so it would be odd for folks to come in now anyway, but I did want to engage the discussion. Curb appeal, radio station, sexy topic — got it. 🙂

  • Agree with Alan, and if it helps soften the blow, I’ve only just discovered both your blog and your SMOOCH (Should be Massive Open Online Course… okay the H is optional) and I think they are both brilliant! The ‘revolution’ page is inspirational, a fabulous way of teasing out contemporary relevance. Looking forward to more 🙂

  • doh, I walked right past the link. doh

  • Oh poop, my excuse is I forgot you were doing this – otherwise I would have happily participated. I quite like History, even if I am not particularly good at it. As I recall, you even asked me about this somewhere along the line and it still didn’t click. I’m so sorry about that 🙁

    I guess my reason for thinking about loud about this, is you did everything you could to facilitate the openness, and make the course accessible to others – so why so little attention? I have a number of theories and thoughts on this, but no way to validate them.

    My gut tells me this isn’t a matter of discipline. In fact I’m far more likely to participate in an open course that ISN’T related to educational technology, than I am one that is.

    I wonder the degree to which word-of-mouth creates momentum, which creates visibility, which piques interest. In the case of the most “successful” examples I’ve seen recently, one of the main things they all had in common was being a topic of conversation; and this seemed to drive interest as well as maintain it. But how do you reach the point of being a topic of conversation – it’s like having credit in order to get it.

    I wonder if it makes sense to start an explode list or list-serve somewhere for people interested in open courses – or if there is one already?

  • “But how do you reach the point of being a topic of conversation – it’s like having credit in order to get it.”

    Exactly, Mike. The MOOCs I know of so far have had Alan’s requirements of curb appeal, and all have had “known” instructors. It certaily shouldn’t be a matter of inviting particular people to participate.

    And no worries, you all. I’m not depressed nor upset that no one showed up. I opened it up as an experiment (and a perceived duty), and was ready for masses but didn’t expect them. Rather, I am curious as to what makes one successful (or not).

  • I remember your tweet advertising your open course, Lisa, and that I responded with news of my own effort to go “open.” I even when through all the proper channels and got the dean’s approval — which to her credit was a bold move to “give away” course seats when the university is in such dire financial straits.

    It’s not the subject matter in my case. Young adult literature is a rather small but passionate niche. I drew a healthy number (40 isn’t massive but respectable) but have had few follow through. My analysis is that the unfamiliar social media and what seemed a totally bizarre “course culture” frightened many prospective teachers and librarians away. I did some thinking on screen in response to an interesting thread in LAK11 on how we can ourselves commit and create the conditions for others to commit to open courses — http://scope.bccampus.ca/mod/forum/discuss.php?d=16218#p67489 Thanks to Asif for his kind nudge.

    Though the open course participants are few in ECI 521, each one is making a real contribution — Linda, our middle school librarian who joins us each week in the Bookhenge (LIVE class in Second Life) and brings a valuable perspective to English teachers ; Irene, our retired librarian who is often sharing resources and modeling the use of social media; Lourdes, our YA lit fanatic who shares her Goodreads list, and a few others who joined us for our big live-streamed awards program.

    Is my open course successful? Not in numbers but the benefits for my university students are well worth the effort. ECI 521 will be open from now on.

    • Cris, this is helpful, particularly your discussion at LAK11. I do like the ideas of self-assessment of needs, but am concerned that even such a minor obstacle might prevent participation. We seem to be dealing with issues of basic motivation. I will be very interested in seeing the results from the 36 (non)participants once you poll them. I wonder also whether the Second Life aspect is a problem for some — I had invited a colleague to just attend some sessions with me at a conference with SL and she got so frustrated with the technology that she gave up. And I for one consider you open course to be successful indeed, and like you intend to keep things open.

  • Yes, Lisa, you’re right about the potential problem that Second Life can cause for newbies. In my case, the Second Life component actually attracted a few participants who were already residents or eager to learn. For those who perhaps might see bookclubs and seminars in Second Life as one of the really “out there” course components, I made it clear that we stream every class event via UStream and use the chat there to keep the interactivity. So I am pretty sure that the Second Life component didn’t frighten potential participants away.

    Funny but I do think the lack of an LMS may have made the bigger difference. I had one participant write three times to complain that she could not access the Moodle and I explained that registered, paying university students only needed to access the Moodle once to sign a consent form for their work to be public on the Web. I think the LMS serves to give the course credibility. And, besides, where else can they post to the discussion and comment twice to classmates? It’s the online course culture that we may yet need to overcome. For an interesting discussion of MOOCs and course culture, see DS 106 Storytelling — Tom Woodward’s Bionic Teaching blog — http://bionicteaching.com/?p=1866 Am I a MOOC junkie or what?

  • Perhaps the live component is part of the success – I know there are people in other MOOCs who only attend the live sessions. I don’t have that yet — it’s all asynchronous.

    I am not using an LMS for mine. They can comment and work in my WordPress as authors or commenters. I’m not a big LMS fan! 🙂

  • Bob Bell (B-ob

    Lisa,
    Personally, I would be more attracted to a facilitated group effort that recreated a ” college level course” (limited to one historical period , etc.) from scratch. The invite would NOT be for credit. Instead it would be similar to an invitation to collaborate on creating a digital book. It seems to me that a discussion that has such a goal may create buy-in from assorted groups – not just students. The final product would be almost be superfluous since agreement would be a small by-product of the discussion’s educational value.

    I would anticipate a lively conversation about which historical events were vital to the creation of the modern world.
    This unfortunately tosses out the whole idea of a course of study outlined and paced by an expert. However if the topic/sub-topics and the number of sessions were limited and the topic sub-topic limits were published along with recommended web sources/search terms, the brief fury of activity based upon previous research may create a rich soup. I would suggest 3-4 sessions over a period of 8 weeks (some of us need weekends to jump in). The published announcement (topic/sub-topics, resource list) would go out a month prior.
    Sounds like a lot-o-work but having participated in a MOOC, I think a formal prepared course misses the uniqueness of the mode.
    My 2cents,
    Bob

    • I can totally see that, Bob. I just wouldn’t have time to build it as a separate entity. We’d have to revision the course so that somehow enrolled students could be assessed…

      Your vision is very helpful here as a template for such a thing!

12 comments to The MOOC That Wasn’t

  • Ouch.

    I could try and summon the grandest empathetic “I feel your pain.” But for almost next to nothing in worth, I salute your effort and grace of coming up short of expectations.

    In a way, Dave’s comment is on target. Participating in a course is a full on long term commitment, and if it is not for the credit, for the grade, there has to be a mountain of motivation to sustain outside participation. Or it has to have some electric element that will draw you in. Would you jump to take an open class with me on the Petrology of Pyroclastic Rocks?

    So yes, as you suggest, for MOOC topics that are tapping into current interests, be it ed tech, or just the feverish fun of ds106, are going to do better than MOOC-ing a traditional course. Your market for a history course, unless it is really recast into something that will draw in more than people needing to beef up their base knowledge– may– sadly– not have enough curb appeal on its own. Jim Groom might claim you need a radio station 😉

    This it needs more than to be built (c.f. Field of Dreams) and promoted via social medua; I’d almost guess it needs a maniacal force to solicit participation.

    I honestly missed your tweets, and even in this post, I am not even seeing a link to the UN-MOOC that I can see what I might have missed. If it were me,, putting on my crystal clear hindsight lenses, I might have privately asked a few key outsiders, or other partner history teachers, to be a presence. Or a partner class elsewhere that could leverage the content and shared space.

    In the end, it is almost the course-ish nature of courses that might limit the spread. Bless you for putting yourself out there on the effort, and perhaps MOOCs are not magic. Or worth the trouble.

    I hope at least all of the material building is not an effort in vain and you have content/media to re-use.

    If a MOOC falls in the woods alone, does anyone hear it fall?

  • Ah, that built-in cloaking device must be turning itself on again. The link to my non-MOOC is above in the first paragraph: “I opened my History 104: Western Civilization course as a SOOC (a Small Open …) this January“. We’re in our fifth week, so it would be odd for folks to come in now anyway, but I did want to engage the discussion. Curb appeal, radio station, sexy topic — got it. 🙂

  • Agree with Alan, and if it helps soften the blow, I’ve only just discovered both your blog and your SMOOCH (Should be Massive Open Online Course… okay the H is optional) and I think they are both brilliant! The ‘revolution’ page is inspirational, a fabulous way of teasing out contemporary relevance. Looking forward to more 🙂

  • doh, I walked right past the link. doh

  • Oh poop, my excuse is I forgot you were doing this – otherwise I would have happily participated. I quite like History, even if I am not particularly good at it. As I recall, you even asked me about this somewhere along the line and it still didn’t click. I’m so sorry about that 🙁

    I guess my reason for thinking about loud about this, is you did everything you could to facilitate the openness, and make the course accessible to others – so why so little attention? I have a number of theories and thoughts on this, but no way to validate them.

    My gut tells me this isn’t a matter of discipline. In fact I’m far more likely to participate in an open course that ISN’T related to educational technology, than I am one that is.

    I wonder the degree to which word-of-mouth creates momentum, which creates visibility, which piques interest. In the case of the most “successful” examples I’ve seen recently, one of the main things they all had in common was being a topic of conversation; and this seemed to drive interest as well as maintain it. But how do you reach the point of being a topic of conversation – it’s like having credit in order to get it.

    I wonder if it makes sense to start an explode list or list-serve somewhere for people interested in open courses – or if there is one already?

  • “But how do you reach the point of being a topic of conversation – it’s like having credit in order to get it.”

    Exactly, Mike. The MOOCs I know of so far have had Alan’s requirements of curb appeal, and all have had “known” instructors. It certaily shouldn’t be a matter of inviting particular people to participate.

    And no worries, you all. I’m not depressed nor upset that no one showed up. I opened it up as an experiment (and a perceived duty), and was ready for masses but didn’t expect them. Rather, I am curious as to what makes one successful (or not).

  • I remember your tweet advertising your open course, Lisa, and that I responded with news of my own effort to go “open.” I even when through all the proper channels and got the dean’s approval — which to her credit was a bold move to “give away” course seats when the university is in such dire financial straits.

    It’s not the subject matter in my case. Young adult literature is a rather small but passionate niche. I drew a healthy number (40 isn’t massive but respectable) but have had few follow through. My analysis is that the unfamiliar social media and what seemed a totally bizarre “course culture” frightened many prospective teachers and librarians away. I did some thinking on screen in response to an interesting thread in LAK11 on how we can ourselves commit and create the conditions for others to commit to open courses — http://scope.bccampus.ca/mod/forum/discuss.php?d=16218#p67489 Thanks to Asif for his kind nudge.

    Though the open course participants are few in ECI 521, each one is making a real contribution — Linda, our middle school librarian who joins us each week in the Bookhenge (LIVE class in Second Life) and brings a valuable perspective to English teachers ; Irene, our retired librarian who is often sharing resources and modeling the use of social media; Lourdes, our YA lit fanatic who shares her Goodreads list, and a few others who joined us for our big live-streamed awards program.

    Is my open course successful? Not in numbers but the benefits for my university students are well worth the effort. ECI 521 will be open from now on.

    • Cris, this is helpful, particularly your discussion at LAK11. I do like the ideas of self-assessment of needs, but am concerned that even such a minor obstacle might prevent participation. We seem to be dealing with issues of basic motivation. I will be very interested in seeing the results from the 36 (non)participants once you poll them. I wonder also whether the Second Life aspect is a problem for some — I had invited a colleague to just attend some sessions with me at a conference with SL and she got so frustrated with the technology that she gave up. And I for one consider you open course to be successful indeed, and like you intend to keep things open.

  • Yes, Lisa, you’re right about the potential problem that Second Life can cause for newbies. In my case, the Second Life component actually attracted a few participants who were already residents or eager to learn. For those who perhaps might see bookclubs and seminars in Second Life as one of the really “out there” course components, I made it clear that we stream every class event via UStream and use the chat there to keep the interactivity. So I am pretty sure that the Second Life component didn’t frighten potential participants away.

    Funny but I do think the lack of an LMS may have made the bigger difference. I had one participant write three times to complain that she could not access the Moodle and I explained that registered, paying university students only needed to access the Moodle once to sign a consent form for their work to be public on the Web. I think the LMS serves to give the course credibility. And, besides, where else can they post to the discussion and comment twice to classmates? It’s the online course culture that we may yet need to overcome. For an interesting discussion of MOOCs and course culture, see DS 106 Storytelling — Tom Woodward’s Bionic Teaching blog — http://bionicteaching.com/?p=1866 Am I a MOOC junkie or what?

  • Perhaps the live component is part of the success – I know there are people in other MOOCs who only attend the live sessions. I don’t have that yet — it’s all asynchronous.

    I am not using an LMS for mine. They can comment and work in my WordPress as authors or commenters. I’m not a big LMS fan! 🙂

  • Bob Bell (B-ob

    Lisa,
    Personally, I would be more attracted to a facilitated group effort that recreated a ” college level course” (limited to one historical period , etc.) from scratch. The invite would NOT be for credit. Instead it would be similar to an invitation to collaborate on creating a digital book. It seems to me that a discussion that has such a goal may create buy-in from assorted groups – not just students. The final product would be almost be superfluous since agreement would be a small by-product of the discussion’s educational value.

    I would anticipate a lively conversation about which historical events were vital to the creation of the modern world.
    This unfortunately tosses out the whole idea of a course of study outlined and paced by an expert. However if the topic/sub-topics and the number of sessions were limited and the topic sub-topic limits were published along with recommended web sources/search terms, the brief fury of activity based upon previous research may create a rich soup. I would suggest 3-4 sessions over a period of 8 weeks (some of us need weekends to jump in). The published announcement (topic/sub-topics, resource list) would go out a month prior.
    Sounds like a lot-o-work but having participated in a MOOC, I think a formal prepared course misses the uniqueness of the mode.
    My 2cents,
    Bob

    • I can totally see that, Bob. I just wouldn’t have time to build it as a separate entity. We’d have to revision the course so that somehow enrolled students could be assessed…

      Your vision is very helpful here as a template for such a thing!