Reflections on OLDS MOOC – Part 1.

I’m going to use the analogy of an ocean voyage and will probably over do it, but here goes.

Tall ships and smaller boats.

Used with permission.

Initiate Harbour – what we did to prepare.

The Open University Design Initiative’s MOOC has been a long eight week voyage of discovery. We came from all over the world to take part and joined our little boats with the main fleet back on January 10th.  The first week was spent in Initiate Harbour getting to know one and other, the admiral (Yishay Mor) and other captains of the big ships, learning the ropes (I still have difficulties with some of the knots, e.g. how Cloudworks works) , examining the charts (, consulting guide books and phrase books and taking on provisions (some of which I never did use – e.g. Bibsonomy, which is odd since I blogged in week 1 that I was keen to try it – see Preparing to Start).

Frustrations with communications.

What was clear from the outset was that the voyage was to take in seven islands and we were to stick together and keep in sight of the captains of the big ships who would take it in turns to lead.  The captains had planned the voyage together and had decided the best way to keep in touch with each other was to use a multitude of communication methods.  I found this very frustrating.  Certainly I could see the signal flags from the masts of the big ships but I was often sailing alongside people who were using different radio channels from me and although I could see them waving frantically at me I never did learn what they were saying and sometimes in the fog I missed their messages completely. I recognised the problem early on and wrote it up in my log on day two – ‘Confused but shouldn’t be‘.

Some of the boat-to-boat messages went undetected because I could not constantly monitor all channels and to compound the problem some of my fellow sailors wanted additional channels (e.g. Facebook) so sailed along together using that. I joined them for a while and liked the camaraderie of their group under Skipper Penny Bentley but still found it frustrating that if I talked to them I was not talking to all the other boats or hearing all the messages. Also, sometimes the captains of the big ships told us to do things in groups and I found some people in the forum and some people in Cloudworks and could never do a search of both places simultaneously.  Frustrating.

Motivation – how to run a mooc.

While in Initiate Harbour the admiral asked us to write in our logs what we wanted to get out of the voyage. My response (in my log here) was to say I wanted to see how the OU ran a MOOC (Massive Open Ocean Cruise – I told you you’d get fed up of this analogy).  By completing the whole cruise I have done this and found it most interesting.

I’m not necessarily going to run a MOOC but as head of an e-learning department at a UK university I thought I should know.  Prior to this I had absorbed what Inge de Waard had written about setting up a MOOC for Learning Solutions magazine, but as I’ve said, I had never sailed on one.  I’ve done lots of online courses both as tutor and student but not a MOOC.

So what did I learn about running a MOOC?

1 – Without a controlled virtual learning environment it is difficult to monitor student participation and for tutors to properly engage with the students. One very impressive aspect of OLDS MOOC was the level of participation by the tutors.  Yishay Mor must need some serious shore leave after all the sailing he’s been doing.  However, OLDS MOOC is a very special type of MOOC.  It’s subject was Learning Design and it was/is an experiment in Learning Design itself.  Therefore the tutors on it were interested in seeing what happened, whether their theories were correct and teaching on it was probably part of their academic research.  On another type of MOOC I wouldn’t expect tutors to be quite so engaged.  I would have thought that a VLE would make the monitoring of students’ participation easier for tutors. In a really MASSIVE -OOC probably a VLE isn’t scalable but many MOOCs aren’t in fact massive. (As an aside – I was at MoodleMoot in Dublin in the middle of this MOOC and attended a session by someone from Catalyst who said he was working on a Moodle that could support 800,000 concurrent users! – see osswatch.)

2 – I thought OLDSMOOC used far too many communication channels and web spaces.

3 – What should have been the main communication channel did not IMHO work properly.  I’m talking about the forum –!forum/olds-mooc-open. This was a Google Groups forum and didn’t work for me for two or three reasons; 1). Tutors had permissions to pin their messages to the top of the forum meaning that students’ posts never appeared at the top and as time went by they appeared further and further down the list [at least that is my explanation of what was happening]; 2) there was no structure – we had just one huge forum.  I think it would have worked better having a different forum for each week; 3) I have not researched this fully but suspect that the Google Groups forum is not as sophisticated as some of the stand-alone forums one can download for use on websites, despite coming from Google.  I blogged about the forum a few times – for example – and and I also posted messages into the forum about it not working properly and about my losing messages – see . There was one occasion when I posted three times to the forum and each time my message failed. In the end I posted to my blog, here – OLDS MOOC W4 problems and questions.  Later I received a message from one of the captains of the big ships and gathered by reading the context of the message that the captain should have approved my message.  Having so many communication channels not only makes it difficult for the students, it also makes it difficult for the tutors to understand how they work.

4 – I leant (well, I knew already) that you need a central IT Help resource.  There was a link on OLDSMOOC to one but it was not implemented. See  – .  This made it difficult for students to find technical answers.

5. Timing and pacing. I’ve blogged about this so won’t repeat – see

6. This is connected to the previous point.  Collaboration is difficult in an online environment where the participants do not know each other or have common projects before the start of the course.  It is made more difficult with tight schedules and with tasks that build on each other.  The designers of OLDS MOOC imagined that the students would form up into teams and work together.  I never engaged with a team (because I had no design project in my mind) and do not know how many did. Undoubtedly the captains of the big ships will publish some research in the future and I’ll be interested to read it.

Motivation – Learning about Learning Design.

I was also interested in learning about Learning Design. The approach of the designers of OLDS MOOC was to have the students design something and learn from the experience.  I felt I didn’t have the time to do this and perhaps my learning style is different anyway in that I want to understand the theory before putting it into practice. I blogged about this here – OLDS MOOC W2D4 Experiential learning.  This isn’t necessarily a criticism, just an observation.  I wanted a whistle-stop guided tour of the islands; the captains of the big ships were keen that we discovered the wonders of Learning Design for ourselves. Their way will undoubtedly make us all far better sailors but I would have been happier on a tow line than constantly having to plot my path myself.  Of course I do realise the irony of this – we as educators have been banging on about learner-centredness for years and here I am asking to be spoonfed.

Small dinghy near island

Used with permission.

I have come adrift from the great OLDS MOOC flotilla at the moment and wandered back to Ideate Island for another look around.  I’ll make it to the end but perhaps the others will have gone their own ways by the time I get there. I’ll try to post Part 2 of this blog entry later in the week and give my impressions of each island.


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