The greatest MOOC conference in the history of MOOCs

I spent a few days last week at the MOOC Research Initiative conference(better known by the participants as the ice-pocalypse) in Arlington, Texas.  It was, without question, the best conference I’ve ever attended.  A relatively small group, it seemed nearly everyone was not just interested in MOOCs, but held a common understanding that there was so much more to them than what the hype and stereotypes would have us believe.

Thursday morning began with a keynote by Jim Groom who set the tone for the conference with an inspiring recounting of the amazing work he’s done with a digital storytelling course.  What stood out for me were his comments on how important it is for students to see relevance for themselves in the work we ask them to undertake.  It’s an ideal that I’ve always taught towards, but Jim put a focus on identity that I’d missed before.  He also spoke of the importance of a community based on people interacting to influence and support each other’s work, and cited Ravelry as an example, thus endearing him forever to us knitters in the audience (sadly I was too enthralled to note who the other knitters there were!).

The afternoon keynote was given by Jeff Selingo, who spoke from his book College (un)Bound: The Future of Higher Ed (currently on its way to me courtesy of the Amazon drones).  While his perspective was very US based and, to me, seemed slightly pessimistic, his illustration of just how far removed the realities of higher education are from the ‘Hollywood’ version for most students really struck home.  As someone who has had both the ability and the resources to take a relatively ‘typical’ route through my education I sometimes can be a bit blinded to how much of a privilege that is.  Jeff’s comments on the future of HE definitely impressed upon me the importance of really critically looking at what we’re doing with online learning so that it can meet the needs of current and future learners.

I’m not going to detail every session I went to.  Some that stood out for me were a panel on student support in online learning based on the obvious but often neglected premise that if students are going to be the centre of education we need to understand from their point of view how we can best support them.  Amy Collier articulated several points that I’d been reflecting on, namely how we deal with the messiness of learning in online environments.  By adding in structure and control, we take away some of the confusion and risk for learners but also then limit their voice and expertise.  And while we emphasise the importance of community, the platforms most MOOCs are currently run don’t have the tools needed to support this.  Stephen Downes used the term ‘de-schooling’ for what students need to be able to survive in a MOOC – to stop thinking that instructors are there to spoon feed them content and learning and instead develop a sense of self-reliance.  What I’m curious about is just what they need to feel self-reliant and how we can get them to that point.

Scott Bulfin reported on work he and Neil Selwyn are doing around the discursive construction of MOOCs in the popular media.  As this is something that really stood out for me when I first started reading around MOOCs, I was fascinated to hear what they had found.  They looked at nearly two years worth of articles in mainstream media from the US, UK, and Australia, and their findings weren’t surprising.  MOOCs are described as a powerful source of change for higher education, mostly using metaphors of science (invention, innovation) and disaster (tsunami, avalanche).  They are continually set up as in opposition to traditional universities, and are situated in wider discourses of economics, openness, and schooling.  As these discourses are all that most people know of MOOCs, the lack of perspective on learners and pedagogy and the lack of reflection on the implications these commercial products have for public education is startlingly problematic.

I was really looking forward to seeing the presentation from my old group at Oxford, especially since their project seems quite similar to what I’m interested in.  Led by Chris Davies and Rebecca Eynon, they’re exploring the ways people interact in MOOCs and how it relates to learner characteristics and course outcomes.  While they’re still in early stages, I was particularly impressed by how they’re combining visualisations and social network analyses from the analytic data with ethnographic interviews and observations.  Their mixed methods study that really matches each specific method to the question it best answers and allows qualitative and quantitative data to build on each other to provide deeper understandings.  They shared some preliminary findings; I was especially interested to hear how interaction patterns were bound up with identities and goals, and some anecdotal findings like how people who don’t watch videos but participate in forums often do so for the simple reason that their internet connection doesn’t support the bandwidth needed to stream a video.  I also really enjoyed briefly chatting with Rebecca after many years, and appreciated her encouragement to keep in touch.

The second morning of the conference we awoke to find the media (notably Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle) already jumping on some of the presentations, mostly research from the University of Pennsylvania that seemed to reinforce many of the negative stereotypes about MOOCs.

There was a definite sense of disappointment from the conference community about those articles, since so much of what made the conference vibe so positive came from bringing together a group of people who see MOOCs as so much more than what’s portrayed in the media.  Phil Hill of e-Literate was quick to reply to the IHE article, restoring the statistics and comments made by the U Penn researchers to their original context.

It is also worth pointing out that their presentation, entitled “The Lifecycle of a Million MOOC Users’, began with a caveat as to the preliminary nature of their findings, fostered critical dialogue around the problematic nature of use categories as they defined them, and concluded with a call for further research into how we measure things like engagement and how we can tell if such measurements are accurate.

Reading those articles helped me realise what it was about the conference that had been niggling at the back of my mind.  There seemed to be a sameness to many of the presentations I went to.  The project teams were composed of subject matter specialists, computer scientists, and statistical whiz-kids.  Their spiel started off with a brief description of the (x)MOOC they studied, warned that they were still ‘crunching’ the data, and then shared visualisations and charts that were impressive and nicely coloured.  I lost count of the times the word ‘analytics’ was used.  And that’s what bugged me.  It seemed that they started from the data and worked backwards to the questions.  Even if that’s not strictly true, it seemed that the questions they had were influenced by their knowledge of what data could be easily had, or, more generally, by a mindset that sees ‘big data’ as all-knowing.  I continually suffer from an internal epistemological angst; part of me is a data driven scientist, yet the other part recognises there is a need for more than just numbers.  But the word ’theory’, when used in a non-scientific sense, makes me cringe slightly and want apologise for the abuse of the term by social scientists.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one with this thought.  Martin Weller posted something quite similar to what I was thinking on his blog.  And others have picked up on it as well.  Hopefully it’s a conversation that will continue.

Enough rambling.  If you want to know more about what George quite humbly called “the greatest MOOC conference in the history of MOOCs” check out some of the links.

This is a Storify of some of the Twitter back channel during the conference – #mri13 – I’ve never encountered Twitter used so well at a conference – there was insightful commentary flowing through it, you got a great overview of what was going on in sessions you weren’t attending, and it really helped make a community out of the group (partly by letting others know what table we were at in the bar).

This is an excellent post in which Michael Feldstein reflects on the conference in a bit less of a sensationalistic and a bit more of a reflective and meaningful way.  The idea of ‘narratives’ was something else that came out of the conference, but my brain is too tired to reflect on it just now.

2 responses to “The greatest MOOC conference in the history of MOOCs

  1. Hi Ashley, I’m not sure we got to chat at the conference. I’m glad you shared some of my reservations about those stats whiz-kids. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but it all felt a bit disconnected from education. Like you, I’m a scientist so I find the data possibilities and A/B testing fascinating, but I need to know we’re still talking about people.
    Anyway, enjoyed the post, thanks

  2. Thanks for your comments! I think we may have briefly spoken about the weather, but it would have been good to connect further. I’m thinking a lot about the role of theory in this type of research right now… still very muddled by it all, but it’s good to know others are as well.

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